Hamer Hall, Melbourne
September 1, 2018

It is a brave thing to commission and perform an entirely new symphony, but the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ensured a receptive and full audience by combining composer-in-residence Carl Vine’s latest large-scale orchestral work with Holst’s popular The Planets for an absorbing concert of music both known and unknown, exploring worlds from the interior of the human mind to the vast galactic realms beyond our world.

Vine’s Symphony No 8 is his first in a decade and is an uncharacteristically programmatic work – his interests have, up until this point, eschewed extra-musical elements, and this is his first symphony to carry an evocative title: The Enchanted Loom. The term was coined in the 1930s by Sir Charles Sherrington, a British neuroscientist, who used it to describe neurological functions as they were understood at the time. Vine writes that “the enchanted loom”, referring to the Jacquard loom – a sophisticated machine in its time – evokes “the function of the brain as it weaves together our personal impressions of the outside world, our internal sense of location, identity, and mind.”

Musically, Vine’s Symphony No 8 is a dynamic, kinetic, ever-evolving journey – complex rhythms play off rich textures and an uncommonly melodic lyricism mark the work of one of Australia’s greatest composers. The work played to the MSO’s strengths and showcased a muscular and compelling orchestra. There were textures, often mere glimpses, of some the modern era’s other well-loved composers, from Bernstein and the Americans, to moments reminiscent of Peter Sculthorpe’s orchestral writing, and even elements that recall some of the great science-fiction film scores. Although at one point in time a comparison to film music would have been an unwelcome judgment, the Eighth Symphony does bare the marks of half a century of cinematic style – indeed, it is film music that has by and large preserved the tonal grammar and polyphonic architecture within which Vine has sought to carve a niche since a rejection of his initial explorations in the musical avant-garde. The result is a body of work that has been spontaneously likeable and eminently listenable.

Unlike much film composition, competent though it is, Vine’s work stands on its own as a symphony and a piece of program music – like the music for the great ballets (a genre with which Vine has been familiar since his early days) it isn’t wholly reliable on extra-musical elements to make sense. Indeed, Vine seeks to imagine the real, rather than to realise a fantasy. In this case, the subject is the human mind. In his book on the subject, Sherrington imagines the human brain emerging from slumber: “The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern … a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.” Vine explores this and other imagined neurological states in an enchanting composition that moves smoothly from one movement to the next, from the waking mind through to the work’s finale, a celebration of the human capacity to imagine and contemplate infinity – a fitting segue to the concert’s second journey, this time into the cosmos and back into the human mind.

Sir Andrew Davis kept Holst’s popular astrological exploration for the second act, and provided a typically exciting and energetic reading. The suite was offered in full, as it was originally intended – reducing The Planets to a ‘symphony’ of four select movements has always been poor treatment of a composer already unfairly considered a one-hit wonder, while various attempts at finishing the suite (by adding an extra movement, for example, usually composed by someone else) have always seemed anachronistic.

While Holst’s interest was astrological, not astronomical, and thus in the influence of the planets on the human psyche – offering one suggestion of conceptual unity in the programme – what connects The Planets musically to Vine’s Symphony No 8 is the absent presence of cinematic music: if one can hear echoes of the great scores in Vine’s work, it was Holst’s Planets that presaged them. John Williams famously took inspiration from Mars’s imperial march for Star Wars, while Hans Zimmer rather infamously borrowed perhaps too much of the same movement for Gladiator.

The MSO brought everything it had to the suite’s most powerful moments – those passages that have provided such nourishment to the film composer’s imagination – reminding us that even the most well-known works can thrill in a live concert setting under the right conductor and with the right ensemble – the dissonant, militaristic Mars was shattering, and the famous maestoso theme of Jupiter was uplifting. Some uncertain brass entries didn’t detract from an otherwise persuasive presence. Section leaders gave convincing solos – especially principal cellist David Berlin – while the tutti orchestra was in turns thunderous, voluptuous, delicate, and, joined by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus for the finale, Neptune, hypnotic.