Australian Voices give orchestra a piece of their mind in an unusual concert.

This was one of the most unusual concerts of the year.

Starting with Sibelius’ epic En Saga, ending in the fever dreams of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and with the premiere of a quirky choral work by Gordon Hamilton in the middle, it truly was an oddball concert. That’s exactly what I like to see. It was brilliant programming and as far as I’m concerned the Queensland Symphony Orchestra has not played as effective a program all year.

It was trio of early works. Sibelius’ Opus 9 (the captivatingly vague, ambiguous En Saga) is the tone poem that made his name as a serious composer and Finnish national hero. To me it is a dark piece, evoking the fearful loneliness of a long Scandinavian night, though at times it is also gorgeous and romantic. Sibelius is one of the most under-rated composers. It’s a very enigmatic work, open to multiple interpretations, with no program. The low QSO strings, particularly prominent in En Saga, really shone throughout these three works.

Following Sibelius, we moved from romantic tragedy to hyper-modern comedy. The premiere of Ghosts in the Orchestra, commissioned for The Australian Voices and QSO, was a convincing success. A lot of this can be attributed to the absolute dedication of TAV to the music. It really is quite something. They put a premium on precision, not necessarily vocal power (there is also no vibrato). They feel the music in the moment; the conductor tends to exercise a lot of real-time control over dynamics and tempo and even vowel colour. They also have an emphasis on consonants, which are always sung marcato. By and large they tend to perform fairly dissonant Australian music, much of which they commission themselves.

Gordon Hamilton, who both conducts and wrote Ghosts in the Orchestra, is an unusually talented orchestral composer as well. This was (perhaps uncharitably) a surprise to me, given that he has worked largely with acapella voices for the last six years. And he understands his choir intimately – Ghosts’ very first choral note was plucked out of the air by a perfect-pitched soprano, for instance. One criticism I would make of Ghosts, though, is that it is episodic. The choir will give an “order” and the orchestra carry it out, then we move on. On the other hand, the joke was that the choir was giving the orchestra instructions as to how the piece should go, so perhaps this was to some degree inevitable.

In Ghosts, the choral sound and the orchestra inhabit entirely different universes; QSO was sometimes almost Hollywood schmaltz. The choir was from some nightmarish futuristic dictatorship. This is, by the way, exactly what Gordon Hamilton delights in. He loves creating humour out this sort of juxtaposition between two or three different phenomena that have no earthly business sharing a song, like Ke$ha in an earlier work. (Full disclosure: I was a TAV tenor for six months and enjoyed my time). He has well and truly filled Stephen Leek’s very large boots. Both the choir and QSO were effective, but it might have been nice for more combined sound. I also wish the piece would build a little more effectively to a climax.

Without doubt, the strength of the piece was its humour. The work is legitimately a good gag, and it’s played to the crowd (at one point, the choir instructs us that conductors beat silence, and he promptly waves his hands around to no effect. At another point, the choir tells the conductor to “improvise a gesture” and for the musicians to “interpret it spontaneously” – and he explodes into nervous energy. These are not jokes that would have translated well on radio, unfortunately, for those listening to the live broadcast). Ghosts is a lot of fun. It’s very entertaining music, very engaging. Surely it is the first classical piece in history to solicit feedback from the audience – the choir asks us to “bring forth your smartphones” and “give me your reaction”! It was full of these great one-liners (“comments, questions and complaints”, by the way, can be directed to “[email protected] (all one word) .com”. I wonder how many replies they got?) More classical music, I think, should exploit the value of comedy.

Hector Berlioz is at once the most and least French French composer of the 19th century. Symphonie Fantastique, which ended the concert, is a work at least 30 years before its time. It was written just two years after the death of Schubert, yet it enjoys the symphonic colour of a much later era. Conductor Benjamin Shwartz took the last third of the piece at a punishing pace; the hero would have been out of breath after he finished his March to the Scaffold. As with En Saga, this is the work that made Berlioz’s reputation, and he never quite equalled it.

So, it was a very enjoyable concert. It’s particularly edifying to hear something really great come out of a Queensland choir, written by a Queensland conductor singing with a Queensland orchestra. It’s a very demanding work, but I still live in hope that we may hear Ghosts again.

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