FOR even the most self-assured of souls, entering the House of Radio in Moscow can be as intimidating as it is inspiring.
For a start, the building itself looks simultaneously impressive and severe. The Soviet-era architecture projects its own stentorian voice that seems to not so much coax as command, ‘Play!’ Then there is the history of what has been created inside the House of Radio, as this place has been a nursery for landmark orchestral recordings and iconic film soundtracks for decades.
On an early afternoon on June 27, 2009, standing in the main recording studio is a young man, far from home. Yet, somehow, despite the surroundings and the potentially crushing weight of this building’s history – or perhaps because of them – Matthew Dewey looks perfectly at home. In Matthew’s hands nestles the score he has composed, and on his 24-year-old face rests a smile that looks almost serene. He seems oblivious to the tornado of strings swirling around him, as 50 musicians from the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra tune and prepare to play a symphony. His symphony.
I ask Matthew if he finds all of this daunting. He looks at me quizzically, before replying: ‘No, not daunting at all. Exciting. No, I’m not worried about it. I’m just wanting it to start.’
Matthew’s anticipation is understandable. After all, he has travelled from the other side of the globe, from his hometown of Hobart, to land in this moment. He had composed his Symphony Number 1 for the Hobart Chamber Orchestra a year earlier. When it was premiered in the Tasmanian capital, Matthew’s creation grabbed ears and hearts, including those of a mystery benefactor (and no amount of pleading or cajoling can convince Matthew to reveal even a first name). The patron offered to fund a recording of the symphony, using an international orchestra.
Matthew’s thoughts immediately turned to Moscow. For about five years, he had been swapping emails with a Russian producer, Marina Dubovskova. They had been musing about Matthew recording with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. But it seemed unlikely.
Yet what had once seemed so distant in geography and possibility was now being realised in the House of Radio. Marina Dubovskova is delighted, explaining it’s the first time the Russian Philharmonic has recorded an Australian composer’s work.
The musicians are also keenly aware they’re not just following notes; they’re making history.
‘For Russian people [in the orchestra], this is very interesting,’ says cellist Alexander Kucheruk. ‘It’s the first time we play Australian music.’
Principal violinist Andrey Kudryavtsev believes he can hear echoes of Australia’s nature in the music, explaining ‘the ocean has been clearly drawn’.
Yet it was an Australian tragedy that impelled Matthew Dewey to write Symphony Number 1. It is his emotional response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. The English composer Sir Michael Tippett once said of his job, ‘I must create order out of chaos.’ And with his symphony, that is what Matthew Dewey has done. He has somehow created sense out of the senseless.
Not that Matthew felt the need to explain the story behind the symphony to the musicians.
‘They seem to inherently get emotional music and really bring that out in their performance,’ Matthew says, settling into a chair in the control room, as the orchestra plays the first movement. ‘I’m gratified it seems to be working without the explanation.’
Perhaps more than most nationalities, Russians know how to tease beauty and insight from tragedy and barbarity. Perhaps it has helped them cope with, or rationalise, so much of what life and their leaders have tossed at them through the ages. And the art created from all that adversity and suffering – be it a Tolstoy novel or a Chekhov play, a Perov painting or a Shostakovich symphony - has not just helped sustain a people, it has pushed all of us closer to answering that fundamental question of what it means to be human.
There’s a Russian proverb that claims, ‘When the guns speak, the muses are silent’. Yet as he finished his 7th Symphony during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, Dmitry Shostakovich apparently declared, ‘Here, the muses speak along with the guns!’
In the spirit of Shostakovich, Matthew has not been silenced by a gun but emboldened to create something that reverberates with emotion. For in his symphony, and in the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing, the muses speak in voices that are mellifluous and rich, at times filled with grief, at others with anger. Above all, Matthew’s Symphony Number 1 breathes with humanity, in noble defiance of the act of inhumanity in1996 that horrified him – and the world.
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At the end of the recordings, Matthew visited our apartment for a drink. Before he arrived, I wondered whether what had been recorded in Moscow lived up to the expectations of what he had heard in his head in Tasmania, as he composed the pieces. I soon had my answer. Matthew turned up with a copy of the recordings in his hands for us to savor. And on his face he had that almost-serene smile once more. Only this time, in the corners of his mouth, were etched the unmistakable creases of satisfaction and joy.
‘It’s incredible, it’s so exciting and so gratifying that the music I write in my little room back in Hobart can communicate to people who live on the other side of the world,’ he told me.
‘That’s exciting, and that’s the potential.’
* Scott Bevan is a former Moscow correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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Orchestral Suite No.1
In contrast with the symphony which describes emotions associated with a particular event, each movement the orchestral suite describes different images of the Tasmanian landscape that I had in my head at the time of writing: the first, the wild rocky southern coastline of Tasmania with seas pounding against the cliffs; the second, the beautiful Broad River on a summers day; and the third, mist rising from lake St. Claire to reveal the surrounding mountains.
Symphony No.1 (Port Arthur, 1996)
The impetus for writing this piece came from a play by Tasmanian writer Tom Holloway called “Beyond the Neck”, which premiered in 2007, and on which I was called in at the last minute to work on. The play explored the lives of four characters who had all been affected in profoundly different ways by the Port Arthur massacre of 1996. Although I was initially furious that anyone would dare to discuss the tragedy in such an open way, it quickly occurred to me that Tom’s play was actually the first public discussion of the massacre, a matured view delivered with the benefit of time and reflection – upon what is still present in the minds of many Tasmanians, and will likely never be resolved.
In his review of Tom’s play, Robert Jarman described it as “a meditation on our common grief and isolation” – and it is this feeling that I used for the greater structure and tone of the piece: The first movement, which desperately seeks responses to questions which can’t be answered; the second, a “planh” or lament on the death of a friend; and the third, a more optimistic exploration of feelings and emotions complex and irresolvable. The piece is framed by a short musical phrase that symbolises the ultimately unanswerable question of “why?”. The phrase appears only twice during the work – at the very opening of the first movement, and towards the conclusion of the third.
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Moscow Radio House, Moscow, June 2009. Digital recording.
Conductor: Alexey Osetrov
Coordination: A & M Producers Group (www.moscowrecordings.com)
Producer: Marina Dubovskova
Recording Engineer: Pavel Lavrenenkov
For the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Concert Master: Andrey Kudryavtsev
Additional Musical Credits
Score Editor: Craig Wood (www.craigmwood.com)
CD Art and Design
Graphic Design: Karen Kluss (www.karenkluss.com)
Photography (Tasmania): Nick Monk (www.redbubble.com/people/nickmonk)