Cassandra

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Published: 5th February, 2019

The weather itself was a timely reminder of the implications of climate change. Melbourne’s evening heat saw the streets eerily deserted as people hurried back to air-conditioned comfort after the day’s activities. But it was a full house for Hugh Crosthwaite’s Cassandra in the Salon of Melbourne Recital Centre.

As punishment for spurning him, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy while inflicting on her the curse that no one would believe her. Furiously rejecting her dire predictions, an exultant Trojan populace accepted the Greek gift of a giant wooden horse, unaware that what they believed to be a mark of conquest contained their undoing. Crosthwaite’s work for violin and piano was inspired by Brian Walter’s poem of the same name. Walter uses the familiar story as a metaphor for our present day predicament as too many refuse to see the consequences of their actions and inaction. An exception to the deniers and procrastinators was actually a member of the audience: Senator Richard Di Natale – perhaps not surprisingly since Brian Walters AM QC has been a long-standing champion for the environment.

Crosthwaite’s work is in four parts: the natural order of the universe – consequence is the natural way without intervention; Cassandra’s joy at discovering her gift and the knowledge it brings; her ultimate madness as fear grows with her increased understanding of risks and the price of being ignored; and, finally, the question of what we will do in the face of disaster.

Although the text of the poem was printed in the fiery-coloured program, it was read by the poet’s wife, Sally Polmear before the musical interpretation began. With exemplary diction, she paced her eloquent reading for maximum effect as she and the audience entered the mind of a wise woman driven to quiet despair: “Prophecy is madness … Or is the madness just that none will hear?” Violinist Monica Curro and pianist Stefan Cassomenos were equally skilled in bringing Crosthwaite’s score to vivid life. Between the spare opening and the final simple upward scale posing the question, Crosthwaite conveys a raft of emotions in his soundscape. Joyful lyricism turns to increasing agitation, the violin punctuates the turmoil with angry, slashing strokes, the piano tolls in crashing crescendos of doom-laden anguish and a recurring figure for the violin suggests (to my ears at least) the momentum of nature’s course. The rich score, played with committed expertise was greeted by cheers and a prolonged standing ovation. Crosthwaite felt called upon to acknowledge such an enthusiastic reception saying he could not have been happier with the way his composition had been performed and received. Its dedicatee, Brian Walters, would doubtless have felt the same way.

The opening work was similarly dedicated to someone important to Hugh Crosthwaite: his grandmother, who is about to become a centenarian in a few weeks. Like Cassandra, Metamorphosis is a work in four parts. A collaboration between Crosthwaite and poet Bella Li, it is collection of four songs written for mezzo-soprano Alexandra Mathew and pianist Mina Yu. The program notes quote the composer’s intention: “to create a beautiful and intriguing sonic space that matched Bella’s complex language”. Unfortunately, Metamorphosis is under review for publication so could not be reproduced in print. Although the poems were read fluently by a young woman before being performed, the booming quality of the microphone made the words difficult to follow at times. Alexandra Mathews was able to fill in some of the gaps, but even so, the composer’s wish for an audience to be “transported to an imaginative place where each could absorb Bella’s ideas and find their own meaning” was not as fully realized as it might have been. Yet Mathew’s warm resonant voice was always a pleasure to listen to and Mina Yu’s jazz inflected contribution was stylish and expressive. An evocative work, there was a consistency of musical approach amidst the variation within and between the four songs: The Book of Water, Aves, The Book of Air and Constellations – Crystals. Mostly gentle and quite ethereal in character there were effective climactic moments, especially in the last two songs.

As an encore, Cassomenos played four short lullabies by Crosthwaite. It was in some ways a curious choice given we had just been listening to an impassioned wake-up call, but charming pieces nonetheless and given a graceful performance.

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Heather Leviston attended the performance of “Cassandra” given in the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon on February 3, 2019.