Singer, musical director of Trinity Choir at Trinity College, Melbourne University
Christopher Watson has been Director of Music at Trinity College, Melbourne, since January 2017. Before moving to Australia he spent 20 years working as a freelance singer and conductor, based in the UK. He has given many performances of the Evangelist role in Bach’s Passions including in the Cathedral of the Madeleine Salt Lake City, Merton College Oxford, Christ Church Oxford, Canterbury Cathedral and the Philharmonie in Berlin and has worked as soloist for Paul Hillier, Paul McCreesh, Philippe Herreweghe, Trevor Pinnock and with the CBSO, Le Concert Lorrain and The Lautten Compagney.
He made his debut with The Tallis Scholars in 1998 and went on to make over 500 appearances with them. In 2007 he made his debut at Carnegie Hall with Theatre of Voices, giving the world premiere of David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion, their recording of which won a Grammy Award in 2009. He returned to Carnegie Hall with Theatre of Voices in February 2015 to perform Stockhausen’s Stimmung. He also sang regularly with Tenebrae, the Gabrieli Consort, Collegium Vocale Gent, Alamire and Gallicantus and has made over 100 recordings of repertoire by, among others, Dufay, Josquin, Tallis, Byrd, Lassus, Bach, Berio and Pärt. The latest disc by the Choir of Trinity College, featuring a Mass by Ross Edwards, was released in 2019.
Recently I had the chance to speak to Chris Watson, musical director of Trinity Choir at Trinity College, Melbourne University. Chris is an accomplished singer originally from England, who has had a long career singing with renowned chamber groups such as Tenebrae and the Tallis Singers. Trinity Choir is a mixed voice college choir modeled on similar ensembles from Cambridge and Oxford. I was particularly interested in asking Chris how choirs steeped in history such as Trinity are bringing their music making into the 21st century.
Trinity’s latest CD Land of Dreams was named Limelight Magazine’s Recording of the Month for October 2019. You can read the review here
In January 2020, the choir will be embarking on an American tour, in collaboration with a number of American college choirs.
If you are intrigued by what you read below, auditions are now open for Trinity’s 2020 season (starting in March). In order to be eligible you must be studying at a university in Melbourne. Choral scholars receive an annual stipend of $4500, and participate in two rehearsals and two services a week. You can find out more about the program here and apply for an audition here
You’ve been musical director for Trinity Choir since 2017, after previously being based in the UK. Do you find that traditional church choirs like Trinity are viewed in a different way in Australia than in the UK?
One of my biggest challenges is recruiting, and fighting against the perception that singing in choirs isn’t good for you. Trying to encourage people to see it as an important pathway, not necessarily into the musical world, but into any connection with the arts, through the experience you get as a performer. Trinity Choir has some quite illustrious alumni, Siobhan Stagg being the most famous.
One thing that I’ve noticed, I get told off occasionally for sounding critical and I don’t mean to, but there isn’t a tradition so much here of sight reading. And all the core ensemble skills that are required to do the kind of stuff that we do.
I find people can talk about choirs in the way they wouldn’t talk about string quartet, for example. You wouldn’t find a violinist saying things about small string ensembles that some singing teachers say about choirs. So that’s definitely been a bit of a fight.
It’s also interesting to note that in the world which I’ve come from, generally speaking, if you’re an undergraduate at a university singing in the college choir like Trinity, you wouldn’t be studying music. Or you might be studying music as an academic subject. You wouldn’t be studying voice at a Conservatorium until postgrad. Whereas here, you’re doing both at the same time at the age of 18. So a lot of them get knackered! And that’s one of the differences I’ve started to notice.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t know as much about these college choirs and how they work? What do they offer in terms of a program for young singers?
The reason these choirs exist is to provide the backdrop to worship in a college chapel. They’re modelled on the Oxford and Cambridge model, where there are thirty colleges in each city and they’re all Church of England, and they’ve all got a chapel, where the choirs traditionally accompany the services. The more famous ones still have regular services.
As a by-product of providing the backdrop for services, you just get through a huge amount of music. We do two services a week, all together that’s about twelve different pieces of music a week, on two rehearsals. So you have to hit the ground running! It means you might not necessarily refine things as well as you would if you were doing a concert.
