Stuart Greenbaum’s (OW1984) anthem premieres at Hamer Hall

It’s a mid-May morning at Hamer Hall, and the final rehearsal for the St Kilda Road Campus Music Festival is in full swing. The stage and stalls are heaving with people and instruments; the matter of the moment is the staging of the grand finale - a massed item for choir and full symphony orchestra involving a cast of 450… Paul Munn reports.

Watch the premiere of 'The Runway' at the St Kilda Road Musical Festival

‘This is some serious stuff!’ gasps Year 5 chorister Piper Lloyd, newly seated in the auditorium and gazing up and up in wonderment at Hamer Hall’s cavernous, dimly lit interior.

Some serious stuff is happening on stage as well – it’s awash with choristers, musicians, music staff and technicians busily rehearsing for the climax of the evening – the world premiere of The Runway, a massed item for choir and symphony orchestra, specially commissioned for the Festival and created by internationally-known composer, Stuart Greenbaum (OW1984).

No stranger to composition – he’s the author of over 230 works, including five symphonies and two operas – Stuart is there for the final run-through, and he seems as charged as the performers on stage; a piece on this scale is something new, even for him.

Stuart discusses sforzando (dynamics) for a pizzicato section with cellist Kingsley Squire

A massed item is a truly unique experience for all those involved. The idea to stage this twenty-first century classical piece came from Head of Music, Philip Walsh. ‘It gives our students an opportunity to experience the breadth and depth of what music can offer,’ he says. ‘I also like to involve our students with professionals out in the workplace in music.’

For this project, Stuart was the perfect fit: ‘He’s a Wesley parent, Professor and Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and he’s an OW.’ Philip contacted him about writing the new work late last year, and Stuart got thinking.

The inspiration for the piece was sparked by an arresting image that he had seen 12 months earlier, captured amidst the chaotic scenes at Hamid Karzai airport during the Taliban’s re-taking of Afghanistan – many hundreds of Afghans, desperate to escape the new regime, crammed onto the cargo deck of a US military C-17 Globemaster.

‘For reasons I can’t explain, this image lit up again for me,’ remembers Stuart. ‘The idea, not only of a harrowing escape, but an amazing doorway to a better future. And this is simultaneously playing out during a readjustment to pandemic lockdowns. I fixated on the runway – the boat… the shore… the place… the runway. So I had this dual image, of escape for those less fortunate, but also the idea of a post-pandemic anthem for all of us, re-emerging into the wider world as travel restrictions were lifted and borders re-opened.’

Stuart listens to members of the Harmony Choir: Ebony Harridge, Sunday Clare Baikie and Marlo Stephenson at rehearsal

It struck a chord with the students too. ‘Before every rehearsal, we read about the meaning, and if there was ever a moment when we rehearsed and we didn’t feel that emotion, we reminded ourselves of it,’ says chorister and Arts Prefect, Louise Coote. ‘We reflected on our memories of watching it on TV... while we were stuck in lockdown, those in Kabul were desperately trying to get out of their country. I found the lyrics incredibly thought provoking; they made me question and wonder about my own experiences during COVID and more broadly, my life.’

Music was the centre of Stuart's universe as a student at Wesley

In Hamer Hall, surrounded by Wesley music students, the seasoned composer feels the poignancy of the moment. ‘When I was at Wesley, I played in the orchestra, concert band, guitar ensemble and big band. It was the centre of my universe,' reflected Stuart. 'At the age of 15, I knew that writing music was what I wanted and needed to be doing. Looking back, I’d say I was fortunate to be in an environment that was musically rich.’

Prof. Greenbaum discusses the ‘feel’ he wants for a particular section with drummer Raphael Geer-Bourke and electric guitarist Kelly Hardy from the Symphony Orchestra

In the evening, with the Music Festival reaching the grand finale, there’s a sense that the baton is being passed on… ‘What a great opportunity and special experience for our students,’ says Philip. ‘To see an OW do this, and to envisage their own futures as professional composers or musicians is inspiring. They can see the journey, the pathway… the runway! This is real, this is tangible.’

In the half-light, the performers swell across the stage and choir stalls, spilling onto the front balconies. The massed piece begins, and that’s exactly the feeling: a visceral sense of mass. There’s something about the wall of sound produced by a full symphony orchestra and a choir of 380 voices that creates a unique experience for performers and the audience alike.

450 students and musicians gather on stage at Hamer Hall for the world premiere performance

Stuart’s aim was for ‘something oscillating between apprehension and elation’, and the sound of this contemporary classical piece reflects that emotional tension, the space between entrapment and escape: the downward inflections of voice and instrument finally resolving into uplifting, expanding notes at the end of melodic phrases, a dramatic sound picture of the cargo plane lifting from the runway into the sky, away from the chaos and towards freedom.

Violinist and Leader of Orchestras, Matt Zhang (Year 12), enjoyed that sense of drama. ‘I really liked the contrast between the beginning and the ending of the piece, especially the sudden change in dynamic and character in the middle,’ he says.

For Year 12 Leader of Choirs, Will Martin, the performance was one-of-a-kind. ‘It was an incredible feeling performing in a group of that size,’ he says. ‘The volume and energy coming from that many performers was really amazing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll never forget.’

Belinda, Stuart and StephenConductor of the Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Rabach (pictured at right) likewise felt the energy of the performance. ‘It demonstrates how well the music resonated with the students,’ he says. ‘It was also a fun piece to conduct because of the different elements and changes of style.’

Choir conductor, Belinda Parsons, felt proud of what her huge group of singers achieved in rehearsal and performance: ‘It’s pretty exciting when 380 singing students cut off a perfect ‘T’ at the end of the word “boat”. Aside from that, I think the way the piece builds is something really astounding. There are some extraordinarily moving moments in the piece when we’re all together.’

Reflecting afterwards, the composer himself is clearly taken with the premiere performance of his work. ‘The students were really great and deserve to be proud, delivering a world premiere, and the conductors and music staff are very experienced and professional,’ says Stuart.

‘An evening of all-Australian music at Hamer Hall – that’s pretty bold and inspired programming. Kudos to Philip Walsh and the music department staff for putting it out there.’

The Runway

by Stuart Greenbaum (OW1984)

I am standing
At the foot of the mountain
I am walking
I’m running (to you)

I am here
At the top of the runway
I am flying

The boat, the shore
The plane, the runway

The sun is on the horizon
And we’ll leave
nothing behind us

Paul Munn is the Editor of Lion and a features writer

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