MSO Season Opening Gala: Circa and Cheetham

In an auspicious
start, Hamer Hall was close to full, with the refreshing presence of many
young(er) people in the audience. The concert opened with Deborah Cheetham
singing her Welcome to Country with the orchestra. As it was not listed in the
program, there could have been some confusion for the audience, except for
those who had not attended the pre-concert talk, where Benjamin Northey had
told us that in an admirable innovation the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
concerts this year will be introduced with a musical acknowledgement to Country.
Cheetham’s piece is designed to be accessible, and, as I understand,
performable by amateur musicians. At a first hearing the short piece sounds
pleasantly inviting, but I was more distracted by the fact that we were
welcomed by Deborah Cheetham’s already commanding voice coming to me twice – from
somewhere high up over my left shoulder. Was amplification really needed?

This first half of the program comprised the premiere of Cheetham’s 18-minute work Dutala – Star Filled Sky for full choir and orchestra, commissioned as a companion piece for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and setting Schiller’s final stanza in Yorta Yorta, her own identifying language. There were resonances of the “starry canopy” with some effective orchestration creating the colours and feeling of open spaces: orchestral softer backgrounds, shot through with flashes of quickly rising shafts of colour from the higher pitched instruments, and occasional insistent outbursts of percussion. The choral contribution (despite occasional hesitant soprano openings) clearly references aboriginal chant melodies and possibly a Dreamtime atmosphere. However, despite drawing on text from Schiller’s Ode to Joy, there seemed to be a more cerebral and thoughtful joyfulness evoked than in Beethoven’s great celebration of brotherhood.

Beethoven’s heroic Ninth
Symphony occupied the whole of the second half – but this was Beethoven 9 as
you’ve never seen it before! It was accompanied by an extraordinary performance
from the Brisbane-based Circa Contemporary Circus on an extra stage in front of
the orchestra. In the pre-concert talk that included their Associate Director
Todd Kilby, we discovered that Circa’s work is very much improvisational, but
you would not have guessed this from their polished and freely flowing
movements. We learned that they aspire to use circus performance as a vehicle
for emotional communication, not just spectacle, and under their Artistic
Director, Yaron Lifschitz, I think Circa delivered this in spades.

The Circa people
were wondrous. Bodies were flung into the air and from one person to another,
tall columns three humans high rose and toppled decorously, dramatic scary
splints were performed. Jaw-dropping feats of balance and coordination showed
all that the human body is capable of in displays of technical brilliance. And
have so many such beautiful bare male chests ever been seen during an MSO

But it was their
marrying of this with the music that was truly impressive. Strength and
gentleness, heroism, conflict and lyricism in the music was incarnated in fleshly
bone and muscle. Solos, pairings, small and larger groups were constantly
changing, complementing what was happening in the orchestra.  Speaking of which … the MSO played at the
world-class standard we have come to expect from them, Benjamin Northey giving
clear and encouraging direction and making the most of Beethoven’s masterpiece.
However it leaves one wondering what the purist would make of such a collaboration,
as while the orchestra is playing superbly, all eyes are on the visual
acrobatics, and the music becomes the accompaniment rather than the complete
focus of the concert listener.

It was the conclusion of the work that convinced us of
the success of this venture. To our surprise only half the choir had been in
the choir stalls when we came back after interval – could they possibly be a
strong enough force for a full orchestra? We suspected something as Benjamin
Northey had hinted that there might be a surprise later on – and indeed there
was! During the first gentle iteration of the Ode to Joy theme in the
orchestra, a solo male joyfully swung on a trapeze overhead. But then as the
final stanzas began declaring the brotherhood of humankind, the remainder of
the chorus in bright casual civvies joined Circaon the front stage.
Singing thrillingly, and without music, they joined with the chorus behind them
in the choir stalls.

It was a true celebration of collaboration: first,
between circus performers themselves, and between circus and orchestra, so you
feel Beethoven’s music and ideals in a new and meaningful way; and second, the
ability of circus, choral and orchestral forces to work as one, particularly in
the climactic last moments of the unifying cry for the millions to be joined as
brothers in the one human family. The applause was huge, especially when
Northey held up the orchestral score to the audience for a final ovation to the
Master himself.

To close on a less
positive note – despite its multi-million dollar refurbishment some years ago, while
greatly improving the Hall’s acoustic, the actual performance space lacks the visual
splendour of most of the great concert halls around the world. It is a shame
that such a celebration played out in front of extraordinary brown drabness. Not
only do we no longer have a beautiful concert organ, but where’s the architectural
and aestheticinspiration in the stage backdrop and its surrounds?


Kristina Macrae reviewed the
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Season Opening Gala, “Circa and Cheetham” at
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on February 21, 2020.

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