As the third offering in an ambitious program for 2015, the Monash Academy Orchestra, under the auspices of Monash University Academy of Performing Arts (MAPA), delved into the human psyche in its multiple guises to splendid effect. Encompassing excerpts from Kodály’s Háry János Suite, the first movement of Thomas Reiner’s Lacan: Ein Lehrstück and one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, story and psychological insight mingled freely and sometimes chillingly.
The concert began in a lighter vein with the large orchestra giving an exuberant reading of two of the three Kodály excerpts. Prelude: the Fairy Tale Begins made a highly appropriate opener with its orchestral “sneeze”, proclaiming that all that came after was true but maybe should be taken with a pinch of salt. Viennese Musical Clock, featuring atmospheric chimes, followed. The final excerpt, Entrance of the Emperor and his Court, followed Reiner’s work and concluded the first half of the program. A lively full orchestral sound with good string resonance and impressive work from percussion, wind and brass sections were evident throughout this half, providing reassurance that these young musicians would be up to the challenges of Bartók’s exacting score.
In the program notes Thomas Reiner, Head of Music Composition at Monash University’s School of Music, described how the outstanding talent of Jessica Aszodi and Tristram Williams, inspired him to write the featured mezzo-soprano and flugelhorn parts of Lacan: Ein Lehrstück expressly for them. He also acknowledged the contribution made by many of his students and colleagues, who gave advice regarding the possibilities of their instruments. Undoubtedly, close collaboration between composer, performers and teachers is a valuable aspect of the MAPA program. This is a “Lehrstück” (Learning piece) in more ways than one.
The projected three-movement work is based on selected writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and commentary on his main psychological and existential concepts. With the assistance amplification, Aszodi stood at the front of the stage alternating spoken with sung text. Despite the rather abstract nature of the text Aszodi’s excellent diction ensured that the audience had little need of the words printed in the program. Both her speaking and singing voice were clear, expressive and appealing in quality. Tristram Williams was also able to display his considerable virtuosity in a part tailor-made to explore his command of a flugelhorn put through its paces. His instrument expressed the Real as a complement to the vocal representation of the Symbolic and Imaginary. Brief musical quotations from Thus Spake Zarathustra, Wozzeck and Peter and the Wolf were also used to explore Lacan’s notions of language and meaning.
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is in its way just as open to philosophical discussion and interpretation as Lacan’s work. It is at the forefront of Gothic horror in its depiction of blood-soaked misery and distorted passion. Warwick Fyfe (pictured) as Duke Bluebeard and Deborah Humble as his fourth wife both gave terrific performances. The part of Judith calls for a mezzo-soprano with power throughout a wide range and Humble has just that. She is also blessed with an expressive, steady voice of unfailing beauty. Her vocal and physical allure made her an exemplary Judith – one that added a dimension to our understanding of Bluebeard’s reactions. Fyfe’s fine bass-baritone added to the intensity of their interchanges as he responded to Humble’s outbursts of emotion, which moved from wonder and ecstasy to dread.
So impressive was the contribution of the orchestra that it was sometimes difficult to believe that it was essentially comprised of students. While there were quite a few guest musicians and teaching staff involved, including Robert John as Concertmaster for the Bartók, Conductor Warwick Stengards was able to elicit some truly spine-tingling moments from them. When the fifth door was opened to reveal Bluebeard’s lands, organ and a line of elevated brass combined with the rest of the orchestra to provide an extraordinary explosion of sound as Deborah Humble raised her arms in awe. This was a climactic gesture among a range of economical movements that were designed for maximum effect and were always appropriate.
Another major element of the dramatic power of this concert performance was the imaginative use of lighting. It might have proved tricky for the musicians reading a difficult score at times, but it was certainly effective. The brick walls of Robert Blackwood Hall became Bluebeard’s castle as each door was opened to reveal a torture chamber drenched in blood, rooms of blood-stained weapons and treasure, a garden of beautiful plants nourished by human blood, and a lake of tears. Images of morning, afternoon and twilight, representing the three wives in the final room, was followed by Judith’s night and finally a blackout as Fyfe sang Bluebeard’s stark final words “Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness, darkness, darkness.”.
So ended another successful venture mounted by an enterprising MAPA with the foresight to engage artists who could do justice to the selected works and provide an inspirational learning experience for their talented students. It might have tested the stamina of these young orchestral musicians, but the result would have been tremendously satisfying. It certainly was for the audience.
Heather Leviston reviewed this performance at Robert Blackwood Hall on August 9, 2015