In a well chosen program the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with the Melbourne University Choral Society, provided an afternoon experiencing many moods of the open sea. The performance would have more than satisfied aficionados of the works, by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but for many the journey went further. It introduced a large crowd at Hamer Hall to works that are not as well known as they should be – particularly the second, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, set to words by Walt Whitman.
Musical director Andrew Wailes has an ear for the dramatic and a good sense of timing, both of which proved invaluable in conducting these works. As expected, the opening – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes – had spareness about it as one expects from the composer, Benjamin Britten. It is tempting to use metaphors that are connected with the sea itself to describe the performance, starting with the opening, Dawn. The upper strings and some winds calmly suggested an unruffled sea, with the gradual involvement of more winds, brass and muffled drums indicating a change to come. And as if this were a Romantic piece, rather than one of Britten’s time, the lower strings swelled the sound to suggest the waves were gathering.
The composer’s attention moved to human activity for the next section, Sunday Morning, with the music suggesting busy preparation for church. Wailes guided the orchestra through some challenges in syncopation and time, mainly involving the French horns and bells, while other instruments including the violins brought back the rolling sea sound at the end. Next, Moonlight settled to a quieter but more active sound, again creating the sense of a moody sea.
There was no ambiguity about the final movement, Storm. From the outset there was loud percussion and energetic activity from all sections of the orchestra. The performance recalled the opera from which the music is taken. It is the dramatic highlight of the ending with Peter Grimes singing his final song. In this instrumental version, Wailes saw to it that every section – especially the busy stormy violins and the thunderous drums – contributed to the atmospheric end to the work.
The Britten was well performed, but the best was yet to come… immediately, without an interval.
Everything seemed set in place for a successful performance of the A Sea Symphony, by Ralph Vaughan Williams: a massive choir, an orchestra that had just proved its worth, as had the conductor. As well there were two soloists: baritone Simon Meadows and soprano Antoinette Halloran who became the focus of attention in her beautifully chosen sea-green gown.
I think it’s fair to say that for many in the audience (your reviewer included), the onslaught of sound came as a shock. After several strong notes from the brass came the chorus “Behold the sea”, with the words and the music rolling out and filling the auditorium. The good number of sopranos and other voices was certainly an asset in creating this mass of sound.
Conductor Andrew Wailes had created an atmosphere that was to continue throughout this huge work. There was much to admire even in the first chorus with the reiteration of “Behold the sea” itself being a metaphor for the rest of the work. The audience “beheld” the sea through the composer’s eyes starting with the section A SONG FOR ALL SEAS, ALL SHIPS. The baritone solos were convincing if a little drowned by the orchestra at some moments. But even the choir was hard put to keep up with the volume, with the conductor rejoicing in the strength of the combined elements, emphasising words such as “surge”.
Halloran’s voice was tested by the mass of sound around her, but she rallied well as did her fellow soloists Midway through her “Flaunt out O Sea” a lovely strong note was picked up by the women in the choir again, creating another satisfying “big moment” in the performance.
The baritone Simon Meadows had a whole section with the chorus, ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT, ALONE. It was solemn and slow to begin (with the baritone’s good diction appreciated in this Walt Whitman poem). The choir’s entry was with the words A VAST SIMILITUDE, Wailes working hard to keep the balance of his soloists, the chorus and the orchestra that did well with its interlude in this section.
After such a strong sound, the baritone’s reiteration of the first line was very powerful as was the French horn playing the last phrase (unexpectedly in the major key). The chorus was given the next section, SCHERZO: THE WAVES, challenging music for all concerned, which was well met as it developed into a strong march in the last part of the chorus.
As for the final section THE EXPLORERS the first two words sum it up: “O Vast”. The text was very florid and questioning, and Williams’ music suited it perfectly. There was subtle time signature challenges, again well met with moments of extraordinary beauty in the harmony.
The orchestra seemed much bigger given the sound it delivered and similarly the voices just seemed to get stronger! At this point it was hard to make an objective comment as, with my fellow audience members, I was simply overwhelmed by the music and the performance, which rolled over us like the great waves of the ocean. Wailes appeared to put his whole body into the final words, with the lingering sound that of a gentle but strong sea.
This performance was simply a triumph, as witnessed by the excited comments of audience members as they set off for dry land and their cars!