Our concert programs tend to be sacred music, and when I’m programming the services my primary purpose in finding something that’s liturgically appropriate or with a text from one of the bible readings. But in programming I’ll also have a mind towards the concert program for that year. We tend to do two Masses a year… This year we sang the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor.
Next year I’m going to program Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell. There are six of them so you can put them down as anthems.
When we learned Ross Edwards Massof Dreaming for the Land of Dreams CD this year, we learned it gradually movement by movement. We performed little bits of it in services and gradually put it all together. We also did the Aro Pärt Passio this year.
So we tend to do an international tour every 24 months. And in the off year, we do a domestic trip and try to do concerts locally as well.
Wonderful. So with the concerts locally, is that organised by the college or is that organised by you as the leader of the choir?
I organise the additional concerts. We also get invitations occasionally. We were invited to sing at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival this year. But when the directorship of a choir changes, it takes a little while for the reputation to build back up again.
Next year we have a couple of joint concerts planned, one with a choir from Sydney. We also have plans to work together with the Conservatorium and do some performances with the baroque string ensembles. We’re singing with Eric Whitacre when he comes to Monash University, and we’re doing another collaboration with The Song Company. And potentially we have an exciting recording project in the works…
Because of our commitment to singing the church services, and because the students are obviously studying, there’s a limit to how much we can fit into a year’s season.
So what are your thoughts on the criticism I‘ve often heard from singing teachers, that singing in choirs such as Trinity, choirs which demand quite a lot of your time, can be harmful to your developing singing technique as a soloist. (I’ve always taken that with a grain of salt, you obviously don’t want to burn out with too much on your plate, but surely as long as you are singing in a healthy way, with your support switched on and not mindlessly draining yourself, choirs can be fantastic)
I would counter, that choirs like Trinity provide an unparalleled music education for eighteen year olds, and as long as they’re being encouraged to sing healthily… I certainly encourage my singers to sing healthily, I know that a lot of organist conductors don’t do that. I’m not one of those, I’m a singer conductor.
After a few years of working on your musicianship skills, you can go on to study voice if you want to be a solo singer. I would put it that way round. And that extends to me, I mean the fact that I am 50 and my voice is still healthy and I sang in the Tallis Scholars for 20 years previously, proves it’s quite possible to do both. You can sing healthily.
In terms of what I asked the choristers: I try never to use the word blend. I think a choir should be a sum of its parts. I think an engaging sound comes from everyone singing properly. If one person is singing three times as loud as everyone, it’s not going to work! But I ask, particularly the sopranos and altos, to match volume and vowel sound.
I recently heard one of the singers say, ‘I don’t think I can be in Trinity next year as my solo voice is becoming too big.’ And I didn’t say anything at first, but I had a think about it. And about three weeks later I said, ‘Come on, there’s no such thing as a ‘solo’ voice and an ‘ensemble’ voice’. I mean, that’s not entirely true, but certainly in the context of these young developing voices. I just want them to sing!
I’m not going to force the choir to make a sound that they cannot make. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hold back.
You mentioned that you are recruiting for next year?
Yes we are, for starting in March 2020. We’re particularly interested in hearing from sopranos!
And on the topic of auditions, and what I said earlier about sight-singing in Australia- it’s no one’s fault, it’s that students haven’t been taught. It’s to do with how you’ve grown up and the pressures you’re under, and the kind of repertoire you’ve sung.
But I would argue that the benefits to the brain have become quite clear in studies. There are so many reports about the benefits of reading music, particularly about sight reading and learning to read music. So I don’t there’s an excuse for not doing it! You wouldn’t teach a language without teaching reading, and music is a language. So I think it’s disappointing.
With auditions and sight-singing music, I don’t expect people to get it right the first time. I’m looking for someone who can notice where they went wrong, and to get it right by the third time. I supply all the music for auditions in advance, so it’s up to them if they want to spend a bit of time learning it.
The flipside of being a singer who relies totally on their sight-singing skills, is the interpretation of the music is at risk of being more shallow. But it does mean that when you have a tight time-frame in rehearsals, you can jump straight into the music making and not spend time learning the notes.
