It warmed the heart to see the multitude of young musicians on stage at the Robert Blackwood Hall, having the opportunity to perform a world premiere, play alongside a soloist of international stature and collectively raise the roof in one of the canon’s biggest works.
All of which the orchestral students of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University got to do on Sunday afternoon, under the baton of conductor Fabian Russell, as part of the School’s 50th celebrations, in conjunction with the Monash Academy of Performing Arts.
Comprising students of the School as well as musicians from across the wider Monash campuses and community, the orchestra must have been at its biggest configuration for this program of the Beethoven Symphony 9, Liszt’s Piano Concerto 1, and the world premiere of a commissioned work by Australian composer Mary Finsterer, SZCSOM’s recently appointed Chamber Music Australia Professor of Composition.
Finsterer’s program notes describe the program’s opening work, Darkest Light, as an ever-changing visceral landscape through which the listener journeys. Cinematic is an easy way to describe it – and Finsterer has composed for the cinema before – though the description really begs the question of the nature of the film it might be a soundtrack for.
That sense of landscape is established from the outset with the strings producing long, horizontal planes of sound, highlighted with sparkles of light from the harp and xylophone, and shimmering cymbals burnishing the palette. These long blocks of sound from the strings form the core of the work, creating a connective tissue to a sequence of unfolding vistas that take on their own character, occasionally ominous, occasionally climactic.
Back in 2011, composer and writer Andrew Ford profiled Finsterer’s own appetite for musical journeying beyond expected parameters, as a modernist who allowed Biographica, her opera about renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano, to take her into more tonally related sounds of the sixteenth century, and reducing her looping and overlapping use of notes, chords and rhythmic figures into something more distilled and relaxed. (‘What happens next’ The Monthly, October 2011)
Darkest Light sounds to be well along this creative trajectory but there’s a satisfying jolt midway through the work. Just when you might be getting a bit comfortable with the idea of drifting through the audioscape like a passenger floating by vistas in the old Luna Park River Caves (younger Melbournians may need to ask older Melbournians about these), bits of the audioscape start coming at you. Like vehicles travelling in the opposite direction on a highway at night, they get exponentially louder, threaten impact, then recede again and you suddenly realise you are not the only traveller and yours is not the only journey. Finsterer blew kisses to the orchestra as she took the stage for her applause and understandably so; her work was admirably well served.
The orchestra opened Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with great attack and bite, though the unusual acoustic of the piano, a Steinway, took a little getting used to. An SZCSOM alumnus, Leslie Howard is an internationally recognised Liszt specialist who, remarkably and uniquely, has recorded Liszt’s complete works for piano.
Liszt’s own playing was famously virtuosic, leading to the 19th century fan hysteria known as Lisztomania, but, for all his scholarship, this is not a path Howard follows. He takes a more considered approach, with impressive clarity of articulation through cascades of notes in perfect runs, and he gets some delightful solo echoes from the winds and strings. Particularly impressive was his extended trilling while the flute holds the melody before he gambols down the keyboard again with astonishing, note-spinning dexterity.
If the delivery of the opening bars of the Beethoven Symphony No 9 was a little less accomplished and didn’t quite evince the cosmic void, there was no denying the excitement the massed forces of the orchestra, choir of around 100 students and the four soloists managed to achieve in the symphony’s final movement, the Ode to Joy.
There was some lovely playing from the strings in the Scherzo, throughout which Russell had the orchestra in a well-harnessed gallop. They may have been less successful in realising the lyricism of the third movement but, as the final movement gathered momentum, the focus of the climax was impressive.
The contributions of the four seasoned soloists – Merlyn Quaife, Sally-Anne Russell, Bradley Daley and Shane Lowrencev – were effective, though a little mushed together at times, possibly a problem of placement – they were behind the orchestra. Lowrencev was a strong presence in his opening recitative.
You don’t get a much bigger concert ending than the Beethoven 9 and the eruptions of applause for orchestra, choir, soloists, conductor, and Chorus master Nicholas Dinopoulos, indicated the audience were, collectively, very happy campers indeed.
The photo of composer Mary Finsterer is by Dean Golja.
Our reviewer adds a postscript about the performance he witnessed …
There’s a very funny scene in the TV series Extras, in which the camera pans across the jury box on the set of an imaginary TV courtroom drama. The prosecution’s dramatic interrogation of a witness seemingly has the jury’s full attention, until the camera reaches one bored extra who, forgetting herself, is vacantly interrogating the ceiling.
It only serves to accentuate the impressive focus of the other 99 or so choristers facing us for the Beethoven, who were as stony-faced and still as statues throughout the three movements before they sang but, at some point during the second movement, I noticed that one of them was on another planet entirely, gazing around the hall and chewing gum like she was trying to kill it.
Comical at first, it quickly became distracting as, once noticed, it’s hard to stop looking. When it came time to sing, her gum had mysteriously vanished and speculating as to whether she had swallowed it or stuck it behind her ear became a subsequent distraction. She was possibly a ring-in, but I pass on this experience in the spirit of professional development.