Icons | Royal Melbourne PhilharmonicLeft – Conductor Andrew Wailes and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic

This season, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic (RMP) pays tribute to the liturgical sounds of the Orthodox Church, ranging from Tchaikovsky's recreation of Russian Orthodox sounds to two newer adaptations from the contemporary Australian composers Christopher Willcock and Stefan Cassomenos, representing the Catholic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox traditions respectively.

Conducted by the world-renowned Andrew Wailes, the concert merges three pieces and three languages into a thematically coherent and artistically excellent whole.

It begins with the youngest composer's work, Hieratikon by Stefan Cassomenos, a Melbourne pianist, conductor and composer who has also been the principal accompanist for the RMP since 2010. Tonight's performance of his work was its Melbourne premier, a week after its very first performance in Ballarat last weekend.

Hieratikon combines the musical recitation of the bass baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos, who intoned the traditional Easter sermon with accompaniment by the choir and musicians. The piece has a somber tone which borders on severity. Nicholas' vocals are a highlight, though his emphasis on the plosives is a slightly confusing element, as some of the 'p', 't' and 'st' sounds at the ends of phrases are the loudest parts of the performance. However, no one could fault those beautifully rolled Rs.

The choir plays a mostly supportive roll in this piece, and they show an incredible control of their tones, sounds, notes, breathing – they are finely tuned instruments in Wailes' hands; though really, they're better than any instrument because they exert their own energy!

This piece is followed by Willcock's Anastasis, which centres on the events of Black Saturday, the middle day of Easter when Christ had descended into death. Willcock's composition was commissioned in 2005 by Wailes in conjunction with the Australian Catholic University's Centre for Early Christian Studies, and is the only English appearing in the concert program, balancing lightly between the Greek and Slavonic tongues.

In his introduction to the piece (to buy the performer's some time for reshuffling and breathing), Wailes explains that this "very intellectual text" originates from a poem by a contemporary Australian poet and theologian Anthony Kelly, making it a wonderful compilation of some of Australia's greatest musical talent within (and beyond) the Catholic Church.

This piece really showcases the voices of the choir and the talent of the musicians, which merges one of the violinists with the soprano line to wonderful effect. The sopranos are pushed to their upper reaches, but they maintain control. The drama of the piece is emphasised by the drums and some strong work from our solo performer Nicholas. We also have the pleasure of briefly hearing from Merlyn Quaife performing as the solo soprano. It is always a thrill to see such an accomplished and professional performer, and it would have been lovely to hear more of her.

In Anastasis we must also mention Courtenay Cleary's performance on the violin, as she carried much of the piece while supported by the rest of the small yet very strong strings section. It was a joy to watch the young Jack Bailey hold his own on the cello against the powerful presence of Nic Synott on the double bass. The inclusion of the instrumentalism in this piece is a delight and has great atmospheric effect.

Following intermission, we get to the serious business – Tchaikovsky's Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom Op.41. The piece is written for an eight part acapella choir, and so the four vocal parts of the choir are each working very hard – not that it showed. With the instruments gone, this half focuses entirely on the voices. Attention is split between the choir and the chanter, and for the role of chanter we are joined by Deacon Vladimir Bigdan. Through a Russian Orthodox upbringing and serving in the St Nicolas Cathedral, Deacon Bigdan has read the Old Church-Slavonic language since a very young age as well as being passionately involved in church music all his life.

To people who are unfamiliar with the concept of a chanter, it comes as a not altogether pleasant surprise to have the choir overlaid with monotonal chanting of religious instruction in another language. Bigdan has a wonderful tone to his voice and excellent control, but a piece that runs for an hour with very little change does become difficult to focus on. However, I am by no means a classical connoisseur, and had not before been exposed to Tchaikovsky's liturgical work. I find myself wondering how the performance could be improved if the chanter gestured and made eye-contact to engage the audience. Most of the audience has the translation in front of them, and since the words are a sermon with lovely choral backing, something more definitely needs to be done with it, whether or not the audience is viewed as a congregation or a mass of secular spectators.

The structure of this concert seems to draw attention away from the actual choir. The distractions in the first half are enjoyable, however in the second half I was hoping to hear much more from the choir. Sadly, though they do play a larger role, it feels subdued. This is the fault of the musical choice. For real lovers of Tchaikovsky's liturgical work, the RMP do a magnificent job. For spectators who love music and appreciate being exposed to different kinds, the sombre and repetitive music cannot hold our interest throughout this enormous piece.

That being said, the voices are superb, especially the tenor and bass sections – what power! And what brilliant control. They release their voices at the very end, creating some wonderfully climactic moments in the magnificent setting of St Paul's Cathedral.

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic presents

Conductor Andrew Wailes

Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne
Date: May 12, 2012
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au

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