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 large crowd in attendance at Hamer Hall.

Jaime Martín conducts The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 Opening Gala, Zenith of Life. Photo © Laura Manariti

If MYSTERIUM I is linked to a text that contemplates miracle of birth, the music that followed it is associated with poems that meditate on the other great mystery of human existence – death.

Richard Strauss’s set of orchestral Lied from 1946 posthumously became known as his ‘Four Last Songs’, and are also a valediction to a culture and sensibility that had also been so brutally shattered by the rise of Hitler’s Germany.

Unlike Finsterer’s work, however, here the orchestral texture is profoundly contrapuntal and harmonically complex, and also includes extended instrumental solos for horn and violin, delivered here by associate Principal Andrew Young and Leader Dale Barltrop, respectively. In her delivery of these justly famous songs, Stagg, who for the past decade or so has established a major international career from her home in Berlin, demonstrated the purity of tone and intonation and an interpretative intelligence that has made her such a highly sought-after presence on both the operatic and concert stage.

Her voice was, however, frequently swamped by the enveloping orchestral texture and by the vast expanse of Hamer Hall. And the MSO missed a trick in not providing surtitles to assist the audience in engaging with the sung texts as they unfolded. In the end, notwithstanding the quality and importance of the orchestral accompaniment, these are settings of great lyric poetry first and foremost.

Siobhan Stagg sings in The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s opening night Gala, Zenith of Life. Photo © Laura Manariti

The second half of the program was dedicated to a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Here, too, the influence of German poetry can be discerned.

The famous fourth movement, Adagietto, references one of the composer’s contemporaneous setting of texts by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866), Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world). Elsewhere, the symphony draws on short melodic figures and harmonic or rhythmic formulae and stylistic allusions that evoke other kinds of extra-musical contexts and meanings. For instance, its famous opening fanfare – itself another self-quotation drawn from the climax of his Fourth Symphony (and confidently delivered here by Principal Trumpet Owen Morris) heralds the onset of a monumental funeral procession.

As this suggests, and indeed the film TÁR depicts, the symphony presents a high artistic challenge to both conductor and the orchestra. Alongside the requisite technical skill to realise the moment-to-moment complexities of the notated score, both need to have a steadfast sense of its large-scale musical architecture.

Here, Martin seemed to warm up to the task. The first two movements were significantly less convincing as grand statements than the final three, hampered by a few moments of ensemble raggedness, such as a ricocheting final pizzicato to close the first movement. Assisted by some outstanding solo horn playing from principal Nicolas Fleury in the Third movement, the performance nevertheless culminated in one of the finest readings of the intricate final movement I have heard in many a year and was appropriately met with a standing ovation.

For more information on the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 season, visit the orchestra’s website

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