So how much freedom do you have in choosing repertoire?
I have complete freedom in choosing pieces, but obviously there are certain parameters. Selection is mostly determined by the text. I would actually call myself a bit of a liturgy geek! Some texts can be sung everyday and some are seasonal, like Lent.
Once I know what text we need, I also look at difficulty of the pieces. So if there’s a really tricky piece, I also try to program some simpler ones.
Do you enjoy finding repertoire that isn’t as commonly performed?
I like a little bit of everything! I try to commission new works every year. In 2017 we commissioned a piece from David Bednall, who is an English composer in the Howells/ Walton tradition. His piece was as if Kenneth Leighton, Herbert Howells and William Walton came to Australia and had a love child…
Last year I commissioned Alice Chance, a young composer based in Sydney. Dan Riley is a member of the choir who also writes a lot of music for us. This year we commissioned Brooke Shelley, she’s also based in Sydney. Next year we’re commissioning an American composer to tie in with the American tour. In 2021 we will be performing a piece by Sarah Thompson. And in the meantime, anyone who wants to send me a piece, we’re always looking to perform new works!
I don’t want to sound evangelical, but as a recent immigrant, I really like being in Australia and I think it’s important to we promote Australian culture. Every CD I’ve done with Trinity has featured contemporary Australian music alongside other music. I want to program contemporary Australian music against the best music of other genres.
I hate the word vision, but what would you love to see Trinity choir do in the next few years?
One of the sticking points is the fact that we are a church choir. People don’t want to go to church anymore. It’s trying to persuade people to come to this particular liturgy, which just involves sitting quietly for half an hour with their eyes closed listening to beautiful worlds and music. A kind of meditation, really. That’s not to downplay the religious side of it, but I think you can get what you want out of it.
A lot of people avoid it because they think they won’t get anything from it. But I think these liturgies have a lot to offer everyone. They’re increasingly popular in the UK, some people describe it as a sort of ‘mind yoga’. I know a lot of atheists who go to Evansong!
Stephen Hough is a pianist who wrote a lovely short article about Evensong, about how it how it affects him… [I have copied Stephen Hough’s paragraph below]
“Evensong hangs on the wall of English life like an old, familiar cloak passed through the generations. Rich with prayer and scripture, it is nevertheless totally non-threatening. It is a service into which all can stumble without censure—a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think, to listen with half-attention, trailing a few absent-minded fingers of faith or doubt in its passing stream. Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word of demanding response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s Nolle me tangere – ‘Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (St. John 20:17). It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.”
One of the things I would love, is for people to see what we do as an approachable thing that anyone can come and access. The chapel’s open. We are there for the community, but we are there for everyone. No one’s going to try and convert you! It can be a friendly place. I mean, you can leave thinking ‘God is doesn’t exist, but that was a nice tune and those words were quite pretty!’
And the other thing I think is just to encourage the idea that high-quality choral singing is a good thing. And idea that sight singing and all the skills required are actually valuable skills, not just for music making but for language skills, mathematics, any of those things…
It would be lovely if there was a bit more rigorous discipline in music learning. Particularly, if people could start taking choirs more seriously, and stop thinking that it’s just something that failed soloists are doing. Not to dismiss them as being damaging to the voice. They can be a fantastic, healthy musical environment for young singers!
On Friday 29th November, Polyphonic Voices presented a tightly themed program of American choral and gospel music. The venue was the unique and incredibly resonant space ‘the dome’- a domed room which seats about sixty people- inside the Mission to Seafarers in Docklands.
I appreciated the cohesiveness of the programming- the concert was called ‘American Thanksgiving’, there were little touches of red, white and blue decorations around the perimeter of the dome, miniature pumpkin pies and Reece’s peanut butter cups were served at interval. Throughout the night, the ensemble was led by the steady hand of artistic director Michael Fulcher, who established Polyphonic Voices in 2013.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a concert of American vocal music without the inclusion of some Eric Whitacre compositions. Of the three performed, I thank you God for this most amazing day was a highlight as the shimmering harmonies unfolded over the course of the work.
