A Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert with an all-Australian program is a rare thing, but then the Melbourne International Arts Festival specialises in promoting rare, unusual and interesting art that Melburnians would not normally have the chance to experience. On Saturday night, the MSO performed a one-off program which included Julian Yu’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the world premiere of Brenton Broadstock’s Symphony No. 6 Tyranny of Distance.

Pictures at an Exhibition has been arranged many times before, and Ravel’s brilliantly colourful orchestral transcription is more well-known than Mussorgsky’s original piano suite. But Yu felt that he had ‘something fresh to say about it’, and his arrangement is on a much smaller scale than many of the other versions. Scored for a fifteen-piece orchestra with only five string instruments, the orchestration concentrated on subtle and delicate arrangements of colour and timbre. Unusual timbral effects, such as having the viola play the sweet opening melody, or using a combination of sliding violins and breathy sweeps on the piccolo to create wind-like sounds, encouraged the listener to appreciate the attention to detail.

Yu writes that a smaller orchestra is better able to express the ‘subtlety and sensitivity of detail of the original piece’, which can be lost in the loud, powerful sound of a full orchestra, and his arrangement does great justice to these details in an interesting and occasionally quirky way. The only time when I felt it didn’t work was in the grand theme of the last movement, where the orchestra just didn’t sound big enough – it was almost as if Yu had slipped back into writing for a full orchestra but without its larger, more impressive resources. But otherwise his transcription is a welcome addition to the growing collection of orchestral versions of this work.

Brenton Broadstock is the MSO Composer in Residence for this year, but his Sixth Symphony was begun two years ago. Written for a large orchestra, chorus (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus), solo soprano (Merlyn Quaife), didgeridoo (Jida Gulpilil), and visual artist (Tim Gruchy), everything about this work was on a massive scale, in contrast to the intricate detail of Yu’s piece. The music seemed to be forever moving towards a crescendo, then resting momentarily, and then beginning to grow once again.

Merlyn Quaife’s powerful voice rang out above the orchestra and chorus with richness and strength, representing the individual, the ‘island’, amongst the masses. There was an apocalyptic feeling about much of the music – huge, dramatic choral chords, the chiming of bells and constant orchestral surges and climaxes.

Amidst all this largeness and loudness, the unique sound of the didgeridoo had a grounding effect on the music. At first I was unsure of how the instrument would work in the orchestral context; Broadstock himself writes that, ‘For me, it is an instrument that does not easily fit into the Western orchestra.’ But his aim was for the didgeridoo to engage with the orchestra, rather than assimilate with it (which suggests an interesting political and cultural metaphor), and by the end of the work I was convinced: the solo didgeridoo brought an end to the symphony with a beautiful sense of stillness and timelessness. Broadstock had not notated anything for Gulpilil – instead he simply had to somehow respond to the orchestra in specific places, and he did this with incredible sensitivity.

Visual artist Tim Gruchy was similarly expected to respond to the orchestra, sitting in its midst with his laptop as his constantly changing images of fire, water, and natural and urban environments were projected onto a large screen above the orchestra. I found the images very distracting – when I’m listening to a new piece of live music, I want to be able to concentrate fully on the sound and watch the musicians. There were so many things happening onstage at this concert: orchestra, conductor, choir, vocalist, didgeridoo (as well as some very detailed program notes and text to read and take in). It just seemed unnecessary to add another element to all of this, and the music itself certainly stood on its own two feet without visual explanation or enhancement. However, other people I spoke to felt that the images helped them navigate the work, so perhaps this was just a matter of personal preference.

Tyranny of Distance is an exciting new orchestral work and it was a privilege to attend its world premiere and to watch such a large assemblage of Melbourne musicians commit themselves to music by a Melbourne composer.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents
Tyranny of Distance
Brenton Broadstock

Conductor Warwick Stengårds

Venue: the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall
Date/Time: Sat 17 Oct at 8pm
Duration: 1hr 30min with interval
Visit: www.melbournefestival.com.au

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