A Symphonic Universe

by Jennifer Bryce

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Most of us are familiar with Professor Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics at The University of Manchester, The Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society. We have seen him in many TV programs. Professor Cox has the enviable ability, shared with my hero, the late Oliver Sacks, to speak about complex aspects of science in a way that is intelligible to a non-scientist.

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On Sunday 17th November (and the performance had also been given two days earlier) there was a remarkable coming together of science and the arts — in this instance, the art form of music. As Professor Cox said, ‘You will not find meaning at the end of a telescope’.

While the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played, extraordinary photographs of the limits of space and black holes were projected onto a screen behind the orchestra and between the pieces of music, Professor Cox spoke in his easy, almost casual way. The orchestra was conducted by Benjamin Northey.

First we heard the Allegro Molto movement from Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5, which was written during World War I — characterised by a dramatic woodwind theme where, as Donald Tovey said, Thor swings his hammer. This piece provided an affirming introduction to thinking about the powerful and unconquerable presence of our universe.

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We then heard a world premier of A Brief History, by Australian composer Paul Dean, for violin and orchestra — the violin played by Jack Liebeck. The piece is dedicated to Professor Stephen Hawking who, during his extraordinarily productive life advanced scientific understanding on a par, at least, with Albert Einstein. Wagnerian brassy chords at the begininng acknowledge Hawking’s love for that composer and provide, as Dean says,  a sense of ‘the incomprehensible openness of space’. The piece is loosely biographical: in the early part Hawking is depicted as grappling with research of immense proportions, then there is a section reflecting his fun and sense of humour. He then confronts his illness, after which, in Dean’s words, the music combines ‘the power of the universe with his own power of survival against the odds’. There is a final soliloquy on solo violin  — a homage to the great professor to ‘wish him well as he takes flight into the unknown’.

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The musical program finished with Mahler, the Adagio from Symphony no. 10, which was composed near the end of the composer’s life when he is thought to have moved beyond a period of intense turmoil.

After the concert, there was a discussion between Professor Cox, Benjamin Northey and Jack Liebeck. This, for me, provided some realisation of the powerfulness of bringing together superb artistic creation and dazzling scientific research. Discussion, for example, about the perception of time in science, compared to its control and manipulation in music. I went away pondering Professor Cox’s words: ‘What makes life valuable is that it is finite’.

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