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Reviews/Music

Un-Ravel-ing the musical threads

16 October 2017

Review: ‘French Connections’ – WASO with cellist Li-Wei Qin and conductor Douglas Boyd ◆
Perth Concert Hall, 14 October ◆
Review by Tiffany Ha ◆

There is something very serene about conductor Douglas Boyd – the way he walks modestly on and offstage, his graceful hand movements, the subtle sheen of his black, two-piece suit (minus the traditional tailcoat). I imagine him to be the kind of guy that David Attenborough would be friends with. Boyd is based in the UK and has performed with all the BBC orchestras, so it might not be such a stretch.

Virtuosic control and musical authority: Lin-Wei Qin. Photo: Dong Wang.

The wonderful offering from Boyd, WASO and cellist Li-Wei Qin on Saturday night at the Perth Concert Hall evoked fairy tales, depicted war, celebrated mother nature and championed human striving. But even if I hadn’t taken the time to diligently read the program notes (which I recommend to anyone attending WASO – they are exceptionally well written), I would have simply enjoyed listening to each meticulously crafted note, and witnessing the almost telepathic way that these top-level musicians communicate with one another on stage.

The evening began with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite – a work in five movements composed for his friend’s two young children. It is exactly the sort of music one can imagine young children enjoying; it uses memorable melodies, pleasing harmonies, occasional surprising dissonances, playful rhythms, and all the quirky instruments that kids love (mallet percussion, woodwinds, brass, celeste, harp). Ravel was truly a master orchestrator; his understanding of instrumentation was unparalleled by his contemporaries. I liken him to a master chef whose dishes contain combinations of flavours and textures that surprise and delight the taster… Heston Blumenthal, anyone? Who doesn’t love receiving the rare treat of some thick, meaty contrabassoon?

I liken him to a master chef whose dishes contain combinations of flavours and textures that surprise and delight the taster… Heston Blumenthal, anyone?

The audience was buzzing with anticipation for Li-Wei Qin to appear for the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. He walked on stage swiftly, followed by by Boyd. After tuning, Qin opened the concerto with a decisive bow stroke, then clearly and perfectly articulated a series of fast, descending scale passages. He demonstrated his virtuosic control and musical authority from the outset and throughout.

Qin, Boyd and the orchestra communicated effortlessly to create a masterful balance between soloist and accompaniment. Through the restless first movement, the minuet-like second movement and the passionate final movement, Qin’s technique, tone, and musicality was faultless. After three rounds of applause he treated the audience to an encore of a solo piece called “Alone”, by Italian contemporary composer Giovanni Sollima. This stunning work calls for so much virtuosity and extended technique that, playing it, Qin sounded like a quartet of celli at times. I felt a little starstruck as I saw him standing in the foyer afterwards during intermission.

Through the restless first movement, the minuet-like second movement and the passionate final movement, Qin’s technique, tone, and musicality was faultless.

I am always in awe of how musical performances can transport us to different places, eras, realms and perspectives. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 in D premiered in 1943, during the Second World War. It expresses a yearning for peace, and hope that the good in humankind will prevail.

The first movement begins by painting a pastoral scene with wide, open intervals, gentle dynamic swells, and distant-sounding horn calls. The second movement takes a sinister turn, evoking scurrying hobgoblins, while the third movement really demonstrates Williams’ “French Connection” to Ravel (his teacher) with modal and pentatonic passages that showcase the woodwinds and brass, albeit in a more sentimental manner. Finally we emerge in the glorious hymn-like final movement, which serves as a kind of ascension (in pitch, to the heavens).

I had the feeling that I had had gone on a magical journey, with Boyd and the orchestra as my guides. And I didn’t feel the need take a selfie or check-in on social media at any point on this journey. Going to the symphony: the ultimate digital detox, the original soul cleanse.

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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