Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Randall Wood.
At its core, The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony is a fascinating and engaging study in obsession.
Eccentric British composer Havergal Brian is hardly a household name but he was certainly quite prolific in his day, composing some 32 symphonies and operas. However, it is his 1920’s epic, Symphony No 1, aka the Gothic Symphony, that is the focus of this documentary. The Gothic Symphony took some seven years to complete and is one of the largest and most technically difficult pieces of music ever written. Listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest symphony ever composed it has become known as “the Mt Everest of classical music” because of the difficulties of staging it. The symphony requires not only a 200-piece orchestra, but also four brass bands and a 400-piece choir. Not surprisingly it has only been staged in its entirety a couple of times before, and the last attempt was four decades ago. Most attempts to mount a production of the symphony have ended in disaster, thus the belief that it is cursed.
His music is a passion for a British Havergal Brian Appreciation Society, a small but dedicated group who regularly meet to discuss the composer’s life and music.
In Australia, Gary Thorpe, the manager of Brisbane classical music radio station 4MBS-FM, has been obsessed with mounting the first ever Australian production of the symphony for the better part of three decades. But the logistics of finding the right venue and arranging the various musicians, as well as funding the undertaking, prove almost insurmountable. There are numerous false starts as negotiations to stage the symphony begin but then falter.
John Curro, the curmudgeonly conductor of the Queensland Youth Orchestra, agrees to tackle the challenge of arranging the symphony for its performance on December 22, 2010. Choirmaster Alison Rogers was also keen to take on the challenge, even though there were not enough choirs in Brisbane. And film producer Veronica Fury becomes obsessed with filming Thorpe’s efforts to mount the massive production. She crosses the line from observer to active participant in events as she becomes involved in the preparations.
Filmed over a period of seven year, the film documents the set backs and the enormous time-consuming dedication along the way of staging the symphony for the first time in nearly four decades. Early rehearsals do not sound promising as the various musicians struggle with the complex piece. It is easy to see the appeal of this material for director and cinematographer Randall Wood (The Grammar Of Happiness, etc), who himself is a classically trained musician. This is something of a labour of love for Wood, and he has produced an enjoyable and fascinating look at this massive undertaking.
He gives us plenty of detail of Brian’s life, using some archival footage, but also some Gothic-like re-enactments and animated sequences to illustrate Brian’s troubled early life. In these scenes, Brian is portrayed by actor Eugene Gilfedder. There is an interview with Brian’s daughter Olga Pringle, who doesn’t seem to be too fond of her father. And Wood teases us with snatches of the epic symphony itself as the film unfolds.
Kudos must go to editor Scott Walton, who has worked on Wood’s previous docos, for the way he has taken the wealth of footage and skilfully cut it and shaped it into this suspenseful documentary that charts the lead up to the performance. Will these dedicated people be able to overcome the so-called curse and successfully stage the symphony? Or is this an epic folly? You’ll just have to see for yourself!