Plexus: “an intertwining combination of parts or elements in a structure or system”. This notion could also describe a recent confluence of events that reverberated together in ways that came to feel almost surreal. At the heart of some strange coincidences was the unexpected premature death of the much-loved and admired former Principal of the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS), Colin Simpson.
Little more than a week later another major contributor to the education of young Australians died. Both John Curro and Colin were regarded as visionary leaders with the optimism and generosity of spirit that inspires confidence and encourages young people, particularly musicians, to give of their best. When John Curro founded the Queensland Youth Orchestras in 1966, he was setting up an organisation that would nurture significant musical talents, such as Brett and Paul Dean. His violinist daughters Monica and Sarah continue his legacy as members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
A striking tangible link between these two men came in the form of the VCASS Children’s Choir. There they were singing beautifully at the Plexus “Paracosm” concert dedicated the memory of John Curro in the final movement of Stefan Cassomenos’ Requiem for the End of Time; the following morning they performed at Colin Simpson’s funeral in an over-flowing Hawthorn Town Hall.
PLEXUS concerts are always fascinating explorations featuring new, often specifically commissioned works. High quality performance is always assured given the exceptional talents of its core trio: Monica Curro, MSO clarinetist Philip Arkinstall and pianist/composer Cassomenos; they are also able to call upon other outstanding musicians for repertoire requiring expanded numbers.
For “Paracosm” Deborah Cheetham not only provided an arresting work, Insieme Yapeneyepuk Together, for the violin, clarinet, piano trio to open the concert, she also sang the demanding soprano solos with dramatic presence and fine vocal projection for the Cassomenos Requiem that concluded it. Liane Keegan, a contralto noted for a rare vocal quality distinguished by its beauty and pathos, alternated with the choir of 12 young adult voices that comprise Vox Plexus and various instrumental accompaniment and interludes for “II. Sequentia” in verses of the “Dies irae”. A sense of mystery was more dominant than the shattering alarms of a Verdi Requiem; while soprano, contralto and choir delivered the requiem text, the bass-baritone was responsible for passages of apocalyptic terror from the Book of Revelation attributed to the prophet John in other sections. Christian Smith, an imposing figure with an attractively smooth and richly resonant voice, gave a persuasive account of John’s thundering pronouncements, whether singing the plainsong chants or making effective use of a microphone when declaiming over the combined forces of instruments and choirs – with remarkably crisp diction.
What the younger singers made of these frightening visions is anybody’s guess. At least they had the soothing sounds of Keegan’s voice as they focused on their role of Angels praying for God’s mercy. Meeting the demands of complex music, that makes extensive use of inventive minimalism, would have focused much of their attention. Emotionally more challenging were the musical offerings, including the “Pie Jesu” from Fauré’s Requiem, shared with older members of the VCASS school community for Colin Simpson’s funeral – an occasion attended by Deborah Cheetham because of her long association with VCASS.
A couple of days later, the concert given by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra featuring the world’s most charismatic physicist, Brian Cox, essentially completed the mysterious tapestry. The first part of his presentation was preceded by the Allegro molto movement from Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, and followed by the premiere of Paul Dean’s A Brief History for violin and orchestra. Commissioned to write a work for violin and orchestra as part of his residency with the MSO, and given what he called “the enormity of the occasion”, he dedicated the piece to the brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who died last year. The four sections depict aspects of Hawking’s life. Brass chords throughout the work reflect his love of Wagner’s music, and in the opening section provide a sense of what Dean calls “the incomprehensible openness of space” while the violin initially depicts the young Hawking in his quest for understanding. Following this, we hear evocations of Hawking’s sense of fun, then his struggle with illness, where his power of survival combines with the power of the universe. An Adagio conveys a sense of loss and, finally, an aleatoric section featuring the strings and a soliloquy in the solo violin acts as a homage to Professor Hawking. It was a moving tribute to a great mind played with the MSO’s usual sensitivity and skill under the baton of Benjamin Northey.
Many in the capacity audience might have been hard pressed to absorb all of Brian Cox’s explanations about our expanding and contracting universe, but we all shared his wonder, above all of the singularity of human existence. He left us to contemplate the meaning of our existence and how it is defined by human intelligence, inviting us to listen to the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 – his final symphony – as prepared by Deryck Cooke from Mahler’s draft.
With the still image of a crescent Earth on the huge dark screen in the background, it was a celebration of the mind-boggling forces that led to such a powerfully eloquent culmination of human achievement at this infinitesimal speck of time in a universe of beginnings and endings.
Heather Leviston attended “Paracosm” performed by Plexus at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on November 13 and “MSO/Brian Cox/A Symphonic Universe at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 17, 2019.