A sound sample

4 March 2019

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Festival of Chamber Music’ ⋅
Government House Ballroom, March 2-3 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

On the basis of the four concerts I sampled the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Festival of Chamber Music was a raging success both artistically and in terms of popularity. Seven concerts across two days demonstrated the many aspects of chamber music from a substantial wind band to a violin-viola duo, allowing regular members of the orchestra to step out of the ranks and have their talents as individuals shine out.

The festival was held in the Government House Ballroom, one of Perth’s (indeed Australia’s) most gracious and acoustically excellent venues, where organisers made the most of the surrounds, offering food and drink outside between the concerts. It was held together by the engaging emceeing of well-known and loved Perth mezzo Fiona Campbell, who has recently been appointed as artistic director of Music on the Terrace and also state manager for Musica Viva.

Andrew Nicholson and his golden flute. Photo supplied.

The first concert was entitled Bach to Brass and opened with a rousing brass fanfare (by anon) from the gallery above the stage. The first programmed item was a wonderfully transparent and crisp Brandenburg Concerto No 5 by J.S. Bach (BWV 1050), featuring Andrew Nicholson’s intricate flute mastery and virtuosic playing from concertmaster Semra Lee-Smith and harpsichordist James Huntingford. My only quibble is that it was played on modern instruments (except obviously the harpsichord) at modern concert pitch, lacking the mellow sound of gut strings and rendering the keyboard a bit tinkly.

This was followed by eleven players from the WASO brass section performing Barber’s Mutations from Bach, moving us and Bach into the 20th century. No quibbles here musically; a Lutheran chorale provided the basic material and Alex Timcke’s rolling timpani moved the mutations on. This was followed by sections from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier re-arranged into jazz formations by Luther Henderson. The titles spoke for themselves: Dixie Bach started with a very bluesy trumpet, while Cool Bach and Bebop Bach got many toes tapping. Three South American dance tunes arranged by Joshua David – featured here on trombone – were followed by a suitable encore, Julián Plaza’s Nocturna, which sent us swaying out into the garden for a cool drink.

Saturday evening’s French Flair, subtitled ‘Quirky and personal’, plunged us into early modernity with a Poulenc trio (piano, oboe and bassoon), a Ravel sonata for violin and cello and Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments. As ever, Stravinsky tucked away a number of Easter eggs for different players, popping out to surprise us every so often; in particular Nicholson’s golden flute and also some lovely burbling bassoons. Space prohibits a detailed account but every item was played with great accuracy and enthusiasm.

On Sunday the afternoon’s Magical Mozart program was aptly sub-titled ‘Delightful and charming elegance’ and it would be hard to disagree. There was that gorgeous flute again in the Flute Quartet in D (K 285) accompanied by delicate strings well articulated throughout, although the second pizzicato movement was rather oddly abruptly ended for a page turn. The unusual pairing of violin and viola (K 423) was a rare treat, with both instruments sharing the limelight – no second fiddle here (thanks, Fiona). Akiko Miyazara (violin) and Benjamin Caddy (viola) were entwined like climbing roses in this, yes, charming and elegant treat. The Wind Serenade (K 388) showed off WASO’s clarinets, oboes, horns and bassoons with a sonorous start leading to a nice tidy finish of the first movement and a lovely bouncy finale.

Laurence Jackson leads the WASO strings. Photo supplied.

The final concert was the Twilight Chamber Gala, with a tasty picnic available before hand and a variety of equally tasty musical items, many of them English and rather pastoral-ish. The players on this occasion comprised a 20-ish string group led by WASO concertmaster Laurence Jackson. The opener was Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, a set of folky tunes culminating in the Scottish (or Welsh or Irish etc) folk song Dargason intertwined with Greensleeves, all played in typically disciplined and energetic style. The next item was one of Elgar’s dreamy countryside numbers, the Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor (Op 20), with a rather soporific (the music, not the players) larghetto. A dose of mellifluous Schubert followed with a sparkling rendition of his Rondo for Violin and Strings (D 438). The final item was Britten’s Simple Symphony with its very familiar pizzicato second movement and romping finale.  The encore was Elgar’s overly syrupy Salut d’Amour (everyone else loved it, including some near me who squealed with delight at its very mention).

I have not mentioned the second last programmed item which subverted what Evelyn Waugh would call the ‘creamy English charm’ which surrounded it: Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 (Op 110) as the Chamber Symphony (Op 110a). The arrangement sticks closely to the original while expanding its forces. The first movement, Largo, is almost impossibly sad and dark, while the second is Shostakovich in extreme nervous breakdown mode, and who else would end a quartet/symphony with two Largos? The thing with Shostakovich however is that despite one’s knowledge of his sad circumstances and the undeniable misery of his works, they still pulsate with life and ultimately hope. The work was played with brilliant attack, discipline and nuance and the final dying fall was greeted with extended utter silence. For some of us, this was the height of our sampling of the festival.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

Past Articles

  • Handel’s masterwork – 280 years and not out

    Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Easter Week, 1742 and Sandra Bowdler has found a revival of that event that was near perfection.

  • Musical fireworks

    Remarkable performances by soprano Sara Macliver and conductor Dane Lam light up this concert by the WA Symphony Orchestra, reports Sandra Bowdler.

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