“Zenith of Life” is quite a title for a season-opening gala concert. Are we already at the highest point? Are we reaching towards that pinnacle?
The dance card for this concert permitted us to search for meaning in whatever personal ways we preferred, within a hugely romantic extravagance of the full orchestra in a magnificent concert hall, its stage framed by garlands of white flowers on either side, and sponsors’ logos projected onto the walls.
The aural sense of wonder began before the concert, with Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s Long Time Living Here, a most beautiful Acknowledgement of Country, reminding us of our huge country, with all its seas and skies and its more than 2000 generations of custodianship and nurturing by the traditional owners.
Logos dissolved, the orchestra tuned, and audience strapped in and ready for a big program, the evening commenced with the world premiere of a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra commission by their composer in residence Mary Finsterer. MYSTERIUM I is the first movement of a larger work, composed “with the intent to evoke a sense of occasion and celebration”, the composer writes. She was inspired by the many musical settings of the nativity poem O magnum mysterium, which appears as Latin chant in Christmas Day responsories, and was set polyphonically by many composers through the Renaissance and beyond.
MYSTERIUM I is Finsterer’s response to those settings, and while this cathedral of sound could be received by the listener in a religious context, the great mystery is open to a secular interpretation. A widely spaced very slow moving and often repetitive monolithic chordal progression creates a huge space, and the interior of this ponderous, expansive framework is sometimes occupied by more intimate filigree, often arpeggiated. Massive brass chords and timpani contrast with a more intimate interior exploring more delicate string, wind and percussion timbres. Reaching a forceful and dramatic climax, with the tolling of tubular bells, the work fades away with an ascending theme from the delicate heavenly harp.
The work was received with warm appreciation by the audience, although it left me wondering where the proposed other movements might lead after this slow nine minutes of spatial experience.
Vier letze Lieder (Four Last Songs) of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) were written in the last couple of years of his life, and only bound together as a group by his publisher after his death. It is not known if Strauss intended them as a cycle, and if so, in what order they should be performed. The texts exhibit the height of German Romanticism. They contemplate the readiness to calmly receive death as a miracle (Frühling – Spring), a yearning for eternal rest (September), being gently enfolded like a tired child (Beim Schlafengehen – Going to Sleep) all by Hesse, and being weary of wandering, resting in the peace that is perhaps death, (Im Abendrot – At Sunset) by Eichendorff.
It was wonderful to see soprano Siobhan Stagg, the MSO Soloist in Residence, returning to the stage in Melbourne for this Gala performance. A graduate of the University of Melbourne, Siobhan began her career as a Young Artist at the Salzburg Festival (2013) and at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (2013 – 2015). Since then she has appeared at the Hamburg State Opera, Berliner Philharmoniker, Bayerische Staatsoper, Grand Théâtre de Genève, Dutch National Opera (Amsterdam), BBC Proms and London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Victorian Opera and in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and many others.
Stagg’s stage presence is mesmerising; her natural and animated facial features perfectly complement her vocal quality, and her bearing is confident and assured, while also demonstrative of the emotion being conveyed. Nothing is a distraction – everything she does is part of the music-making. For me, Siobhan Stagg’s voice is both shining and luscious, her intonation so accurate that the voice just grows out of whatever instrument from the lush orchestration she is doubling. It is not a big thick sound, but it can be velvety, shimmers when required – apparently effortlessly, the phrasing is sensitive, and musical motifs repeated always have something new to say.
Maestro Jaime Martin worked hard to rein in the huge orchestra where necessary, particularly the low brass, which at times contribute heavily to the orchestral colour but run the risk of overpowering a solitary soprano. Stagg’s vocal tone is very focussed though, and emerged even when low in the range. These songs hold many opportunities for each section of the orchestra to demonstrate their wares, and it is wonderful to hear the MSO in good form right across the spectrum. There were some lovely small solos, but the highlight comes in Beim Schlafengehen with the violin solo imitating the soul “soaring into the magic circle of the night”. Dale Barltrop’s solo, and the ethereal vocal and orchestral conclusion to this song was a real highlight. Siobhan Stagg, Jaime Martin and the MSO received a wonderful ovation from a very appreciative audience.
After interval, the orchestra returned for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02). This large symphony was completed shortly after his marriage to Alma. Following the first four vocally focussed and programmatic symphonies, this is the first of the large purely orchestral “middle symphonies”. First performed in 1904 it received a mixed reception, with conductor Bruno Walter saying it left him for the first and only time “unsatisfied” by a work composed and conducted by Mahler. A review in New York’s Musical Courier in 1906 articulated some of the issues many have faced when listening to this work. It is difficult “to detect tangible themes”, and almost impossible “to follow them through the tortuous mazes of their formal and contrapuntal development”. The writer describes “a shred of a theme here and there” which is then “jumped upon immediately by the whole angry horde of instruments”. Mahler complained after some of his revisions that “no one understands it!”
Five separately described sections are divided up into three parts. The brass players having been let off the leash after interval began Part 1 modestly with the famous trumpet call before revealing their full strength. The movement’s main funeral march theme is aired by the strings before the foreboding brass return, and finally more colour is added to spectrum with the expanded woodwind section. The stormy second movement uses some of the musical material from the first movement march, and after exploring the musical ideas, searches for a way forward, finally reaching what appears to be a majestic conclusion before fleeing again and eventually resting after a series of small descending phrases in different orchestral colours.
After an effective opening horn theme for Part 2 Scherzo, this playful dance-like movement explored the Waltz and Ländler with characteristic rubato and some creative counterpoint. Interspersed are more contrasting trios, and some beautiful horn solo work again emerged along with muted brass and waltz sections with manic accelerando sections.
Scored only for strings and harp, the Part 3 Adagietto was made famous beyond the music world with its inclusion in the score of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. This achingly beautiful, love letter to Alma has often been performed as a stand-alone piece, and the MSO strings and harp, seated with cellos and violas in the centre produced the richness of tone, with the balance of those rich lower voices particularly satisfying. The Rondo-Finale makes use of motifs from the preceding movements, although to the listener they are almost impossible to recognise as they are treated contrapuntally, with fragments appearing in a variety of voices and tone colours, deftly handled by the orchestra.
Throughout the work the orchestral playing from the MSO’s large forces was convincing, making use of the full range of orchestral colours and timbres, demonstrating a range of performance techniques, and solos were performed with aplomb. Maestro Jaime Martin managed the forces effectively permitting some of the subtler moments in Mahler’s orchestral writing to come to the fore, sometimes putting down the baton to conduct with both hands, his fingers and whole body. Those seated in the choir gallery would have seen his animated face more often too. For the last few minutes of the work, Martin was virtually dancing and marching on the podium, and unmistakeably enjoying the thrills of the exuberant conclusion.
The cheering and standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience clearly demonstrated that the Zenith had been reached here. And on stage, Martin acknowledged the superb solo horn and trumpet players, and embraced the musicians of the MSO with affection. His warmth was also extended to the audience later when leader Barltrop kept the orchestra from standing after several full bows, allowing the Maestro to take a bow on his own. The players enjoyed themselves too, with some laughing embraces taking place on stage as the lights came up.
Margaret Arnold reviewed Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: The Ryman Healthcare Season Opening Gala – Zenith of Life, performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on February 24, 2023.