There is no doubt that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is soaring with many exciting new projects. Innovative and challenging concert programs, inspiring and often entertaining guest conductors, and, especially, the promotion of Australian composers now bring an ardent audience of both new friends and lifelong supporters to hear them. The buzz on people’s lips pre-concert was the premiere of Mary Finisterer’s Lumen Symphony, second on the program following Stravinsky’s opener, the vibrant Concerto in D for String Orchestra.
Christopher Moore, virtuosic, personality-plus Principal viola of the MSO, led a highly animated and passionate opening work, enticing much vigour and physical expression for this stimulating and challenging music. Composed in 1947, and choreographed several times as a ballet, Stravinsky’s power and assertiveness shone with this ensemble’s drive, energetic flow of dissonance, repeated note patterns, relentless changing meters and vigorous bowing techniques. Surprising warm and agreeable melodies added buoyancy and lightness, soothing us in the second movement Arioso (Andantino), where violins expressed contrasting new balletic melodies leading to a very agreeable soft fade out. The third movement Rondo (Allegro) returned themes of varied freneticism and soft agitation in repeated scurrying runs, rapid notes running on the spot, some lightly skipping rhythms, all driving towards a concise triple forte conclusion.
The level of excited and welcoming anticipation from a nearly full house rose as the stage was re-set to accommodate conductor Carlo Antonioli and MSO orchestral sections. Warm and congratulatory applause was given to MSO Composer in Residence, Mary Finsterer, before her première of Lumen Symphony: Concertante for viola solo and orchestra. Her earlier orchestral work Lumen Prime Aurore – The Light of the First Dawn (2021), pays homage to the essence and inspiring words in the poetry of Hildegard von Bingen. Also fascinated by the atmospheric and celestial world and colourful lights of the Southern Aurora, Finsterer broadened her inspiration from the fascination with the celestial, the heavenly, the supernatural to the historical musical links of ancient and medieval music, hymns and Gregorian chant, with her very contemporary vision.
Just a single high, sustained sound from a violin bow scraped on a glockenspiel key opened the work to us, taking us to a timeless and distant space. As upper string players were standing in their stage positions, percussion and woodwind players were not fully visible, so a sense of questioning was felt – “where is that sound coming from?”
A pure meld of colour spread across the stage as instruments sustained a blended, gently expanding aura, growing in density as continuous high patterns on celeste and vibraphone permeated the ensemble texture and were absorbed into the growing atmospheric texture. A final slowly ascending flute line felt like the breath of the soul rising over high, sustained strings to close a magically balanced and expressive first movement. An ancient air played on solo viola opened the second movement, with eerie bowed percussion sounds permeating our senses, bringing fuller sweet harmonisation that evoked the spirit of a medieval hymn. With its tonal multi-layered chords, the third movement felt like an ancient chorale, with rippling patterns of starry showers on celeste and gong. With an increasing presence from timpani we felt a meteoric sense of foreboding from accented marching thunderous themes. Luminary textures returned for the closing colours of the aurora, as we returned to a musical stratosphere with scale patterns on viola, rising slowly above shimmering strings.
Soloist Chris Moore and this MSO ensemble put full heart and soul into this important premiered work. So often listeners were spellbound hearing a magical 3-D smooth blend of colour and sounds that so often filled the full stage with imperceptible instrumental entries. Applause was long for Mary Finsterer’s captivating work, but as some concert traditions have eased, I felt an opportunity was missed to have celebrated the event with an onstage presentation for both composer and viola soloist.
Following interval we were introduced to Sinfonia à 8 concertani in A minor by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), a surprising inclusion of a work by a respected contemporary of J S Bach, one which we have probably not heard of before. With harpsichord added to the classical orchestra, the four movements featured MSO members as masterful soloists – in particular oboe, bassoon, cello and violin – who tonight were perhaps pushed greatly by very forward tempo settings. With a fiery tone and forthright dynamic I felt at times soloists, particularly woodwind were hurried through fast conversations in each movement, not allowing pizzicato and phrasing to be fully shaped. As the acoustic on stage favoured bassoon and double bass instruments, the brilliance of technically demanding oboe solos was perhaps overshadowed in the dynamic level.
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams splendidly reflected the themes of spiritual and musical respect for the past, evoking the mystery of old church modes and hymn sonorities in a new and grand setting. Given the length and depth of this concert’s program, perhaps this work, as a finale, was given more forward motion and drive and rich dynamic, which seemed to lessen the sense of calm, peace and mystery. There was some stridency in tone with fortissimos in upper strings, as ensemble power exuded rich colour and energy; welcome and surprisingly beautiful was a soft and sensitive close, with the tone easing from grand to more intimate expression as rubato and space led to a final lovely chord.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Reflected Light” performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on July 27, 2023.