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The Music Makers

by Heather Leviston

The music of Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams might not fall into the innovative category of performances that have become a tradition for the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, but major choral works from these composers are a remarkably good fit for their forces. In all their grandeur, Elgar’s works in particular evoke an atmosphere of a bygone era when Britannia ruled the waves and the RMP was born.

Joining with Melbourne University Choral Society and featuring the alluring contralto of Liane Keegan, Andrew Wailes (pictured) directed his music makers with the inspirational precision and the attention to detail that is his hallmark. All the works on the program required considerable sonic power for full effect. If Elgar’s motivation for composing was, as he said, “to fix the sounds and longing for something very great” then he needed a sizeable and capable instrument at his disposal – something to produce a visceral experience for performers and audience alike.

Following the success of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 2011, it would seem a natural progression to Sea Pictures and The Music Makers, all of which feature some of the most sublime music ever written for the mezzo soprano/contralto voice. Janet Baker has put her stamp on these works to such a degree that it is difficult to recall Sea Pictures without having her voice as a mental soundtrack. Happily, Liane Kegan has such a beautiful and distinctive voice that any thoughts of odious comparisons were immediately dispelled. Swathed in brilliant green, her performance was commanding and compelling. With hardly a glance at the score, she sang from the heart in a way that only long familiarity and deep affection could bring.

From the vantage point of the Balcony, the orchestra tended to overshadow the voice in the first of the five songs in the cycle, but balance was later restored and the supposedly murmuring surf became more nuanced and relaxed in their surging undulations. Kegan did not try to compete, nor did she need to, as with fine articulation and focused tone she gently rode the waves of Sea Slumber Song with beautifully controlled diminuendos. An ability to soar above majestic orchestral sound as it interweaved with the vocal line and her distinctive vocal quality of pathos were most evident in Sabbath Morning at Sea. Elgar contrasts the power and passion and triumphant ending of this Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem with the comparatively simplicity of Where Corals Lie, where Kegan’s lovely firm middle and lower notes were heard to great advantage. Drama from the timpani and resonant high notes from Kegan gave impetus to an all-encompassing final song. Little wonder that Sea Pictures has maintained its popularity as a jewel in the English musical crown.

It might have been somewhat surprising that the program began without a choral presence, but Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region provided excellent opportunities for the combined choirs to display their talents. It was immediately apparent that the choral forces were in very good shape. Although it was really in the final item, Elgar’s The Music Makers, that the basses truly showed what they could do in the line of impressive growling bass singing, the choir sounded as well balanced as I have heard them. The sopranos, as usual, sounded fresh, vibrant, in tune and disciplined. The men were a stalwart presence and the altos were more audible than usual. It would seem that balance is an increasingly successful priority for the choir.

There was also a noticeable balance between choir and orchestra for Vaughan Williams’ setting of Walt Whitman’s poems. Dramatic drum rolls, clean attack from the brass and waves of choral sound, plus some really lovely playing from the front desks of the strings, conjured up the same sense of exaltation as much of Elgar’s music. The bursting forth of glorious melody underpinned by the Town Hall organ made for a thrilling experience that was greeted with cheers from the audience at the end of the work.

Elgar’s The Music Makers was a highly appropriate finale and title for the concert. Bringing all the performers together, it is a work that makes huge demands on their expressive capabilities as well as their technical expertise. Some of Alfred O’Shaughnessy’s text might seem embarrassingly dated nowadays, but the music is full of enormous variety and pleasure, including everybody’s Elgar favourite: the Nimrod Theme (one of many musical motifs from his own works that are scattered through The Music Makers). With an emphasis on the lower strings and harps and resonant brass in most pleasing combinations, the “movers and shakers” and “dreamers of dreams” wove their spell to create a series of climaxes that tested the endurance of all performers. For sheer stamina they could not be faulted, especially the unflagging soprano line. After all the sound and fury with its cataclysmic outbursts, the final hushed bars maintained their intensity right to the very end in a gorgeous, gentle blend that faded away, leaving an appreciative audience thoroughly satisfied.

Heather Leviston reviewed The Music Makers at the Melbourne Town Hall on
May 25.

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