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Review: Towards First Light (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra)

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Review: Towards First Light (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra)

by Gordon Forester on April 24, 2015 (April 24, 2015) filed under Classical Music | Orchestral | Vocal & Choral | Comment Now
A majestic and noble memorial in the grand tradition of great orchestral choral music.

Adelaide Town Hall
April 24, 2015

We are in a canoe, on a lagoon, heading to an island. Ross Edwards’ self-described antipodean barcarolle Emerald Crossing opens dreamily as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of composer Iain Grandage takes us on a brief journey. Our captain conducts reservedly, until the seamless transition when he passes the baton to Chorusmaster Carl Crossin, and Edwards transforms into Joseph Twist. The Elder Conservatorium Chorale delivers an emotive and exacting rendition of Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep, with superb diction and meticulous harmonic balance. Crossin’s own Mater Dolorosa is as richly moving, with delicate and exquisite phrasing; Crossin laudably turning the sorrowful theme into a piece of great beauty. Disappointingly, the final of the choral trios, William Byrd’s Agnus Dei lacks subtlety, and when perhaps the most important words of the evening “Dona Nobis Pacem” are sung, the chorale do not aptly convey an understanding of their meaning.

Edwards’ compositions bookend the first half; Grandage returns to the helm with authority as White Ghost Dancing brings unexpected unity in syncopation and wonderful imagery with the presented sinister undertones. Wide and lovely pastoral scenes are splendidly shattered with cracking brass and flourishing strings.

The world premiere of Iain Grandage’s Anzac Requiem Towards First Light is met with bated breath. And a walking stick. An elderly gentleman (or stunt digger, as he might be considered) returns late to his seat. His metronomic walking stick clicks through the first moments of the piece, as he walks the length of the Adelaide Town Hall. His pace is even and steady and loud, and if this is Grandage’s way of reminding us of the suffering of our diggers, he is more of a genius than he’s letting on.

Touted as part oratorio, part ceremony, the aspects of the latter are economical and wooden, and the libretto provided in the program, cannot be read due to the mood lighting providing neither mood nor lighting. These trifles fade (like the illumination) when held against Grandage’s superb composition laced with military motifs and unsentimental drama.

Kate Mulvany’s libretto, drawing on extensive research from texts, veteran’s anecdotes and poems, might be considered disparate in isolation; the language and phraseology spanning from Shakespearean to present day would not usually play nicely together. But Towards First Light is anything but usual. Grandage’s music unifies these textural troops like so many allied forces. He achieves this so convincingly in the Dies Irae that any suggestion of banality in the text sourced from ‘Anzac Alphabet’ is banished. Despite the movement’s drive at times winning against the chorale’s diction, the concluding stringed triplets set against the chorus are so utterly compelling, the spontaneous applause after the third movement attests to the rousing nature of this masterful accomplishment.

Grandage shows us intimacy, vulnerability, inspiration, comfort and desolation in this exceptional piece, and all without one single mention of the G-word. It is a curious exclusion for a genre and history that so frequently refers to God, and the glaring absence leaves a monotheistic void that was almost certainly not historically there, particularly in times of war.

Soprano Taryn Fiebig and bass Jud Arthur excel. Fiebig’s control through the sostenuto in Lacrimosa stunningly demonstrates her grade, and Arthur’s warmth and passion through the Libera Me is outstanding. The fortissimos through the piece are matched spectacularly by the power of these soloists, and their quieter moments sensitively give us room to breathe amidst the interspersed tumult.

Towards First Light is a majestic and noble memorial in the grand tradition of great orchestral choral music, and a glorious and fitting of work of Remembrance.

Lest we forget.