“The essence of art is risk-taking, as it is in business or social entrepreneurship. Some risks bring about artistic returns, others less so. Those involved in The Environmental Symphony, including its composer, went out on a limb and should be congratulated for their efforts. The fact that the recorded version of the work does not, perhaps, capture the energy and focus of the original event, is inevitable when viewed with hindsight.”
Sadly, the multi-talented composer of The Environmental Symphony, Dr Allan Zavod OAM, died of brain cancer in 2016, the year after his symphony was premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). The narrator that night was veteran actor, Jack Thompson with Benjamin Northey conducting. Maxim Boom’s Limelight review of the live performance praised Thompson’s role and that of Northey while raising some concerns in regard to Dr Allan Finke’s text. (Finke, a distinguished scientist and entrepreneur, was Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2016-2020.) Limelight stated: ‘Thompson’s delivery of the text is given the superb finesse one would expect from such an acting legend, but the jaunty tweeness of the insistently rhymed couplets that pervade throughout pinches some of the gravitas this subject matter deserves’.
Boom went on to claim the music was more ‘cinematic than programmatic’, an astute observation, and one that resonates when listening to the recorded version of the work released by ABC Classic in 2019. Jack Thompson’s role is this release is filled by Sir Richard Branson. One imagines he shoulders this task in his incarnation as global philanthropist and climate change advocate, rather than that of carbon pollution-creating airline founder. Perhaps with an eye to sales, the CD booklet cover bills Zavod first, followed by Branson, then Finkel. Branson and Zavod’s names are in the same font size. The musical team, the MSO and Northey, round up the tail.
It may seem unfair and even disrespectful of Zavod and others involved in this production to focus on booklet design, rather than reviewing the music. But these observations go to the challenges faced when commenting on the CD recording of a significant, successful climate/environmental awareness and fundraising event that took place some five years ago. Especially when that event involved an all-star cast of musical, scientific and acting celebrities. Adding further spice to the mix is the cameo appearance of Australia’s former Chief Scientist as climate change poet and the subsequent engagement of Sir Richard Branson as the high-profile philanthropist-narrator of the studio recording. In addition, the premiere live performance had included much praised, synchronised visuals by Ross McNair, which no doubt further heightened the in-hall experience for those who attended. Fast forward to 2021, however, and it feels a little like I am reviewing an artefact that is part homage to an inspiring event, part film score for a film few of us have seen, part reminder of the ever-present spectre of climate change and environmental degradation, and part tribute to one of Australia’ finest musicians, Allan Zavod.
Zavod’s career was the stuff of legend. He was talent spotted in Melbourne by the visiting jazz great, Duke Ellington, who arranged for him to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He went on to be one of that college’s youngest-ever professors. As his obituary in The Age noted, Zavod appeared alongside a veritable who’s who of music including several jazz-fusion heavy weights. The list speaks for itself: Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Frank Zappa, Jean Luc Ponty, George Benson, Sting, Eric Clapton, John Lee, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Billy Cobham, Joe Cocker, Natalie Cole, Australian Crawl, James Morrison, Nigel Kennedy, Kate Ceberano, Judith Durham and many others. He composed more than forty film scores, played comedy gigs with Robin Williams, featured on TV shows, and was awarded a rare Doctor of Music degree in composition by the University of Melbourne. The Environmental Symphony was his last major work.
Movement one, ‘Creation’, is launched by a rhyming couplet spoken by Richard Branson. Zavod’s program notes state that the music’s opening phrases represents billions of cyanobacteria ‘in the act of creating the atmosphere of planet earth’. The musical styles represented here, as in the broader piece, are a cornucopia of 20th century orchestral techniques drawing from Bartok to Stravinsky, Vaughan-Williams to John Williams, a touch of John Adams, guest appearances from Holst’s The Planets, Ravel-like moments and much more in between. Every now and again the narrator enters with further commentary, juxtaposing objective retelling of creation chemistry with the goddess, Gaia. This is well-crafted music, and not easy to play or conduct, but it tends to present as much like a film or documentary soundtrack as a stand-alone work.
