In an auspicious start, Hamer Hall was close to full, with the refreshing presence of many young(er) people in the audience. The concert opened with Deborah Cheetham singing her Welcome to Country with the orchestra. As it was not listed in the program, there could have been some confusion for the audience, except for those who had not attended the pre-concert talk, where Benjamin Northey had told us that in an admirable innovation the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts this year will be introduced with a musical acknowledgement to Country. Cheetham’s piece is designed to be accessible, and, as I understand, performable by amateur musicians. At a first hearing the short piece sounds pleasantly inviting, but I was more distracted by the fact that we were welcomed by Deborah Cheetham’s already commanding voice coming to me twice – from somewhere high up over my left shoulder. Was amplification really needed?
This first half of the program comprised the premiere of Cheetham’s 18-minute work Dutala – Star Filled Sky for full choir and orchestra, commissioned as a companion piece for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and setting Schiller’s final stanza in Yorta Yorta, her own identifying language. There were resonances of the “starry canopy” with some effective orchestration creating the colours and feeling of open spaces: orchestral softer backgrounds, shot through with flashes of quickly rising shafts of colour from the higher pitched instruments, and occasional insistent outbursts of percussion. The choral contribution (despite occasional hesitant soprano openings) clearly references aboriginal chant melodies and possibly a Dreamtime atmosphere. However, despite drawing on text from Schiller’s Ode to Joy, there seemed to be a more cerebral and thoughtful joyfulness evoked than in Beethoven’s great celebration of brotherhood.
Beethoven’s heroic Ninth Symphony occupied the whole of the second half – but this was Beethoven 9 as you’ve never seen it before! It was accompanied by an extraordinary performance from the Brisbane-based Circa Contemporary Circus on an extra stage in front of the orchestra. In the pre-concert talk that included their Associate Director Todd Kilby, we discovered that Circa’s work is very much improvisational, but you would not have guessed this from their polished and freely flowing movements. We learned that they aspire to use circus performance as a vehicle for emotional communication, not just spectacle, and under their Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz, I think Circa delivered this in spades.
The Circa people were wondrous. Bodies were flung into the air and from one person to another, tall columns three humans high rose and toppled decorously, dramatic scary splints were performed. Jaw-dropping feats of balance and coordination showed all that the human body is capable of in displays of technical brilliance. And have so many such beautiful bare male chests ever been seen during an MSO concert?
But it was their marrying of this with the music that was truly impressive. Strength and gentleness, heroism, conflict and lyricism in the music was incarnated in fleshly bone and muscle. Solos, pairings, small and larger groups were constantly changing, complementing what was happening in the orchestra. Speaking of which … the MSO played at the world-class standard we have come to expect from them, Benjamin Northey giving clear and encouraging direction and making the most of Beethoven’s masterpiece. However it leaves one wondering what the purist would make of such a collaboration, as while the orchestra is playing superbly, all eyes are on the visual acrobatics, and the music becomes the accompaniment rather than the complete focus of the concert listener.
It was the conclusion of the work that convinced us of the success of this venture. To our surprise only half the choir had been in the choir stalls when we came back after interval – could they possibly be a strong enough force for a full orchestra? We suspected something as Benjamin Northey had hinted that there might be a surprise later on – and indeed there was! During the first gentle iteration of the Ode to Joy theme in the orchestra, a solo male joyfully swung on a trapeze overhead. But then as the final stanzas began declaring the brotherhood of humankind, the remainder of the chorus in bright casual civvies joined Circaon the front stage. Singing thrillingly, and without music, they joined with the chorus behind them in the choir stalls.
It was a true celebration of collaboration: first, between circus performers themselves, and between circus and orchestra, so you feel Beethoven’s music and ideals in a new and meaningful way; and second, the ability of circus, choral and orchestral forces to work as one, particularly in the climactic last moments of the unifying cry for the millions to be joined as brothers in the one human family. The applause was huge, especially when Northey held up the orchestral score to the audience for a final ovation to the Master himself.
To close on a less positive note – despite its multi-million dollar refurbishment some years ago, while greatly improving the Hall’s acoustic, the actual performance space lacks the visual splendour of most of the great concert halls around the world. It is a shame that such a celebration played out in front of extraordinary brown drabness. Not only do we no longer have a beautiful concert organ, but where’s the architectural and aestheticinspiration in the stage backdrop and its surrounds?
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Season Opening Gala, “Circa and Cheetham” at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on February 21, 2020.