RMP Aria and Cassomenos’ Dixit Dominus

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Published: 20th August, 2019

As the cheers greeting the premiere performance of Dixit Dominus and its composer Stefan Cassomenos subsided, it was easy to forget that there were important announcements to follow. The capacity audience was waiting to hear who had won prizes in the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic oratorio competition. This is not to say that the seven finalists lacked excitement; it was just that the performance of the work commissioned by the RMP had been so compelling.

Now in its thirteenth year, the RMP Aria continues to be the only competition in Australia focused solely on oratorio. But it is a great deal more than that. The context of the competition itself is significantly broader since it provides a strong connection to what it is all about: professional performance.

It is always stimulating to hear young vocal talent, but especially so when the standard is as high as showcased on Sunday night. This year was unusual in that five of the listed eight finalists were male and three of these were tenors. Soprano Michelle Ryan was unable to sing due to illness, leaving soprano Briana Louwen and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Kelso to sing recitatives and arias from works by Bach and Handel – the composers most favoured by the singers for this event. The winner, however, selected a demanding piece by Benjamin Britten. Louis Hurley gave an outstanding performance of Canticle 1 following a recitative and aria from Handel’s Saul. His attractive tenor voice and captivating musicality made him a unanimous choice for the adjudicators: RMP’s conductor Andrew Wailes, Andrew Raiskums and (“Miss Oratorio herself” according to Wailes) Sally-Anne Russell. The Conductor’s Encouragement Award went to Charlotte Kelso while baritone James Emerson was runner-up. Joshua Oxley was awarded third place in addition to the People’s Choice Award. When describing the attributes the adjudicators were looking for in the singers, Wailes remarked their judgments rarely coincided with those of the audience, but it was clear that they too had been impressed by Oxley’s ringing tenor in an aria from Rossini’s Stabat Mater and an extremely moving account of an aria and recitative from Handel’s Jeptha.

Ever vibrant and articulate, Wailes spoke about the nature of oratorio and what important qualities were required in singers in general and the strengths displayed by these particular singers. Compere Michael Leighton Jones added further interest with short, informative comments about the composers and the music to be performed before introducing each artist.

During interval, the audience filled in the People’s Choice ballot papers and had the chance to read through the translation of the Latin libretto of Dixit Dominus. Anybody who had not read Cassomenos’ program note might have been in for a shock; happily, Andrew Wailes introduced the work with a timely warning. As the title implies Dixit Dominus (The Lord said) comprises quotations from a wide variety of sections of the Old and New Testaments. For this major choral work Cassomenos writes that his intention is “to shine a light on selected group of verses … which could be interpreted as being in direct contradiction with each other”, acknowledging that a great number of people will find many of them extremely confronting and offensive. He emphasises the fact that he does not “condone any of the sentiments expressed within these controversial verses”. A work in nine Parts, Dixit Dominus provides food for thought on topics ranging through slavery, the place of women, rape, homosexuality, adultery, punishment, the treatment of children, elders and foreigners, life after death, other gods, and forgiveness. The final words translate as “Do not be afraid” from the Book of Matthew.

Musically, Cassomenos has drawn inspiration from the great oratorios of the Baroque in structure, but he also makes dramatic use of modern idioms such as those used by minimalist composers such as John Adams. Scored for soprano and baritone soloists, semi-chorus, choir, chamber orchestra, piano and harpsichord. Soprano Cassandra Wright undertook the soprano role of God while baritone Christian Smith sang the part of Jesus and the RMP Choir generally acted as narrator and commentator. Having the winner and runner-up of the 2018 RMP Aria as soloists was not only an ideal way to form a connection with this year’s iteration, it also demonstrated the recognition of the exceptional talent that is such an integral part of this event. Both Wright and Smith have uncommonly beautiful voices, which they used to wonderful effect in realising the composer’s intentions. The RMP Choir too are to be congratulated for accomplishing a fine reading of a work that was very much “hot off the press”. The Australian National Academy of Music also deserves special mention for contributing so many fine instrumentalists to the orchestral ranks.

Among all the evening’s successes, it was Cassomenos himself who took the chief honours both as an accompanist who can perform artistic miracles when faced with piano reductions of orchestral music, and as a composer who has given us a significant work of great dramatic power that demands attention and repeated performances.

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Heather Leviston attended the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Aria Finalists Concert 2019 and the performance of Stefan Cassomenos’ Dixit Dominus at Deakin Edge, Federation Square on August 18, 2019.