(The Age)

Brian Cox & MSO

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 17.11.2019
(Writing)

BRIAN COX: A SYMPHONIC UNIVERSE
★★★★
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Hamer Hall, November 15-17


There is a distinct buzz in the air when Brian Cox appears on the Hamer Hall stage. Imagine! A celebrity scientist with all the popularity of a pop star. Connoisseurs of Mahler and children learning about space for the first time sit together, enamoured and eager to hear him speak.

But before he has uttered his first word, Sibelius. The third movement of his Symphony No. 5 is the perfect beginning to contemplate the universe; it is majestic, controlled. There are moments of great still, which build slowly until they explode. Images of space projected onto a screen above work surprisingly well with the dramatic shifts in energy from Sibelius’ masterpiece. Conductor Benjamin Northey, who stepped in at the last minute for an injured Daniel Harding, brings out the best from the orchestra.

Cox is here to draw comparisons between two disparate disciplines: cosmology and music. Both, he says, can teach us what it means to be human. Cox is a master orator who never dulls things down for his amateur audience, but he allows us, ready and eager, to meet him halfway. He shows us rivers of galaxies, and explains concepts such as “the fabric of the universe”, discovered by Einstein in 1915 (and by me in early episodes of Doctor Who). We listen to him discuss Stephen Hawking and black holes and we catch our jaws hanging slack when he describes the 2 trillion galaxies in our observable universe.

We listen to Paul Dean’s A Brief History, a new symphonic exploration of extremes, with our minds full of the universe and our eyes staring into a blazing projected still of a black hole. Dean uses the orchestra like a paint palette, fashioning a sound world both alien and familiar for the ensemble and soloist Jack Liebeck. It is at times dramatic and at others sparse, and ultimately forms a fitting tribute to the great Stephen Hawking.

Finally, the great Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony. Where Sibelius celebrates the entirety of the universe, Mahler looks for answers – the profound ones that seek to unravel the most awesome questions cosmology offers. The orchestra gave it their all, spurred on, one imagines, by the great questions Cox proposes.

To no one, as the final note sounded, the man next to me whispers “stunning”. And indeed, it was. The perfect pairing of science and sound.

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