CURSE OF THE GOTHIC SYMPHONY, THE
Filmed over seven years, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony charts the parallel stories of the life of the late English composer Havergal Brian and the dedicated team who aspire to mount a performance of his infamous symphony - the largest, longest, most complex in history, performed only four times despite repeated attempts and thus declared 'cursed' - in Brisbane. At the core of this odyssey is Gary Thorpe who for over twenty-eight years has been pitching the idea to stage the massive symphony without success. Then there is John Curro, conductor of the Queensland Youth Orchestra who is challenged by the opportunity to stage big productions and wants a crack at the Gothic Symphony. And Alison Rogers a choral master who wants to prove herself despite there not being enough choristers in Brisbane for such a huge undertaking. And finally, Veronica Fury, who is gripped by the curse and crosses the line from film producer to entrepreneur caught up in the odyssey, seized by the sheer titanic scale of the task ...
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Positively orgasmic in the way it builds anticipation and climax, this gripping film takes us inside the belly of the creative beast - several bellies in fact, from that of the now dead composer, eccentric Englishman with the back to front name, Havergal Brian, through the entire cast of musicians and filmmakers. Indeed, filmmaker Veronica Fury lives up to her name with her furious dedication to not just documenting the arduous, heartbreaking process of producing the performance, but the actual production of it as well.
Editor Scott Walton deserves special praise for cutting the film with such heart, efficiency and passion that it is an irresistible force - much like the extraordinary symphony itself, of which we hear enough at the end of the film to recognise its ongoing attraction.
Denied life for three decades, the symphony has defeated all but four previous attempts to be staged. That the team involved in bringing together 400 choristers and an orchestra of 150 in Brisbane managed to break the curse is credit to them.
The film uses suitably gothic touches (of live action as well as animation) to fill in the life story of Brian and manages a tone that blends the sense of artistic danger with a great sense of fun.
Born in 1876, Brian wrote this, the Gothic, his first and largest symphony in the 1920s; it was first performed (partly by amateurs) in 1961 and professionally in 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall. But this 2010 performance records why it was deemed cursed and how that curse was broken by sheer Aussie determination and bravado. Bravo to them.
Review by Louise Keller:
A symphony that wrote itself; a musical curse; the ultimate challenge to perform it for the first time in Australia.... With irresistible elements like these, who would not be fascinated by this intriguing documentary whose passion to stage a unique and seemingly impossible musical event is contagious? A musical reflection of a turbulent life, English composer Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony is arguably the most technically difficult symphony ever performed. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is also the longest. Not surprisingly, it has not been performed anywhere for 30 years and never in Australia - until now.
In the vein of Mrs Carey's Concert, the elements of this documentary are revealed like a crescendo, as we become involved in the struggles, frustrations and triumphs of a small, dedicated group that attempts to stage the mammoth work that demands a 200 piece orchestra and 500 voice choir - in Brisbane. We are there for the key moments as the playing out of the impossible dream begins for this once-in-a lifetime event.
Called the Everest of classical music, it took Brian 8 years working through long, solitary nights to complete the work, having begun it in 1919. He declared the work to be cursed, claiming it wrote itself. Could a piece of music be cursed? Many who have tried to stage the elusive work believe so. One member of the Havergal Brian musical society member in America is convinced of the fact: the wheels fell off his car while playing a cassette of the Symphony. Wheels or no wheels, there are three Ps to describe the process it takes to stage Brian's famous work: passion, pain and pleasure.
Randall Wood's film is a nice balance of re-enactments of the prolific composer's troubled life integrated with a fly on the wall approach as Gary Thorpe's 28 year dream to stage the symphony plays out. Five years in the making, the film shows the seemingly insurmountable problems - from the financing to the staging and the sheer logistics to find enough talented musicians and choristers to perform. Queensland Youth Orchestra conductor John Curro wants to be the one to do it (2007 Queensland Artistic director Paul Grabowski calls it 'a gigantic dinosaur'); Choral master Alison Rogers takes on the challenge despite being time poor; producer Veronica Fury becomes caught up in the momentum.
We are there when the money is raised, the venue confirmed, the first rehearsals begin and the tickets are sold. Is it possible to fit so many chairs on the stage? How can enough choristers be found? And will it be good enough? There's an international element too, with involvement of Brian musical society members in Britain. Finally, December 22, 2010 arrives; there are backstage nerves as the orchestra tunes up, the audience waits expectantly... Then we are captive to the magic of the music of the Gothic Symphony itself - majestic, ethereal, turbulent - with the grandeur of strings, brass, woodwind, timpani and the added oomph of the choristers.
Music is written to be heard and it is extraordinary to learn that the composer had not heard one of his symphonies performed until he was 78 years old. There is pertinence to that Faust quote at the top of the score of this empirical musical monument: He who ever strives with all his might; that man we can redeem.
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CURSE OF THE GOTHIC SYMPHONY, THE (G)
CAST: Documentary featuring Havergal Brian (archival), John Curro, Alison Rogers, and actors Eugene Gilfedder, Jason Pocock, Alyson Stimson
PRODUCER: Veronica Fury
DIRECTOR: Randall Wood
SCRIPT: Randall Wood, Sue McGregor
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Randall Wood
EDITOR: Scott Walton
MUSIC: Havregal Brian, composer; John Curro, conductor; Alison Rogers, chorusmaster;
OTHER: Paul Butler (animation director)
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Wild Fury
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 19, 2012 (Sydney: Hoyts Cinema Paris, Roseville Cinema; Melbourne: Cinema Nova)