While I enjoyed the Whitacre, I was particularly drawn to the bold and a crunchy soundscapes found in the remainder of the concert’s first half. Daniel Knaggs’ setting of Surge, amica mea had a dark and atmospheric quality, the uneasiness contrasting satisfyingly with the words of the joyful love poem. (This performance was its Australian premiere). Nico Muhly’s setting of Pater Noster (The Lord’s Prayer) featured a solo soprano line, which was woven in and out of the ensemble’s overlapping short phrases. This free-flowing line was fabulously sung by Megan Nelson, who created a pure and beautiful sound, one which was somehow still dramatically reminiscent of haunting wailing, appropriate as the backdrop of the gothic Lord’s Prayer.
So far I have commented on the character of the pieces in isolation. So let me take a moment to say the power and blend of the Polyphonic Voices ensemble is fantastic. These are clearly some seriously experienced singers, the kind who can instinctively communicate with one another with an almost terrifying exactness. I particularly enjoyed the mass of sound produced by the ensemble, one where the singers still embraced the individual colour of their voices.
I am a big fan of Samuel Barber’s vocal music as a singer myself. I loved the distinctive character of the two Barber pieces programmed. Twelfth Night featured gorgeously crunchy harmonies and created a coldly beautiful atmosphere. To Be Sung On The Water was a dramatically phrased work which harnessed the power of the text.
The second half of the concert delved into another side of the American musical tradition, that of gospel music. It was great to see the ensemble shift their energy, moving from the more austere religious pieces of the first half, to the energetic optimism of gospel music. The first piece presented was Shenandoah. I felt that the voicing of this particular arrangement dampened the power of the striking tune. This version saw the bulk of the ensemble thickening the texture behind the melody, but it felt like opportunities to showcase the beauty of the line were lost.
The rest of the gospel section, if it isn’t too tacky to say, certainly took me to church. Down to the River to Pray featured a series of solos sung in a freer more soulful style. These were followed by joyful full-voiced choruses sung by the entire ensemble. A particular highlight was bass-baritone Lachlan McDonald’s assured turns on the solo line, bringing an unforced golden tonal quality to the piece.
Next up was a fabulously fun and frankly, quite bonkers arrangement of Wade In The Water by Jim Clements, originally sung by Voces 8. This was a heightened hyper doo-wop take on the gospel tune and the ensemble did a fantastic job of making multiple key changes and tightly interwoven rhythms sound effortless.
Polyphonic Voices put together an impressive program which showcased the power of chamber vocal music. I’m eager to see what their 2020 season holds.
Keep up to date with Polyphonic Voices through their website here, their Facebook page here, their Instagram here. Details of their 2020 season will be released early in the new year.
Polyphonic Voices: ‘American Thanksgiving’ featured artists:
On the evening of Thursday 28th November, Inventi Ensemble presented a compact hour of Mozart Church Sonatas at the Primrose Potter Salon. I was invited by the ensemble’s manager Brienne Gawler to attend the concert, and it was my first time seeing them perform.
Inventi Ensemble is led by artistic directors Melissa Doecke and Ben Opie, who play flute and oboe respectively. The membership of the ensemble is otherwise fluid, with guest artists coming on board for different concerts and tours. The program described the group as being ‘passionate about music reaching as many people as possible’. As part of this mission, Inventi Ensemble tour widely with arrangements of large-scale orchestral works for chamber ensemble, numerous shows for children, relaxed performances designed for a range of audience such as those with disabilities, and concerts staged in nursing homes. This expansive vision for bringing chamber music to Australian audiences made a lot of sense once I saw the ensemble play with vivacious and barely contained energy.
Mozart’s church sonatas were composed with the aim of showing off the central instrument, the organ, which was played with nimble virtuosity throughout the concert by Peter de Jager. A number of pieces in the concert featured instrumentation I hadn’t commonly seen: flute, oboe, organ, cello and two violins. When the ensemble played together in this formation, the sound was full and well balanced, and featured a lovely mix of tonal colours and textures.
The first piece of the program was one of my favourites, the fabulously sprightly Church Sonata in C, K.329. There was nuanced communication between Doeke on the flute and Opie on the oboe as their parts were woven together, and all the performers displayed a fluidity and lightness of phrasing.
