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PEACE
A Cantata for John Monash

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PEACE - A cantata for John Monash

PEACE
A cantata for John Monash

Composer: David I. Kram
Words: Kevin O’Flaherty
Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Premiere: 9th September 2019

Soloists - Lisa Ann Robinson (soprano), Michel LaLoum (baritone), Kristen Leich (mezzo-soprano) and Eddie Muliaumaseali'l (bass)

Adult Choir - Members of Melbourne Chamber Choir, Cranbourne Chorale,  Whittlesea Township Choir, LaTrobe University Choral Society, 36 Degrees South, Monash University Choral Society, Da Capo Singers, Temple Beth Israel Choir and The CHOIR.

Children's Choir - Bayles Regional Primary School Choir, Yarraman Oaks Primary School Choir, MacKillop Catholic Regional College Werribee Choir, Bendigo Youth Choir, Wodonga South Primary School Choir, Brighton Primary School Choir, Malvern Primary School Senior Choir together with performers from Camberwell Girls Grammar School and Scotch College.

Conductor: David I. Kram

 

PEACE

A cantata for John Monash


Sir John Monash is arguably Melbourne’s finest son. That was certainly the general opinion at the time of his death, and even Robert Menzies remembered “we automatically stood when the great man entered the room.” His return to Melbourne after the war was a major event as we have recounted previously (see The Return of John Monash to Melbourne) and his contribution to shaping peacetime Victoria and Australia is as significant to his hastening the end of World War I. Therefore it is not surprising that composer David Kram and librettist Kevin O’Flaherty chose to entitle their 90-minute cantata celebrating the life of Monash ‘PEACE’.

Those familiar with the life and contributions of Monash will know that there is too much to cram into just 90 minutes. Some will regret the omission of certain aspects  of his life while still being thankful for the project as a whole. For my own part I would like to have seen the inclusion of Monash’s letter to his wife describing the first Anzac Day commemorations with the troops which he organised in 1916. I would also have welcomed a description of Monash’s planning and management of the vocational training of the troops after the war which his biographer Geoffrey Serle described as “the very finest of the A.I.F.’s and Monash’s achievements” and had lasting implications for the direction of Australia’s education planning. On the other hand, the omission of certain details of his private life which many believe prevented him from consideration as Australia’s first native-born Governor General (an achievement later claimed by another Jewish-Australian, Sir Isaac Isaacs), is understandable considering the involvement of school choirs.

But, what of the work itself?

Kevin O’Flaherty, the librettist, has an impressive background as an academic, CEO in the business sector, poet, and researcher – to name but a few of his achievements. David Kram, the composer, is one of the most important and credentialed conductors currently working in Melbourne, and his skills are often utilised in the especially important interface between professional and amateur performers. Together they have crafted a cantata focused firmly on the involvement of the performers and the audience.

The work opens with a c major chord and the word ‘peace’ and eventually closes on another c major chord sung in a closed-mouth hum to the final syllable of ‘shalom’. Both the opening and closing chords were beautifully balanced by the combined forces of orchestra, adult choirs, children’s choirs and soloists. Whether there was enough harmonic struggle along the way to give the final chord a satisfying sense of resolution will be a matter for each listener to decide. The composer, however, is straightforward about what he wanted to achieve. Even though we know that David Kram has the capacity to handle and create complex and even dissonant scores, he clearly states that he wanted this work to be “singable, playable and listenable”.

Along the journey, many of the movements are capable of standing alone for separate performance. In this respect, Kram has followed the lead of another Melbourne’s great sons – Percy Grainger – with the possibility for ‘elastic’ scoring and differing versions to suit the forces and the circumstance. Thus, there are movements which can work as primary schoolyard songs ('Jerilderie'), undergraduate songs (alumni of certain institutions may recognise ‘Postera Crecam Laude’ and ‘Deo Patriae Litteris’), a church anthem, several arias (including one reflecting on traditional names associated with indigenous service men and women) which deserve a place at future singing competitions and recitals, and several movements which are suitable for inclusion in choral concerts. Other movements call on known conventions. For instance, in the final movement, when the tenors launch into a fugue, the audience knows this pays tribute to a traditional English oratorio finale and provides reference to the ‘known world’ of concert going.

Not all movements worked equally well – at least for this listener. The ‘catalogue’ of Sir John’s achievements or the tribute to his engineering principles (sung over a ‘structural’ repeated bass) seemed to miss their mark. On the other hand, there were far more moments were the results were particularly satisfying. ‘The Pink Telegram’, where a trio of soloists reflect on the dreaded message announcing the death of a loved one over the background of the choir singing Latin words of the Requiem Mass finished beautifully with the soprano soloist, Lisa Ann Robinson, floating a top A over the muted choir and orchestra was particularly moving. In the section ‘Do Good’ the Baritone soloist, Michel LaLoum, combined magically with the children’s chorus. The strings tended to dominate the texture, possibly because the woodwinds were on low risers so as not to obstruct the choir, but when the woodwinds were left by themselves the listener was drawn closer into the story – such as during the soliloquy in Part III. In particularly, the oboe ‘peace’ theme, reminiscent of Dvořák, appears towards the beginning and end of the work and was beautifully played by Greg Pharo. Mezzo-soprano soloist Kristen Leich and bass soloist Eddie Mutiaumaseali’l performed their solo and ensemble work with admirable expressiveness and security of tone. Special mention must be made of the delightful singing of the young female soloist in ‘Hommage à Villers-Bretonneux’.

It is always a challenge to rehearse such a large work, often with separate forces in different venues, before bringing it together in a large, unfamiliar (at least for a number of the performers) public venue. Fortunately, with David Kram as composer and conductor there was a talented hand at the helm and the minor hiccups from both adult and school choirs did nothing to hinder the impact of the work.

John Monash may for some be an obscure figure from a past era, but as Jeffrey Rosenfeld (a descendent of Monash and a man of remarkable achievements in his own right) points out in the foreword of the program, Monash’s life still has much that speaks to us today. When urged to head a coup to overthrow the government during the difficult times of the depression, Monash responded “Depend on it, the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate”.

I have had the opportunity to observe this work come together over several years including performances of sections of the work at Scotch College and the Shrine of Remembrance. No doubt there will be further fine tuning before parts of the work are performed in France next year to commemorate the centenaries of battles at Le Hamel and Amiens (often referred to as 0808). Composer, librettist, performers and all involved with bringing this project to fruition are to be congratulated for reminding us of the importance of the man and his works, and continuing Monash’s cherished mission of education about our heritage and our future.

BL

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