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23 October 2009

MIAF: Broadstock's 'Tyranny of Difference'

Melbourne // VIC // 17.10.2009

Brenton Broadstock Image: Brenton Broadstock  
© John Warren

The most significant contribution of the MSO to the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival was the premiere of Brenton Broadstock's Symphony No. 6, entitled Tyranny of Distance. For this huge work, for large orchestra, chorus, soprano and didjeridu, Broadstock has borrowed his title from Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, but interprets it in a much wider and more personal sense than that of geopolitics. In his program notes, he suggests rather the phrase 'tyranny of difference' is in some ways more appropriate, as his concerns are manifold: the distance of time relating to our acceptance of mortality, the tyranny of physical limitation, the tyranny of human isolation and the tyranny of intellectual and philosophical distance which prevents us from solving global problems.

To elucidate these concerns, Broadstock has chosen to set a variety of texts from different cultures and eras, starting with excerpts from John Donne's 'No man is an island'. This movement, the first of three, sets the tone for what is to come. Huge orchestral sonorities dominated by ample brass and rich choral writing provide a foil for the strident solo soprano line, delivered convincingly by Merlyn Quaife. The main body of the work follows, heavily driven by enthusiastic percussion and bass ostinati.

The texts for this section are derived from myriad sources, mostly short quotes from Middle and Far Eastern philosophers and poets. Due to the tremendous energy and volume of this movement, the texts themselves were unintelligible, serving as raw sound materials for the composer to base his verse structures on. The massive forces habitually overwhelmed the demanding soprano part, based mostly in the upper register. In this reading, conductor Warwick Stengards seemed more concerned with maintaining a high level of intensity than with delineating much in the way of light and shade in the score.

All of this rhythmic tension is released at the beginning of the final movement, where the soprano is allowed to linger on a single climactically high note. The concluding section allows the strings to be heard in better balance, as the material winds down in majestically slow sweeps.

The work was accompanied by artist Tim Gruchy's visual images projected onto a large screen above the orchestra. This journey-related imagery (night cityscapes, freeway maps, train stations) did not really add to the experience, but moved slowly and repetitively enough so as not to distract, though the initial psychedelic seascapes seemed incongruous. The screen could have been put to better use surtitling the text, which was unreadably small in the scrap of program provided.

More telling, visually, was the staging itself, with Quaife not out front, but beleaguered amidst a surging sea of violin bows, and Jida Gulpilil (didjeridu) marginalised and wearing red on far stage left. The didjeridu was used to link movements, and most effectively to conclude the work. Gulpilil had not been given any material to play but was allowed to react to the work in prescribed places as it unfolded. His final contribution welled up from Broadstock's last resolution, but was tonally disconnected, suggesting that perhaps the journey was not really over, or was about to begin again.

The orchestra itself was impressive on the occasion, showcasing the power and accuracy of the brass and percussion especially. Subsequent readings may benefit from further intelligibility of the text, through tweaking the balance and possibly the use of surtitles.

The other work presented was Julian Yu's arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition. Yu has opted for a chamber orchestra, allowing him more delicacy and subtlety in his scoring options. Returning to Mussorgsky's program, Yu casts the viola as the composer himself, leading the ensemble via the famous 'Promenade' around the gallery. In contrast to the weight and consistency of Broadstock's scoring, Yu is delicate and ever-changing, sometimes dizzyingly fast, as in the 'Market at Limoge' movement. Yu's orchestration highlighted the Oriental fairytale aspects inherent in the piano original, and his own subtle additions of Chinese folk melodies worked well, allowing him to leave his personal musical signature on the work.

Other obvious changes were debatable - the extra layer of chords in the 'Catacombs' movement does not really add anything worthwhile, and takes the work into another era harmonically. Allowing the 'Promenade' melody to sustain and echo was wondrous at times, but the same technique obscured the melody of 'The Old Castle'. However, given how well we know this music, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

This much-loved arrangement has a long performance history, and festival programmers may have missed an opportunity to present an original work by Yu, or by some other local composer. I am wondering if it was chosen in order to appeal to a larger audience, in which case programmers would have been disappointed with the middling audience at what was the feature program for the local orchestra in an international arts festival.

Event Details

Melbourne International Arts Festival
Tyranny of Distance
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Music by Brenton Broadstock and Julian Yu

Conductor Warwick Stengards
Soprano Merlyn Quaife
Didjeridu Jida Gulpilil
Visual artist Tim Gruchy

Saturday 17 October 2009
The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, VIC

Further Links

Brenton Broadstock - AMC
Melbourne International Arts Festival event profile
Program note and further information on Brenton Broadstock's Tyranny of Distance

Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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