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28 August 2017

'Crossway' for the Zelman Symphony

Babi Yar ravine in present-day Ukraine Image: Babi Yar ravine in present-day Ukraine  
© Mark Voorendt (Creative Commons)

Harry Sdraulig writes about his new work Crossway for the Zelman Symphony concert on 17 September. The program commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, with music by Sdraulig, Kats-Chernin and Shostakovich.

On a fine Melbourne afternoon back in May last year, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was George Deutsch, hard-working publicist (and violist) of the Zelman Symphony Orchestra.

It had been a little while. The previous year, I was given an invaluable opportunity to work with the orchestra as part of an initiative with the University of Melbourne, where I was undertaking my Master's in composition. The collaboration (which resulted in premiere performances of my Sinfonietta) was very fruitful and enjoyable. At the time, both myself and the orchestra's key decision makers expressed a desire to work together again. But we weren't sure of when or how this might happen.

George had another big project in mind. Would I like to write for the orchestra again? Absolutely. How about for a concert at Hamer Hall, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the atrocities of the Babi Yar massacre? The concert would open with my new work, followed by Elena Kats-Chernin's flute concerto Night and Now. The second half would feature Shostakovich's gargantuan Symphony No. 13 with a large orchestra, soloists and hundreds of choristers.

For sure, the scale of the concert presented an irresistible career opportunity. But what really struck me was George's passion and vision for the concert, and the prospect of contributing to such an important and emotionally charged event. Indeed, I have a significant family connection to the events of World War II more generally - my grandmother was active in the Polish underground resistance movement, while my grandfather was held as a prisoner of war whilst principal cornet of the Polish Army Band. My grandmother's frequent recollections of the atrocities of the War remain an ingrained part of my childhood memories.

Somehow, a piece of music would need to emerge out of this. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to think, plan, and let many ideas bounce back and forth in my head. The work was to be around 15 minutes in length, and I would have the full orchestra (and choirs) at my disposal. I made a decision pretty early on not to use the choirs - I didn't want to compete with the darkness or scale of the Shostakovich. Sincerity would be paramount, and I felt unqualified to infuse my music with programmatic references to atrocities that I did not personally experience or suffer.

Nevertheless, the connection of the genesis of Crossway (as my piece eventually became known) to war inevitably found its way into the music. There are four movements. The first begins with an insistent rhythmic energy (and perhaps misguided optimism) as the music lurches into troubled waters. The second movement features a solo violin part (intentionally included for star concertmaster Wilma Smith) and is deeply reflective - if anything, an embodiment of peace. The third builds to a cataclysmic climax, leaving in its wake a hymnal fourth movement which builds slowly, if uncertainly, towards light.

Since that phone call from George, a few things have changed in my life. Moving to Sydney to take up a composer residency at Abbotsleigh School and commence my doctorate at the Sydney Conservatorium has been a big and exciting part of this. But just a few days ago, I managed a quick trip to Melbourne to hear Crossway in rehearsal for the first time. It was delightful to see a few familiar faces, and meet some new faces a well. But above all else, it was inspiring to see this tight-knit community of both professional and amateur musicians come together for the great musical cause that this concert represents. To be a small part of it is an immense honour and privilege.

AMC resources

Zelman Symphony, 17 September, Hamer Hall, Melbourne - event details in the AMC Calendar

Harry Sdraulig - AMC profile

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