An eloquent enthusiasm

MOUNTAIN ASH

Music by Hugh Crosthwaite

Scots’ Church, Collins St.

Monday June 20

 

Hugh Crosthwaite - Copy

                                                                             Hugh Crosthwaite

 

Since Monday night, I’ve been trying to remember when, or if, this kind of concert has been done here before: a young composer decides to mount an event consisting only of his own music and chooses performers of top quality, some of the best his city can provide, to help expose his craft.   There are precedents, of course; you don’t have to look far to find plenty of chronicled self-expository concerts given by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss although many of these had powerful, well-heeled aristocratic sponsors.  With a small band of supporters, individual and organizational, Hugh Crosthwaite, a young Melbourne composer/lawyer, presented us with three works, about an hour’s worth of music, attracting a respectable and enthusiastic audience to hear what he had to say.

First, the actual compositions are rational, well-organized and deftly orchestrated.  While Crosthwaite is not going to prick your ears with startling modulations or spiky melodic leaps and turnabouts, his sound world is accessible and pretty well consistently congenial. If one compositional parameter falls behind the others, it comes in rhythm which tends to be measured; a presto is rarely encountered, at least in these three products.  Crosthwaite operates quite happily in a regular harmonic framework with bursts of consonances and simple modulations that bathe the listener in a comfortable sonic cocoon.

Along with various commissions from local organizations and individuals, the composer has also constructed music for films, providing the score for 2012’s winner at Tropfest, Lemonade Stand.  And, from the first pages of the tone poem Moonah and Whirlpool, I must confess to looking for a screen because the work impresses primarily as film music and you spend your time conceiving complementary images while the score illustrates Brian Walters’ poem to do with the love between Moonah and Whirlpool, possibly real-time lovers kept apart by kinship law, more probably natural or transcendent forces that eventually merge.   Crosthwaite begins with bells, cymbal crashes and timpani rolls, the main interest coming from woodwind and brass who have all the initial running while the string body plays sustained chords.  The melodies tend to be brief, more motives than extended sentences.  A violin solo from concertmaster Monica Curro breaks out from a thick orchestral impasto, refreshing and diatonic; at its conclusion you realize that this writer is happy to repeat a phrase or a cadence multiple times – having found the effect, he insists that we know it fully.

Any inspirational background for this music is solidly European in its lavish Romantic blocks.  The story may be a form of Aboriginal legend or allegory, the Moonah may in fact refer to the melaleuca tree as trees play a significant role in this night’s major work, but you won’t find any of the bare-bones back-country spareness of Sculthorpe’s Sun Musics or Kakadu here, not the slightest hint of musical Jindyworobakism.   At its climaxes, the tone-poem employs a brass choir as portentous as anything in Bruckner.  But, behind it all, you sense a pictorial flow, as though the score is primarily illustrative and its fabric is the work’s pivot.

Thoughts are Free, a poem by an unknown author, has a strong association for Crosthwaite with the German jurist Hans Litten, who brought Hitler to court for a grilling during a 1931 trial, cross-examining him for hours and eliciting the first public-record information about the Nazi party and its pseudo-philosophy.   Needless to say, Litten was punished for this lese-majeste, eventually dying by his own hand in Dachau.   The poem was Litten’s brave contribution to a  compulsory celebration concert for Hitler’s birthday at a prison in Lichtenburg, with SS members in attendance.

Leana Papaelia sang the poem’s three verses truly enough but it was a struggle.  The orchestra enjoyed plenty of reflecting bounce from the semi-circular wainscoting in the Scots’ Church, horns and trumpets in the back row having a particular dynamic dominance.  Papaelia, standing in the body of the church alongside conductor Patrick Miller, would have needed a Bayreuth-quality diaphragm to compete with her accompaniment.   When matters thinned out, the singer’s sound travelled well enough, her voice a natural, naive soprano with a fresh, youthful quality that brought plangency to the vocal line, especially effective in the closing quatrain which seemed to speak for innocence resurgent the world over.  Between verses two and three, Crosthwaite inserts an orchestral interlude amounting to an extra verse,  a kind of heavy commentary on the poem’s simplicity of utterance.   This had its points, although the scoring smacked of Rimsky-Korsakov richness, somewhat at odds with the pure transparency of the vocal line.

Crosthwaite’s major work, a piano concerto that gave the night its title, had Stefan Cassomenos as soloist.  The work is an extended environmental essay in 8 parts, referring to the mountain ash forests near Melbourne but giving them a context.  Once again, the urge is hard to resist to use the work as a springboard towards visual images; program writing in the vein of Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony or Symphonia Domestica.

Crosthwaite opens with a kind of Fanfare for the Common Ash: massive brass chords, mimicked by the piano which brought to mind the grandeur of the opening to Tchaikovsky’s B flat Concerto.  Possibly less stolidity might have made the impression less wearing; every beat does not necessarily require a hefty note, and slow marches can out-wear their usefulness as scene-setting.   In any case, after the imposing mountains prelude, we moved to consider the earth and rock, then water, followed by flora, and eventually the mountain ash itself.   Cassomenos expounded several cadenzas, packed with full-bodied arpeggios and emotional polemic.   By the time the tree itself appeared, the composer had revealed his particular pleasure in using horn, oboe and cymbal textures.   With this ash section came a return to the opening polemic-style writing where Crosthwaite leaves you in no doubt that he is on a mission to persuade his listeners of the vital necessity to preserve these trees, investing the salvation exercise with a majesty and naturally epic character.

The concerto is in two sections but I found it hard to detect any break before the last three segments: the fauna of these forests, the fires that sweep through them where the compositional context moved from a barely unruffled conservative harmonic layout to a kind of Shostakovich-lite, but returning to the prevailing ambience with a climactic apotheosis or homage culminating in a rather overwrought piano solo before the concluding blazes of optimism.  Like Papaelia’s soprano in the night’s central aria,  the concerto speaks an uncomplicated message, even if yet again a relish in his rich orchestration tended to cushion Crosthwaite’s challenge to us to help environmental conservation.

In the 47-strong orchestra, 17 musicians were MSO members, many of the others occasional players in that body, one from Orchestra Victoria, and several familiar faces from National Academy concerts.  While the first two works moved steadily enough, the synchronicity between Cassomenos and the orchestra was questionable at certain stages in Mountain Ash, made more obvious because of the composer’s habit of using one or the other elements as beat-specific reinforcement.

The conclusion to Mountain Ash brought a ringing endorsement of Crosthwaite’s endeavours, the audience giving him – and his interpreters – a standing ovation.  You were left in no doubt of his earnestness, his professionalism and the gravity of his commitment.   Still, the three works are couched in a musical language that is undemanding.   Some find that unobjectionable, happy to have no barrier to instant assimilation.   But you can be sympathetic to Crosthwaite’s message and still want him to speak through more challenging sounds.  These three works together construct a fine sonorous tapestry – but there has to be more.