★★★☆☆ This touching tribute to composer Allan Zavod shares an important message in an easily accessible language.

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
December 19, 2015

For its final outing of 2015, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra offered a special event, unified by a single purpose but built out of series of curious combinations. Strident ecological activism rubbed shoulders with heart-warming philanthropy; rich, syrupy romanticism went toe-to-toe with fleet-footed jazz; the ancient past reached out beyond the present and into a rose-tinted future. The unifying impetus knitting together these disparate strands was the life and work of one man: composer and pianist Allan Zavod.

All at once a showcase, a tribute and an opportunity to curate, the world premiere of Zavod’s The Environmental Symphony, took top billing. This ambitious piece, featuring a poetic narration written by eminent neuroscientist Alan Finkle, delivered here by Aussie acting great Jack Thompson, is a patchwork of aesthetic influences. Flavours of American minimalism, the harmonically sumptuous lyricism of the early 20th-century Romantic composers, and a musical theatre style of jazz-rock swagger all happily percolate through the effervescent textures of this five movement work.

While the vernacular of the music is undeniably easy to access, Zavod holds no quarter with the technical pressures of this piece. Its dense orchestration is chock full of instrumental challenges and finickety balance issues, but conductor Benjamin Northey at the helm makes light work of taming this sometimes unruly beast. His approach is ideal for unriddling a new work, offering a nurturing yet commanding presence. Clearly carved and metronomic, yet brightly communicative, Northey’s rapport with the orchestra yields an energised and responsive nuance to the performance that galvanises the inevitably disjointed nature of such an episodic piece.

The Environmental Symphony’s narrative and philosophical scope is vast, covering the formation of the planet, Earth’s gradual transition from molten hell to life-giving eden, the hubris of man in the industrial revolution, the ecological devastation of global warming, and an optimistic vision of a greener future. The music is more cinematic than programmatic, with a stunningly polished video projection by Ross McNair, synchronised in real time, providing the explicit narrative context. Thompson’s delivery of the text is given the superb finesse one would expect from such an acting legend, but the jaunty tweeness of the insistently rhymed couplets that pervade throughout pinches some of the gravitas this subject matter deserves.

New music purists might find Zavod’s particular brand of crossover a little too far on the pop side of the spectrum, and indeed, relatively speaking, this music doesn’t seek to challenge any conventions. However this is no bad thing. While the articulation of this endeavour has culminated in something lighter than its inspiration implies, delivering such an important message in a language that is as accessible as possible is key to The Environmental Symphony’s potential to communicate with a broad audience.

In the second half, Zavod selected Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances as an ideal partner for his own music. In more mercurial form, Northey perfect judged both the tempi and character of the performance, whipping up a driving muscularity in the full orchestral tuttis, but allowing a serene elasticity to delicately shape Rachmaninov’s long, luxuriant phrases in the more reflective passages. Perhaps at times this performance revealed a lack of preparation, particularly in the idiosyncrasies of the wind intonation that need to accommodate the innately flat heaviness of the saxophone, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, but largely this was an assured account. 

However, any minor foibles with this concert hardly matter. Thanks to the generosity of a number of benefactors, 100% of the tickets sales to the performance – in excess of $100,000 – has been donated to the Royal Melbourne Hospital Neuroscience Foundation to fund research into treatments for brain cancer, a condition that Allan Zavod is currently battling. With such a tangible level of support and admiration in the hall, the atmosphere of this performance was unashamedly jubilant, heartfelt and immensely touching. Could there be a more ideal way to end 2015? I doubt it.