After the first Church Sonata, Opie announced that Inventi Ensemble had introduced a fresh element to these pieces: each would begin with an improvisatory solo based on a theme from that particular piece, played by a different member of the ensemble. This lent a dynamic and unrestricted character to the program. It also allowed each member of the ensemble a chance to display their style as a soloist, as well as a hardworking group member.
A telling example of this was the featured solo of Church Sonata in F, K.244, played by Campbell Banks on the cello. During the other sections of the program, Banks supplied a warm, solid foundation for the ensemble, smoothly blending into the mass of sound. By contrast, Banks showed his versatility during his solo, coaxing a range of colours and timbres from his instrument.
The unexpected star of the program was not a Mozart piece at all, but the zany (and I assume rarely programmed) organ Concerto in G, WV.306, by Georg Christoph Wagenseil. The piece featured dazzling melisma from the organ and moved energetically through a range of moods, from darkly dramatic to bouncy and light-hearted. At times there was an oddly contemporary feel to the piece, as the frequent organ solos almost reminded me of the pulsing rhythms of electro dance music, or a frantic keys solo played by Ray Manzarek from The Doors.
The second half of the program returned to Mozart. Church Sonata in C, K.263 featured a comical ‘solo-off’, as Peter Clark on the violin and Peter de Jager on the organ battled each other with progressively flashier phrases. Church Sonata in D, K.244 featured an opening solo from Jessica Oddie on the violin, one which showcased a rich tone of golden mahogany. Church Sonata in F, K.224 saw the ensemble stretch and pull the dynamics, creating a landscape of stark contrasts.
In summary, this concert was an exuberant and appealing introduction to Inventi Ensemble. I look forward to seeing where 2020 takes them.
Inventi Ensemble have recently announced the details of their 2020 season, more information can be found on their website here. Follow their Facebook here, Instagram here
Why should we take a chance on new music? More to the point, why is new music something that we feel we need to take a chance on, as if it’s a daunting and potentially spiky experience which might cause our ears to fall off?
I do understand where this reluctance might come from. Anything unfamiliar can be intimating, and for many people, sinking their teeth (ears?) into the classical music canon is daunting enough, let along anything composed recently.
But I think it would be an incredibly sad thing for newly composed contemporary classical/ new art music/ new chamber music to be dismissed. It would be such a shame to put new music in the listening ‘too hard’ basket, to think of it as somehow less open, less approachable, less fun, or less interesting than new rock, pop, funk, jazz, etc. Genre labels serve a broad purpose, but seeing as composers of broadly classical new works are emerging from hundreds of years of composing traditions, and are influenced by anything they want to be, AND can disregard the rules that have come before them, why would we ever think of this kind of music as a narrow thing?
On the evening of Thursday 28th November, Melbourne new music ensemble six-four presented a program with special guests, Sydney new music ensemble SPIRAL. As the members of six-four are all alumni of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the concert was presented at the Prudence Myer Studio at the new Ian Potter Southbank Centre and was supported by the New Music Studio at the MCM.
As a young musician and person who is incredibly hopeful for the future of classical music of all shapes and sizes in Melbourne, I have to say that this exactly the kind of concert I hope to see more of. A whopping six out of eight pieces were composed in 2018 (!!!) alongside a piece composed in 2017 and a Phillip Glass piece composed in 1995.
The first set was performed by SPIRAL. All seven members of SPIRAL are composers as well as performers, and the group also stages works by collaborators from outside the ensemble. The instrumentation consisted of Johannes MacDonald on flute and saxophone, Josephine Macken on flute, Oscar Smith and Sarah Elise Thompson on keyboards, Josh Winestock on electric guitar, Rory Knott on electric bass and Will Hansen on double bass.
The first piece was entitled Hey Let’s Go To Woolies (2018) by Joe Lisk, and was in fact inspired by the length of time and direction of the composer’s walk to his local supermarket. Lisk ‘split the piece into three rhythmic cells’ which are then explored through a rubric in a semi-improvisatory form. The beginning of the piece was meditative and Phillip Glass-esque, and the ensemble displayed a fabulous amount of head-bopping energy as they communicated while moving from one section to the next.
