Brian Cox: A Symphonic Universe, with the MSO. Pic: Nico Keenan

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Brian Cox: A Symphonic Universe review (Hamer Hall, Melbourne)

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According to Douglas Adams, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42.

To Professor Brian Cox, the answer may well be the adagio from Gustav Mahler’s incomplete 10th Symphony.

At the very least for Cox, Mahler’s 10th is the answer to what it means to be human.

The renowned physicist, author and commentator was in Melbourne for a shared evening of cosmology and music, as part of A Symphonic Universe with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

On the program was Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No.5: III. Allegro molto, Paul Dean’s A Brief History, and Mahler’s Symphony No.10: Adagio, interspersed with an exploration of the Earth’s place in the universe from Cox.

Cox says cosmology may just be the most terrifying of all the branches of science, given that it casts a light on how insignificant our one little planet circling around one star in one galaxy actually is, considering the billions of planets, stars and galaxies that are out there.

Indeed, the evening began with a quote from Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Cox says cosmology may just be the most terrifying of all the branches of science.

And love – of music, sharing knowledge and nature – was a central theme of A Symphonic Universe, which was part-classical musical ode to the vastness, and part-fireside chat. But not a lecture – Cox is far too engaging and erudite to deliver a dry disquisition.

Conductor Daniel Harding was ruled out due to injury and under the leadership of the MSO’s principal conductor in residence, Benjamin Northey, Sibelius’ Symphony No.5: III. Allegro molto was a lively exploration of the natural world, with a sense of humility and even loneliness coming through.

To reinforce the theme, the music was accompanied with images of the planets, with the highlight coming during the piece’s conclusion when the vision of a stark lunar landscape was broken not by a sunrise but an Earthrise, with our colourful planet rising above the grey surface.

A Brief History of Time by Paul Dean (the 2019 MSO composer in residence) had its world premiere as part of the show. Dedicated to Professor Stephen Hawking and led by violinist Jack Liebeck, the piece expressed soaring themes of joy (albeit sometimes bittersweet), wit, tension and even rage as it evoked the idea of illness ravaging the body of one of the world’s greatest minds.

And then there was the Mahler. Complex and stirring, at times even desolate, it’s an emotional piece that allows the violas to take the spotlight. There’s a haunting dissonance that is evocative of the fragility of humanity and our place in the universe.

Cox is both infectious in his enthusiasm but also sobering on what we can learn from cosmology about our planet, and its sheer precariousness.

In between the music, it was Cox’s turn to take to the stage and take the audience on a journey through the universe. It was enthralling and greatly informative – running the gamut from Einstein’s theory of relativity and his subsequent dismay at discovering the universe was not fixed, to Hawking and how new discoveries are backing up his theories. He was accompanied by fascinating vision including a teeny tiny Mercury transiting across the face of the relatively ginormous sun, and a happy snap of a black hole more than 50 billion light years away from Earth.

Pic: Nico Keenan

Cox is both infectious in his enthusiasm but also sobering on what we can learn from cosmology about our planet, and its sheer precariousness.

One notable achievement of the evening was the discovery that a piece by a homegrown talent, Paul Dean, could stand proudly in the company of those of Sibelius and Mahler.

But A Symphonic Universe’s greatest success was that the music complemented but was not overshadowed by Cox and his entertaining exploration of the space in which we live.

Following the main performance, there was an “In Conversation with” segment during which Cox said his aim was for there to be a conversation between cosmology and music, so that those familiar with one could reach a greater understanding of the other and view it in a different light. Mission accomplished.

Brian Cox: A Symphonic Universe played Hamer Hall, Melbourne November 15-17.

2 responses to “Brian Cox: A Symphonic Universe review (Hamer Hall, Melbourne)

  1. That must have been a transcendentant experience. I can only hope that ABC Classic will air it.
    One quibble – Yo Yo Ma already expressed the Official Meaning of the Universe in Sydney recently. Neither he nor Bach would have claimed that honour, of course.

    1. The mathematical precision of Bach’s music has a resonance with the mechanics of the universe but, unquestionably, the nature and emotion of the universe, and the individuals created by it, has had no greater expression in classical music than in the compositions of Mahler – of which the 2nd. and 3rd. Symphonies, as well as the Song of the Earth, are foremost examples.
      In the light of Professor Cox’s comments on the 10th. Symphony (completed after Mahler’s death in 1912) and having commented in a blog article on the 9th. Symphony (the last symphony fully completed by the composer himself), I will take another look at and listen to the completed 10th. Symphony. What a delight!

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