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20 November 2008

WASO and Vine's Symphony No. 7

Perth // WA // 14.11.2008

Carl Vine Image: Carl Vine  
© Belinda Webster

In program annotations for his Symphony No. 7, Carl Vine mentions that the prospect of humankind's destruction of the planet influenced him as he composed the 'scenes from daily life' that make up this work. Perhaps that is why, in contrast to his other symphonies, the work's conclusion is inevitably and thunderingly bleak. The six abstract scenes that make up the 24-minute work, however, are concerned with life and emotion, and Arvo Volmer and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra conveyed this eloquently in the premiere. Vine's music is not often played by the orchestra, despite his origins in Perth, so it was a rare opportunity to hear the next step in the evolution of the composer.

The symphony opens with sustained string chords and a gentle statement by oboe, echoed by the winds. Energy builds as the rest of the orchestra is added, with dark colours in the low brass giving a taste of things to come. Scene two begins with a clean gear change as the entire orchestra, in ponderous unison, states a tritone-inflected phrase that is startlingly Eastern. The melody is restated by paired woodwinds (a technique favoured by Vine): bass clarinet and piccolo, then flute and oboe. The gypsy effect is heightened when the strings join with a pizzicato vamp and violin strumming. The caricature is almost too much; the more mundane moments of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition come to mind.

Other Vine techniques become apparent as the work progresses: a penchant for the harp, motivic development and sparse but vivid orchestration. To these established tools he now adds a greater sense of direction and drama.

Particularly evocative is a scene where the strings repeatedly intone a chord that slowly morphs, like clouds shifting, or landscape eroding. Over this spreads a horn solo, with soft contributions from woodwind and harp. It is overtly tonal but bittersweet and deeply beautiful.

The tritone interval returns for a delicate elegy, propelled by harp and sextuplet figures in the strings.

Tom toms drive the percussive sixth scene with violent crescendos, constant time signature changes and threatening block chords heralding the end.

Vine has crafted a concise, intelligent and warmly compelling musical statement, and it received a superior premiere. Volmer conducted incisively, with an ear for idiosyncrasies, and the orchestra played with attentiveness and artistry, seeming to relish the momentum and understated emotion in the work. The Perth audience, known for its honest reaction to new music, gave a warm reception which Vine acknowledged from the stage.

It was the first work on a full program that featured two other symphonic works, plus Jian Wang as soloist in Haydn's Cello Concerto in D. Wang's deft touch and buoyant sound was perfect for Haydn, and Volmer stretched and conjured sinuous phrasing from the orchestra, balancing their sound beneath the soloist.

Alongside this, Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini sounded brashly romantic and overstated. In fact, it was an unnecessary addition to the program which was already overlong. Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 would have completed the evening satisfactorily on its own, a slow, tensile chorale that implied the great drama of life, spelt out so succinctly in Vine's symphony.

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Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based music critic. She writes for The West Australian and hosts the program Difficult Listening on the Perth radio station RTR FM. She has been involved in the WA music scene both as a journalist and as a performer.


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