The next three pieces in the set were composed by members of SPIRAL. Oscar Smith’s Iron Filings (2018) featured bold juxtapositions in tone and timbre, and was composed in ‘accordion’ form; namely each section became progressively shorter, before this structure was reversed towards the ending. I enjoyed the thumping energy of the percussive sections featuring flute, keys and electric guitars, and the fact the performers were unafraid to push the timbres of their instruments to breaking point and create a bold ‘ugly’ sound. That being said, the piece ended with a tender interaction between double bass and flute, with Will Hansen and Josephine Macken playing with a beautiful straight-toned sound.
Sarah Elise Thompson’s piece Bixler 225 (2018) created a weaving soundscape built on repeated piano motifs. The entire piece had a dreamlike, hypnotic quality, calling to mind images of the gentle motion of waves, or sunlight shifting through water. The piano motifs were intertwined with atmospheric straight-tone notes sung softly by members of the ensemble and played on flute and double bass. I found this piece to be especially moving. Listening to it made me feel like I had tumbled down a sound world rabbit hole, one which led me to the place described in Sarah’s program notes. She wrote that over a summer at a US college, she spent a lot of time in a particular practice room, ‘[playing] the same three chords over and over’ on a keyboard, absorbed in the overtones this created while looking out over ‘New England pines trees and greenery’. You can watch SPIRAL perform this piece in 2018 here.
SPIRAL’s finished their set with Scesis Onomation (2018) by Rory Knott, a piece inspired by the concept of repeating different words with very similar meanings. This six minute composition was packed with rollicking rhythmical fragments and was highly energetic and entertaining.
Six-four began their set with No Distant Place (2018) by Lisa Cheney, a composer and compositional lecturer who was in attendance. The piece was inspired by the poem of the same name, first discovered by Lisa on an engraving in a cemetery garden. The two movements of the piece were composed some time apart and possessed starkly different moods. Lisa alluded to this in her address to the audience, saying that when she returned to the poem to write the second movement, she responded to it in a dramatically different way. It was fantastic to see the concentrated communication between Chloe Sanger (violin), Tom D’Ath (clarinet) and Alex Clayton (piano), and they moved through moments of the piece which were alternatively peaceful and introspective, and chaotic. You can listen to the piece and read Lisa’s full program notes here.
Ingrid Stölzel’s The Voice of the Rain (2018) was performed by the remaining three members of six-four, Anna Telfer on flute, Ollie Iacono on percussion and Oscar Woinarski on cello. Stölzel’s piece was inspired by the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, particularly the idea of ‘the world as an everlasting cyclical process of giving birth to itself and giving back life to its own origin’. Anna Telfer played with an elegance and lightness of phrasing, and the trio interacted skillfully in creating an absorbing and at times eerie sound world. You can watch a performance of the work here
The final two pieces saw six-four play as a full ensemble. The oldest piece in the program was an arrangement of Symphony No. 3 Part III by Phillip Glass, written in 1996. (Such a lovely novelty to realise the oldest piece in the program is a year younger than yourself). Six-four played with a great amount of dynamic tension, bringing out the ebb and flow in the phrases of Glass’ work.
The final piece of the night was Bear Trap (2017) composed by Ollie Iacono. Ollie introduced the piece as a ‘fever dream’ which contained a bit of everything, including a bit of ‘bossa nova- so perhaps it’s a fever dream in an elevator’. This was a piece which bubbled along happily at times and unleashed screeching crescendos at other times. As far as fever dreams go, it was an interesting and enjoyable ride.
This review has been a long-winded one. It was important to me to go into detail because these two ensembles represent everything that gets me excited for the future of new music in Australia. These young composers and musicians are brave and dedicated enough to take risks on new rep, rep which is not guaranteed to put bums on seats, rep which challenges assumptions on what chamber music ‘should’ sound like. I am so excited to see what six-four and SPIRAL get up to in the future, and I highly recommend seeing them perform if you are looking for a fascinating, challenging and inspiring night of music.
