A Review of 'Sapiens' by Robert Moss, Premiered by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra.

Being a somewhat consistent classical music concert-goer, I must confess to dreading the de rigueur contemporary Australian works that open so many nights. I support the practice one hundred percent. Every so often there is a gem; Elevator Music by Graeme Koehne was one such, Sapiens is another. 

Sapiens was composed by Robert Moss and premiered by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre on July 30th 2022. The story imagined is one of the greatest in human history: the spread of Homo sapiens across the Earth. From the program notes: ‘[T]he central chord progression to Sapiens evolved from the spontaneous expression of power as an emotion…Robert’s musical lexicon emerges once [the opening] power chords are combined with a repeated bass motif.’ 

Sapiens’ compelling opening chords grabbed me and didn’t let go. This doesn’t happen to me often. In years past Elevator Music did, and this night the programmed Symphony No. 3 by Brahms and Concerto for Violin by Tchaikovsky performed—brilliantly—by Alicia Poon, did also. But to back up a bit… 

I happen to be married to the principal flute player. Over the past two weeks she’s grumbled about the difficulty of the flute part, cursed the composer, and spent a lot of time practicing. As did the orchestra spend considerable time in rehearsal; unusually much, I’m told. The PSO is one of the top two amateur orchestras in NSW, and their work paid off. However, the strings struggled with the strong moving discords, where intonation and rhythm must be perfect to be convincing. Perhaps the orchestra could have benefited by Moss’ presence at one of the rehearsals? This did not-at-all take the shine off the overall performance. 

Being a bass player with orchestral experience myself, my heart sang when I saw—and heard—three double basses behind the four cellos. At the last PSO concert I attended there was only one bass. It was they that carried me through the work, with steady pizzicato lines that I know would have been satisfying to play. 

I must confess a bias; I know Robert Moss and was thrilled when I found out, only about 10 seconds before the conductor’s baton swung, that he was the composer. (My wife had not grumbled about who wrote the flute part). My love of the bass line was illuminated when I actually read the program, after the performance. I expect music to speak for itself, without the use of words. The notes referenced Escalator Over the Hill by Clara Bley as influential, of which I have known since its release in the early 1970s. That work featured one of my favourite all-round musicians and bass player, Jack Bruce. No wonder I was taken by Moss' bass line.

I wish Moss had been there to take a bow. During the well-deserved and extended applause conductor Paul Terracini was discreetly looking around the hall for him. I loved Sapiens. With no disrespect at all to the PSO, I look forward to hearing it performed by a full professional orchestra, usually with eight basses! I don’t doubt it will be. 

Alan Plummer.

Leave a comment