The MSO’s 2024 season officially got underway on 21 March with a soaring new setting of an Acknowledgment of County, Long Time Living Here, by Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, and concluded with a vigorous and sparkling performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets orchestral suite.

Earlier in the day, the orchestra also announced that Jaime Martín’s tenure as Chief Conductor has been extended until 2028.

Jaime Martín conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Opening Night Gala. Photo © Laura Manariti

On stage the orchestra delivered a poised and confident ‘season opener’, but when does a concert – or at least the marketing of it – try to do too much? The evening was billed not only as Jaime conducts The Planets and the Ryman Healthcare Season Opening Gala but also as a Concert for Humanity.

The latter had been anticipated in a marketing email sent by the MSO’s Managing Director the previous December. In it she described an event in which both “Orchestra and its audience will call for the release of all Israeli hostages, and for the protection of the Palestinian and Israeli civilian population.”

That’s quite a lot of (potentially fraught) heavy lifting for any artistic event, something that may also have been quietly recognised by the MSO. The concert program instead stated that it was a performance for “those who stand up for dignity and safety at this time of conflicts around the world”.

Alban Gerhardt and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Laura Manariti

War is, of course, the express subject matter of the opening movement of The Planets. But it also informs the character of the other early 20th century English work on the program, Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Here it was performed by German cellist Alban Gerhardt, perhaps best known in this country for having premiered Brett Dean’s own cello concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2018.

Elgar’s work was completed in the shadow of the end of the First World War and a mood of resignation us built into its very form. Both the opening theme from the cello (which returns at the work’s conclusion), and the lilting pavane-like tune that immediately follows it, remain steadfastly unaltered. There is to be no romantic process of thematic transcendence here – rather we are presented with its tragic absence.

Although there were some moments in the scherzo-like second movement where the connection between soloist and orchestra seemed less secure, overall Gerhardt gave a technically assured and lyrical performance. The third movement adagio was especially beautifully performed by soloist and orchestra alike.

Deborah Cheetham Fraillon and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Laura Manariti

The second half of the program opened with another Cheetham Fraillon premiere, Earth, a work conceived to complement “the intent of Holst’s The Planets suite”.

The idea of “completing” the Suite is not new. Back in those halcyon days when Pluto was still classed as a planet, for instance, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned English composer Colin Matthews to compose Pluto, the Renewer. More recently, fellow English composer Joby Talbot has proffered Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity, and in 2003, the Japanese composer Jun Nagao provided both an Earth and a Pluto.

In her case, Cheetham Fraillon was inspired by the commission to explore not just what sets our planet “apart from its neighbours … our humanity”, but also the idea of adding voice – her voice no less – to the score as a symbolic reclaiming of what had been rejected by the majority of Australians in the referendum last year.

As it turned out, the MSO did not place her movement within, or at the end of, Holst’s suite, and it was probably the right decision. Both the music of Cheetham Fraillon’s Earth, and its music-narrative content (moving from an atmospheric depiction of primordial tension to a lush tonal palate as the voice enters) stand just a little too far outside Holst’s conception to be placed comfortably within it.

Holst’s journey through the solar system is, of course, also of the astrological, not astronomical variety (It is certainly not of the kind described on the MSO’s own website which instead suggested that Holst’s suite describes each of the planets “in the context of their corresponding Greek and Roman Gods!”).

Placed before the beginning of The Planets, Earth instead operated in a kind of elliptical orbit around Holst’s work, and was especially effective towards its conclusion where both the orchestral lines and an in-form Cheetham Fraillon soar. My only quibble here was that we could have usefully had Earth‘s text projected as surtitles; the words got a little lost in the rich orchestral texture.

And, as already mentioned, the MSO under Martín followed it with a strong reading of Holst’s magnificent score. He was assisted by some excellent performances from within the orchestra’s ranks, especially from the lower brass section, and from Guest Concertmaster Laurence Jackson.

The performance concluded with a suitably ethereal wordless chorus from the MSO’s upper voices, beautifully fading out from Hamer Hall.

Jaime Conducts The Planets is performed again on 23 March at Hamer Hall (sold out).

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