The second movement, ‘Industrial Revolution’, evokes an industrial conveyor belt in music. Concurrently, steam engines, printing presses, electric lights and nylon dresses are thrust into the world via the spoken text. As it flows forward, the industrial revolution evolves into a single imperative: to ‘maximise wealth’. Sadly, over time, the focus on production and wealth creation leads to the destruction of the ozone layer. Zavod’s orchestration is highly detailed, and driving rhythms propel the movement forward in a machine-like manner, but it is difficult to identify and grasp an overall musical core.
‘The Calm before the storm’ (movement 3) is more positive, Zavod tells us, ‘as people realise it is time for action’. Richard Branson announces the change in mood toward environmental sustainability –
Scientists and citizens want a solution:
Regulate production, outlaw pollution.
– worthy sentiments that draw forth a Bartok-like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste response from the orchestra’s strings. Just as the music develops the narrator enters again and the band strikes up a jazz inspired section. Zavod notes that ‘the scattering effect of several melodies played simultaneously mirrors the cacophony of different opinions, the discord that arises when nations attempt to create a pact of global proportions’.
The penultimate movement, ‘Global Warming, Final Warning’, contains some beautiful, cinematic, melodies. These provide a counterpoint to the biting commentary which lays out the prototypical global warming sceptic’s counter arguments to dealing with climate change.
‘Preservation Sensation’ closes out The Environmental Symphony, announced by swirling Petrushka-connoting strings over a blazing brass section. The narration is positive: ‘Clean electricity, clean hydrogen, cut net emission, Lessen our footprint, CO2 in remission’. After the announcement of a ‘new Eden’, an electric guitar enters, ‘the iconic instrument of youth’ as recounted by Zavod. This is one of my favourite moments of the whole work but unfortunately, just as the electric guitar soars and the rock rhythm section takes off, the narrator cuts in. The work ends quietly, reprising the main theme.
I have attempted to review this recording as is, not as I believe it should be. But I would be the first to admit I have struggled to grasp what it is that I am reviewing. There are so many diverse strands woven into the rope that is The Environmental Symphony that ultimately, the rope unravels somewhat. This is not to say that the sentiments expressed are not admirable, the playing and conducting of a high standard, and the production professional. Richard Branson is also a more than acceptable narrator. Having read contemporary reviews of its first performance, one can still sense the ‘background radiation to the Big Bang’, to use a scientific analogy. That is, the sense that this release serves as a record of, and tribute to, that great night back in 2015. Against the odds, an amazing, musical and environmental awareness event was brought to fruition. But without the visuals projected that evening, or the live energy emanating from a great actor such as Jack Thompson presenting Finkel’s text in the flesh, the recording as is falls short. At times The Environmental Symphony feels like the soundtrack to a film, at times a commentary on the text. Zavod was clearly a master musician, and a highly skilled film composer, but with so many compositional styles being evoked it has the sense of a sophisticated and well-wrought pastiche whose flow is, at times, disrupted rather than added to, by the narration.
This leads inevitably to the text itself. Alan Finkel’s environmental libretto, so to speak, features across all five movements. It is in the form of rhyming couplets. For example:
Scientists and citizens want a solution:
Regulate production, outlaw pollution.
Stop ozone destruction, clean up the toxins,
Abolish particulates, fumes and dioxins.
Each of the more than twenty stanzas takes exactly the same poetic form:
At last! An awakening, in Paris they care,
For once all agree – there’s no time to spare.
Demagogues aside, our world will survive,
With vision and unity, indeed it will thrive!
In my view, the relentlessly jaunty Henry Lawson-evoking, late 19th century colonial rhythms serve to undermine rather than highlight the seriousness of the subject matter on the one hand, and the miracle of creation on the other. Many a fine opera, and some oratorios, have risen above a less than stellar text, but on this occasion, Zavod’s considerable musical talents were unable to achieve that goal.
The essence of art is risk-taking, as it is in business or social entrepreneurship. Some risks bring about artistic returns, others less so. Those involved in The Environmental Symphony, including its composer, went out on a limb and should be congratulated for their efforts. The fact that the recorded version of the work does not, perhaps, capture the energy and focus of the original event, is inevitable when viewed with hindsight.
VIEW AND LISTEN
YouTube – Promotional video