In 2013 the Queensland Symphony Orchestra premiered the First Symphony by the well-known Australian composer and pianist Mark Isaacs. The symphony was entitled “First”, implying the intention of a second at some time. Last month he released his second symphony digitally, performed by the NotePerformer Virtual Orchestra, with Mark himself directing.
Mark has written a comprehensive article about his relationship with all things musico-digital, including Arne Wallander’s NotePerformer software, for the magazine Resonate, published by the Australian Music Centre. Julie McErlain has written a thoughtful review for Limelight, in which she signposts the way through the work with great respect and perspicacity.
It is a strange task to review such an event. While I know the unwritten law that reviewers in my position pretend not to have read anyone else’s review, I am going to say that both these articles contain information on a detailed level which would make such an attempt on my behalf at best redundant and at worst pleonastic. So I will confine myself to a few remarks which come from my experience as a composer and performer.
This symphony is crafted with all of Isaacs’ immense skill in melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. The work is always rhythmically interesting, often exciting. The harmony always works, intelligible without being predictable. His scoring is highly sophisticated, he can use all the colours of a full orchestra as well as anyone.
Like all composers writing in a more or less tonal idiom, Isaacs references the music of his favourite composers from the late 19th and 20th centuries. The landscape of his music is almost more English than Australian, often (especially in the slow movement of this symphony) lush and pastoral like Vaughan Williams rather than sharply focussed and arid like Sculthorpe. Like William Walton, Isaacs loves the rhythmic excitement of some popular music styles, in Isaacs’ case jazz, and the score of the outer movements of this symphony bristles with changing time-signatures in its attempt to contain the restless energy thus generated. But his orchestration is much more sophisticated than either VW’s or Walton’s, more resembling Richard Strauss at his most exuberant (Don Juan, for example).
There is a strange pause in the middle of the second movement, which reminds me of the moment in the finale of Schumann’s 2nd symphony, where he just stops, at the gate of unknowing. Afterwards Isaacs gives us some of the most rarified music in the whole symphony, before it returns to normalcy just before the third movement launches into a bacchanal. The end of the finale references Mahler’s 6th symphony, with its major triad congealing to minor… but there are no self-indulgent codas; nothing in this piece outstays its welcome.
Arne Wallender’s NotePerformer is a real game-changer in the digital realisation of scores. In their articles, both Mark and Julie say emphatically that, despite its superlative sampling of sounds, it cannot replace live performance, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Yet what neither of them say is that NotePerformer uses artificial intelligence to read the score a second ahead, and so makes musician-like decisions about phrasing, ritardandos, crescendos, etc. To me this is as much of a revelation as CDs were when they first emerged in 1983, which made some reflect: perhaps Glenn Gould was right, recording is better than live performance.
The performance of Isaacs’ symphony is perfect – perhaps a bit too perfect. It’s brilliantly balanced, and the subito pianos in particular are a conductor’s dream. But the fact that you can’t single out any personalities in the orchestra – the oboe soloist, the first cello, for example – makes me aware that, of course – there aren’t any. The articulation is just too unanimous – the staccatos near the start of the first movement are all exactly the same length, for example. It’s interesting from a composer’s point of view – we all want our scores to sound like we write them, but I at least (speaking now as a composer) want my music to be taken on board by the performers, who ideally make the scores their own, and come up with a version that might well not be what I had in mind, but that speaks with a different authenticity.
The version Isaacs has presented is of course deeply authentic, in the sense of being true to the composer’s intentions. Isaacs, with the help of the brilliant technical engineer Lachlan Bramble, has controlled every facet of the digital realisation of his score. That much is not in question. But at the back of my mind is a play called The Imperial Nightingale, by Nicholas Stuart Grey, which I acted in when I was 10. A wonderful nightingale comes to the Emperor and sings to him, but isn’t reliable enough for the Emperor, who commissions someone to make him an artificial bird. This piece of technology sings whenever the Emperor wants, and is always perfectly in tune. But his soul is starved, and he begins to die. As he is dying, the real bird comes back and sings to him one last time…
NotePerformer Virtual Orchestra
Symphony no 2.
by Mark Isaacs
Director Mark Isaacs
The performance can be viewed here: