Beyond expectation and presented free of charge, an impressive display of music and performance by the Monash Academy Orchestra treated the audience at the Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall on Sunday afternoon. As the third free-ticketed event of a four-concert season presented by the Monash University Academy of Performing Arts, and my first encounter with their work, the results proved to be an exemplary platform for showcasing the nurtured talents of the academy alongside accomplished guest artists.
The program’s short but majestic first part featured Thomas Reiner’s world premiere of Lacan: Ein Lehrstück and three excerpts from Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite. An intoxicating performance of Béla Bartók’s one-act psycho-dramatic opera Bluebeard’s Castle formed the second half of the program.
Oddly, only the first movement was heard of Reiner’s three-part movement for mezzo soprano, flugelhorn and large orchestra, a work based on the writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. More oddly, it was sandwiched by Kodály’s excerpts I and II (Prelude: The Fairy Tale Begins and Viennese Musical Clock) that opened the concert, then bookended by excerpt VI (Entrance of the Emperor and his Court). Opening the concert with Reiner’s work might better have given a sense of wholeness to each.
Programming aside, the super-huge Monash Academy Orchestra of over 100 musicians, mostly students, played with gobsmacking shape, studied control and a professional excellence under conductor Warwick Stengards. Kodály’s three excerpts showcased all sections. By the end of the program’s first part, the cushioning low-lying brass, the eccentric strings, whistling woodwind and bouncing percussion of the carnivalesque glory of excerpt VI’s Entrance of the Emperor and his Court established the orchestra’s credentials to take on Bluebeard’s Castle with confidence.
In Lacan: Ein Lehrstück, Jessica Aszodi rendered Reiner’s musically instructive lecture with warmth and power as the spoken and sung words glided from one to the other. Aszodi deftly drew you into the magic of the movement’s connection with language and symbols. Tristram Williams accompanied with fine flugelhorn playing and appeared to find greater comfort in the challenging presto passages. On its own, however, both musically and intellectually, the movement left the feeling of dangling in confusion.
With artists and musicians at full throttle, Bluebeard’s Castle was given penetrating power and sensory armour.
Béla Bartók’s deeply psycho-analytical thriller was first performed in Budapest in 1918. Based on a dark French tale, La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault. With just two characters and a short narrated introduction it is more commonly presented in a concert performance. But here, the windowless, hard brick interior of Robert Blackwood Hall felt a fitting interior for Bluebeard’s Castle. Even the prominent Monash University crest, which hangs high backstage, provided custodial appropriateness and lighting design by a talented trio (Fred Wallace, Tom Warneke and Nathan Aveling) added an eerie dimension. Blackout, misty blue, golden light, lawn green and blood red soaked the stage descriptively. Simple symbolic images were projected on the left wall of the stage as the seven doors revealed their secrets.
Bartok’s music screeches, chills, cascades and ripples. The young musicians rose to the challenge, pumping the score’s intricacies with incisive playing under Stengards’s tight grip and pulsating pace, and Sam Swain’s creaking audio inserts were cued with clarity.
An unspecified English translation of poet Béla Balázs’ original Hungarian libretto bonded coherently with the music and Felix Nobis eloquently narrated the short introduction from the hall’s left balcony to herald the beginning of Rob Sowinski’s thoughtful staging.
In debut roles, two outstanding Australian singers, mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble and baritone Warwick Fyfe, created characters of striking opposites, performing on either side of Stengards in a tensely brewed and fiercely sung gift to the ears and pinch to the nerves.
Elegant in a sleeveless black gown, Humble edged Bluebeard’s fourth wife Judith with strident complexity and magnetic gesticulation. Exhibiting luscious, cavernous dark tones and lucent, gleaming highs, she slithered across the vocals with both dramatic and lyric force, culminating in a piercingly ecstatic display of strength and exuberance as Bluebeard’s vast kingdom is revealed behind the fifth door in a staging highlight. Humble’s manipulative and momentary manic portrayal of Judith’s obsession to learn the truth made a convincing picture of a woman on a mission to redeem the malevolent Bluebeard.
Relaxed and measured in a voice of sand and fire, Warwick Fyfe planted Bluebeard firmly, hands clasped or at his sides. Hauntingly cryptic eyes mirrored both a loveless injured soul and the slimy murderer of three former wives. Wispily bearded and attired in black, with unbuttoned collar and suit jacket, Fyfe created intrigue and unpredictably in his character. The voice was smooth, grounded, aptly phrased and at its best in the chesty middle range. Fyfe’s performance was artistically complete and mystifying. Increasingly impressive is Fyfe’s ability to inhabit his role and add nuance to his characters.
The Monash Academy Orchestra gave rich definition to the word priceless where just one performance seemed not enough. They perform Beethoven’s Choral Symphony on Sunday 27 September with soloists Merlyn Quaife, Sally-Ann Russell, Bradley Daley and the return of Warwick Fyfe with Fabian Russell conducting. A full house is guaranteed and their audience will be waiting eagerly.