Fever Pitch Magazine guest contributor Sean Quinn recently attended the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. The SSO describes the unique work on their website: “Calling for a massive orchestra of almost 100 musicians, solo piano and one of the earliest of electronic instruments, the ondes martenot, Messiaen creates a spellbinding, transcendent world filled with drama and mysticism.
Its first performances in the 1940s were considered nothing short of a revelation from a composer whose musical bombshells seemed to belie his gentle spirituality and humanism. Turangalîla, a word from the ancient Sanskrit reflects the work’s fascinating dualities: east and west; tonality and lyricism, joy, time, life and death.”
Keep reading below to hear Sean’s thoughts!
My first visit to the Sydney Opera House was one that had me shivering with excitement. After witnessing the sheer glory of Olivier Messiaen’s immense Turangalîla-Symphonie at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall with the Australian World Orchestra (2017) under the baton of Simone Young, who brought powerful contrast to the colourful menagerie of music that lay before her, I was ecstatic to attend my second viewing of the colossal work. This time, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, led by David Robertson, whose distinct style provided a nice point of difference for me as an audience member. Having not even reached the age of 20 and now seen Turangalîla twice in two of Australia’s finest venues, I had much to contemplate.
I would love to first acknowledge the two soloists; Tengku Irfan on piano and Jacob Abela on the ‘ondes martenot’ – the latter of which I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing perform in this role twice, both times with astonishing conviction and poise around the complexity of the ‘ondes’.
Irfan showed great virtuosity in tackling the fiendish solo piano part, delivering the passion and intensity Messiaen desired in the music as well as the delicate contrasts. At times there was a lack of contrast in certain cadenzas. This is not to say that they were performed with any less technical brilliance, but occasionally seemed a little too hurried, not allowing space for contemplation of the vast palette of colours at hand.
Abela’s performance was incredibly stylish. Adorned in a fitting costume that suited the unique quirk of his instrument and the symphony’s general state, the ‘ondes’ was certainly in the hands of a well formed ‘ondist’. Capturing the mystic, yet somewhat voice-like character of the instrument is no mean feat, and Jacob performed with flying colours, engaging the audience and ensemble with the beauty of the ‘ondes’ varied sound capabilities.
The orchestra under Robertson’s baton, whilst powering through the extremes of Messiaen’s convoluted and occasionally trivial writing with composure and exceptional tenacity, seemed to lack dimensions of dynamic and textural balance, as well as some choices of tempo that lacked variety. Robertson quite fittingly captured in his opening remarks the ‘excessive’ nature of Turangalîla, but I found I was generally underwhelmed with the extent of this ‘excess’ that was explored and exploited throughout the entire performance – I longed to feel the polarising contrast of each section.
The acoustics of the Opera House can be unforgiving, which was exposed with an elaborate entourage of amplification – and this sadly detracted from the orchestra’s presence. I found that certain sections of the orchestra were unsynchronised with both Robertson, the soloists and/or the ensemble itself; on a micro scale. I also come back to the point of hurriedness, where certain points – in particular the ‘Theme of Love’ that is first shown in the fourth movement – was not held in suspense long enough, and felt glossed over.
Particular highlights of the night include the fiery Introduction, which started the evening with a bang. The Piccolo and Bassoon duet at the beginning of the fourth movement; a particular favourite section of mine, showcased a quaint and playful element amid the moodiness of the first half of the work. Though the density of musical colour displayed throughout the first half did occasionally lack depth, from the sixth movement onwards, a sudden warmth and life was breathed back into the orchestra, which allowed for the second half to soar. Robertson’s clear affinity with the Eighth movement rose the mentality of the orchestra – and no matter my conflicting opinion on the movement, it was performed with astonishing character by the entire ensemble. And of course, the fifth and tenth movements shone with the bright lights of American influence as well as representing the divinity and latent eroticism of the symphony.
Overall, this performance was an iridescent display of the meeting-point between the traditional and avant-garde by one of the greats of the 20th Century, performed with great calibre by all. It was worth the trip up from Melbourne, and the experience of seeing the titanic Turangalîla live again. I await its return to Australian concert halls, hopefully in the near future.