★★★★½ Definitive performances prove madness can be catching.

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium
October 5, 2016

The fledgling Verbrugghen Ensemble’s inaugural season may have flown somewhat under the radar (this was my first encounter with them this year), but on paper they are an impressive lot. A line up of Sydney’s finest, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ensemble in residence is a veritable supergroup that includes a plethora of Sydney Conservatorium of Music performance teachers and Sydney Symphony Orchestra Principals – names like Concertmaster Andrew Haveron, Roger Benedict on viola, Umberto Clerici on cello, Alexandre Oguey on Cor Anglais, Francesco Celata, Scott Kinmont – the list goes on. Led by inspirational American conductor and Australian resident John Lynch, this concert of two rare overseas 20th-century masterpieces and an Aussie world premiere proved not just the excellence of ensemble playing, but also the breadth of imagination the Verbrugghens are capable of bringing to a programme.

Matthew Hindson’s This Year’s Apocalypse was the premiere, a work inspired by ideas of global catastrophe so prevalent in our emotionally volatile society today. According to the composer, he has “graphed the numbers of nuclear weapons on the planet combined with the number of HIV infections across the planet and converted the shape into a series of notes.” Sound dry and verging on the academic? Maybe, but there was no hint of aridity in the finished product. Like much of Hindson’s recent work, it was approachable and immaculately scored, but the queasy subject matter leant the whole affair a gripping emotional tension.

Bursting on our ears like an H-bomb, a cacophony of noise was concocted from sawing strings and rasping trombone and bassoon amidst the ominous rumble of bass drum. Sirens wailed as Hindson let slip the dogs of war, trombone glissandi hinting at more than a touch of the madhouse. Swimming against the tide, David Thomson’s perfectly controlled, resonant solo horn was the lone voice of humanity crying in the wilderness, though frequently crushed into inaudibility by his overweening colleagues. A beautiful solo passage over some welcome silence led to a riposte from Daryl Pratt’s battery of percussion, before chaos returned to overwhelm things once more. The Verbrugghens were superlative throughout, Lynch calm and authoritative at the helm.

The Sexteto Mistico by Heitor Villa-Lobos was the palate-cleansing chaser, a work rewritten in 1955 recalling an original from 1917. Scored for three winds (saxophone, oboe and flute) and three plucked or struck instruments (harp, guitar and celeste), its ravishing textures and unique sound world made up for a slightly meandering structure, delicate combinations of solo instruments coming and going in a shifting pattern of aural pleasures.

The best was saved until last. When Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King burst upon an unsuspecting world in 1969, it created quite a furore. In 2016, the year of his passing, we can look back on the work and glimpse amidst the crash, bang and wallop the first seeds of the great stage composer that he would become. Australian poet Randolph Stow’s text is closely based on the words on King George III, recorded during his bouts of ‘madness’, now believed to be attributable to acute attacks of intermittent porphyria. Even at a distance of 45 years, it’s a bold, dangerous and painful piece – especially for anyone familiar with the workings of the unhinged mind – and thanks to Simon Lobelson’s truly remarkable interpretation (one of the finest pieces of musical theatre acting I’ve seen this year) it was brought to life in all its daring and, perhaps surprising, subtlety.

Director Kate Gaul’s sensitive, bare stage approach (gone were the birdcaged instrumentalists of the original conception) paid dividends. Lobelson’s bewigged monarch descended from on high, to enter a ‘cell’ ringed by the ensemble of six. A gibbering, raving, piteous creature in gown and breeches, he switched effortlessly from rage to despair. With his haunted face half made up, his voice swung miraculously from a thing of shreds and patches to a resonant, raging baritone.

The score calls for five octaves and demands the widest range of extended vocal techniques. Having studied it in detail, I can assure listeners that Lobelson’s brilliantly detailed reading was as close to what Maxwell Davies demands as you could hope to hear. Chock full of squeaks, wheezes, gasps and frequent animal noises, the rasp of air over vocal chords as God is repurposed into “G-o-o-o-o-d” is enough to make singers clutch their throats and wince. Lobelson’s cast iron technique however didn’t falter, and though just occasionally he was drowned in the lower register by the enthusiastic ensemble, he gave a stellar performance of one of music theatre’s most taxing scores.

The bravura vocal performance was matched by a dramatic assumption of the role that equally impressed. Whether muttering to the flautist who hopped birdlike across the stage, addressing Lear-like a passing fly, or hearing voices in his head, Lobelson was deep inside every moment. The mad tormented minuet that precedes the fourth song (To be sung on the Water) saw him at his most compelling, the whispered plea “deliver me from my people, they are within” was a guttural moment of chilling vulnerability. Another coup is Maxwell Davies instruction that the King snatch the leader’s violin and smash it to pieces in a moment of surprisingly alarming violence. A clever switch saw a bemused Andrew Haveron bereft of what one presumes was not his priceless 1757 Guadagnini! Lobelson’s exit, his voice fading almost interminably into the bowels of the Con, had a charnel whiff of Bedlam about it. Again, Lynch held it all together with aplomb, ensuring Lobelson of the best chance to pull off his vocal miracles, while the multi-instrument-wielding sextet gave a masterclass in technical wizardry. Quite stunning.