Ninety minutes after polling closed in most eastern states of Australia, the Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament had been declared lost. 7.30pm on Saturday night also marked beginning of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s monumental work, Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace. It was an arresting moment of synchronicity – unplanned, yet somehow feeling mysteriously preordained.
There must have been people in the audience who had voted No – almost certainly with the best of intentions since they were present – but it was clear, from the moment this proud Yorta Yorta composer/soprano/educator/entrepreneur stepped onto the Hamer Hall stage, that everybody embraced her and what she stood for with a resounding Yes! Enveloped in one of Linda Britten’s splendid gowns, designed specifically for the presentation of her Woven Song series, Cheetham Fraillon was greeted with prolonged applause.
Visual art is an important component of so many of Cheetham Fraillon’s works, including Eumeralla, and those familiar with Woven Song – ten nine-minute works inspired by the tapestries now hanging in ten Australian embassies around the world – might have considered the reason for choosing this particular gown: the stunning but comparatively austere silver and black satin creation intended to accompany the tapestry now hanging in the Singapore High Commission. This tapestry is based on Brook Andrew’s Catching Breath, a striking portrait of a seemingly unknown subject peering through a veil. Dare we lift the veil to reveal the past? Truth telling continues with repeated performances of this composer’s works, such as Pecan Summer (Australia’s first Indigenous opera) and Eumeralla.
As the MSO’s 2020 (how appropriate!) Composer-in-residence, Cheetham Fraillon collaborated with the MSO to develop a musical Acknowledgement of Country, featuring Indigenous languages from across Victoria. MSO regulars are used to hearing Long Time Living Here in the form of a string quartet interweaving simple melodic lines while a member of the orchestra reads a tribute to our First Nations in English. On special occasions such as this, we hear the full swelling symphonic version with Cheetham Fraillon’s soprano soaring gloriously above the orchestra in Indigenous languages, including that of her late grandmother. She has written of this work, “As a composer I have specialised in coupling the beauty and diversity of our Indigenous languages with the power and intensity of classical music”, and this is also at the core of Eumeralla. Accessible in the best sense of the word, her music is melodic, layered and immensely appealing.
Always direct and articulate, an audibly moved Cheetham Fraillon took up the microphone after singing to remind us that although the Voice as such might have been silenced we were about to hear other voices raised tonight. It was a moment of great disappointment, but also one of celebration as Cheetham Fraillon emphasised the important collaborations that had led to the creation of this work.
There was perhaps one aspect regarding accessibility in this performance that was less than ideal. The program omitted a translation for Long Time Living Here and it seemed that audience members who did have a program – and they appeared pretty thin on the ground – didn’t refer to them or a digital version as Eumeralla was being performed. Did listeners think that the libretto was simply a straight translation of the Latin requiem mass into Gunditjmara language? If so, they missed a great deal. Of the 19 movements, the Agnus dei is perhaps the most confronting; instead of the sacrificial lamb, we have “our ancestors who were sacrificed for the lambs … may their spirits find eternal rest”. The original is turned on its head.
Throughout the work, the emphasis is on “our ancestors”, and Cheetham Fraillon dedicated this performance to the late Uncle Kenneth Joseph Saunders, “another Gunditjmara warrior [who] entrusted me with this story in 2014”. Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace commemorates the Resistance wars fought across Australia, particularly the lives lost in the Eumeralla Wars in South Western Victoria in which an estimated 9,000 men, women and children of the Gunditjmara clans were slaughtered. It is work that also seeks to advance our understanding of “wounds that are yet to be healed”. Anything that facilitates this understanding should be made available.
But, even without referring to the details of Cheetham Fraillon’s libretto – so painstakingly translated by Senior Knowledge Holder of Language, Vicki Couzens, in partnership with linguist, composer and musician, Kris Eira – the fundamental intentions of the work are clear. Apart from the devastating events behind the words, the beauty of the language and the haunting drama of the music took listeners on a powerful emotional journey – as did the visual contributions of Tom Day.
Like Vicki Couzens, Tom Day is part Gunditjmara, and projections of his vivid paintings changed to reflect and amplify the emotional qualities of each work and movement. Perhaps the most striking of these was for the Hostias – a plea to the Great Spirit to guide from death to life those being remembered. It was one of the most musically dramatic movements too, with a huge dynamic range from the initial unaccompanied choral outcry of “Pernmeeyal” to solo viola with pizzicato double basses – all the while overseen by a depiction of the Great Spirit hovering above.
Providing an enormous sound palette that was often employed in unexpectedly dramatic ways, were the combined forces of the MSO, MSO Chorus, Consort of Melbourne, Dhungala Children’s Choir – kudos to them for a job excellently done – and three outstanding soloists in Cheetham Fraillon, mezzo-soprano Linda Barcan and baritone Jud Arthur.
As is the case for Long Time Living Here, Eumeralla can be performed in a range of formats. The chamber ensemble design was evident within the large symphonic format with Justin Beere’s solo clarinet not just opening the work, but providing poignant moments in other movements. The piano too featured in lightly orchestrated sections, contrasting with the dramatic urgency of the Confutatis “condemned by hatred and confusion”, complete with brass, tympani and full chorus. The intricate Lacrimosa that followed began with the softest choral sound, then a questioning clarinet, while the trio of soloists led to the children’s choir with “spare our future”. Solos from violist Paul McMillan and cellist Rachael Tobin provided some of the most serenely beautiful moments in several sections of this war requiem for peace.
Some of the writing was reminiscent of Faure’s choral work, particularly in the Lux aeternum “may everlasting light shine upon our ancestors”, with Cheetham Fraillon’s vibrant, well-projected soprano rising above the choral sound, and in the Sanctus.
Judd Arthur was truly impressive in all that he sang, underpinning the trios with full bass baritone resonance and delivering the solo passages with assurance.
All of these many disparate parts meshed together superbly under the sympathetic guidance of conductor, Benjamin Northey, ably assisted by the conductor of the Dhungala Children’s Choir for their contributions.
When the final hushed notes of the concluding Requiem had subsided, the audience rose almost as one to applaud both the performance and the creativity that has produced one of Australia’s most significant compositions.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Eumeralla: a war requiem for peace”, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on October 14, 2023.