Zenith of Life (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra commenced its 2023 season with a gala concert in Hamer Hall. Somewhat awkwardly subtitled Zenith of Life, it introduced Ryman Healthcare as a welcome season sponsor, alongside a new commission from Mary Finsterer and a homecoming showcase for Victorian-born soprano Siobhan Stagg, the MSO’s current Artist-in-Residence.

Titled MYSTERIUM I, Finsterer’s curtain-raiser is planned to be part of a larger orchestral work exploring poetic and musical themes drawn from the Latin responsory O magnum mysterium (O great mystery).

Contemplating the mystery of Christ’s birth and traditionally sung on Christmas Day, it was originally set to plainchant, but by the 16th century the text had became a favourite of later composers working in the High Renaissance polyphonic choral style. It is these later settings that the composer acknowledges as having provided her with her work’s foundational source material.

Once refracted through both modern orchestral techniques and sensibilities, however, that material is heard as a ghostly echo and not as a direct quotation. The texture of MYSTERIUM I is also largely homophonic – we are presented with slowly shifting pillars of chords and repeating bass lines rather than overt contrapuntal artifice (even if some of it is inspired, I suspect, by Tomás Luis de Victoria’s four-part setting).

Oscillating between a modally inflected G minor and A minor, Finsterer’s work evidently seeks from its audience a more static, meditative kind of listening than is typical for orchestral scores which tend rather to rely on unfolding musical arguments to hold our attention. While this means it is also open to the kinds of criticism that have dogged composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, there was no doubting this is a well-crafted symphonic statement that was also well-played by the MSO under chief conductor Jaime Martín, and well-received by the

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