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Stars Down to Earth: Music of the Spheres

In keeping with this year’s Perth Festival theme Djilda (stars), Music of the Spheres was a program of early, classical and contemporary music with explicitly sidereal references. It was performed at Perth Concert Hall, which as well as being one of my favourite classical music venues because of its wonderful acoustics is also a masterpiece of brutalist architecture and poured concrete.

In fact the title-phrase doesn’t refer to the stars at all, but to the ancient Greek theory (which persisted into the Renaissance) that the movements, positions and dimensions of the sun, moon and planets were related to each other in mathematical proportions that not only resembled but actually generated a form of music that could be ‘felt’ by the soul. It’s a beautiful theory even if it isn’t true; and – at least when understood metaphorically rather than literally – a promising idea for a concert program.

The problem for me was that the works in question were chosen simply because they’re all settings of texts that literally refer to the stars. Not only did this reduce the texts themselves to a kind of bland repetitiveness (an impression reinforced by having the English translations projected as surtitles on a huge screen above the concert platform); it also lumped together works that had little in common in terms of their musical language or the musical forces required – an incongruity made even more jarring by hearing them performed continuously one after the other without allowing breaks for applause (though the audience attempted valiantly to do).

Consequently, masterpieces by Tallis, Palestrina, Purcell, Monteverdi, Handel, Mahler and Strauss became more like a series of musical ‘treats’ than windows into the composers’ souls (as is the case with the Mahler and Strauss songs); their dramatic personae (as with arias like Handel’s ‘Total Eclipse’ from Samson or Dvořák’s ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka); or the religious beliefs the they shared with their era (in the case of composers like Tallis or Palestrina).

Samantha Clarke – Soprano 

That said, there were some wonderful performances, notably by soprano Samantha Clarke in luminous versions of ‘Song to the Moon’ and Strauss’s Morgen, both richly accompanied by WASO under the thoughtful baton of Richard Mills; tenor Shanul Sharma in a sensitive rendition of ‘Total Eclipse’; and the small bespoke ten-person choir, who shone in the short sacred pieces by Tallis, Palestrina, Monteverdi, and the latter’s lesser-known Spanish contemporary Juan Esquivel de Barahona, as well as a haunting piece by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen called ‘O Nata Lux’. The latter shared the same text as the Tallis, and nicely rounded out the choral thread of the program, which (appropriately expanded) could easily have provided the basis for an entire concert, or at least an entire first half; just as the Dvořák, Mahler and Strauss works could have been part of a separate program – conceivably after interval – of Romantic and Late Romantic music for voice and orchestra (perhaps with a little Wagner and some more Mahler and Strauss to flesh things out).

Emma Donovan

Gumbaynggirr/Yamatji singer-songwriter Emma Donovan’s contemporary creation song about the night sky ‘Yira Djinang’ was sung with great nobility by Donovan as an opening number, using a mic and backed by WASO and Mills in a skilful and imaginative orchestral arrangement by Grandage. However, to my ears the arrangement underscored the musical stretch involved in yoking together what was essentially a folk-pop ballad – which would normally be accompanied by a guitar or a backing band – with those musical forces or the repertoire that followed. While I applauded the inclusiveness of the programming, the work felt like something of an outlier as the only one written or performed by a First Nations artist, especially as Donovan didn’t appear in any of the other works, unlike any of the other artists. Perhaps the inclusion of at least one other First Nations work – such as a more traditional creation song or a more challenging contemporary work by a composer like William Barton – would have provided more context.

I was also unconvinced by the inclusion of Mills’s ‘Glimpses and Dialogues’ from Galileo, a Festival co-commission (perhaps as an opera or oratorio?) that was performed after interval by all the singers and musicians from the first half of the concert (except Donovan), once again conducted by Mills. I found this musically intriguing but difficult to connect with, as it seemed more like a series of fragments from a larger (perhaps unfinished?) work, and as such lacked musical or dramaturgical context – apart from once again being ‘about’ the stars.

In sum: Music of the Spheres was a musically accomplished evening that felt a little forced to me in terms of its conception and execution, notwithstanding the stellar contributions of all the artists involved.