Review: Perth Symphony Orchestra, ‘Mozart by Candlelight’ ⋅
St George’s Cathedral, 17 October ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅
The Perth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Gethin, has been in existence for nine years now. As last night’s concert demonstrated, they have reached a polished level of consummate performance, which was rather at odds with the church fête-like atmosphere surrounding them. Candlelight is fine and makes for an attractive atmosphere in St George’s Cathedral’s gothic-ish interior, but flashing coloured lights, illuminated personal screens (audience members were encouraged to look up the program or take photos), people constantly moving around, fast food and drink consumed during the performance and sales of merchandise could all be ignored if they didn’t interfere with the music but, initially, they did.
The opening number, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, was played in chamber music style led by concertmaster Paul Wright, one of Perth’s most eminent musicians. Comprising four movements, these were punctuated by applause (annoying in itself to this fuddy duddy) and the distraction of excerpts from Mozart’s letters read over a loudspeaker. The music itself was beautifully, crisply played but its integrity was rendered problematic. After that, things improved, with the flashing lights stilled, most of the audience tiring of waving their phones around and the music allowed to unfold as written.
The programming was creative and stimulating, bookended by works of Mozart with homages to him by modern composers in between. It was remarkable how distinctive these were, given they were drawing from the same well. Australian Calvin Bowman’s string quartet, led by Wright, began with a moving Largo which did not remind me so much of Mozart as other later composers, while the second (of two) movements, a lively Presto, referenced Eine kleine Nachtmusik as well as Figaro’s aria ‘Non più andrai’ from Le nozze di Figaro.
The actual orchestra under Gethin came together for Jonathan Dove’s An Airmail Letter from Mozart, which takes its first movement, Theme, from Divertimento KV 287 followed by eight variations, and is scored like the original for two horns and strings, with the inclusion of a piano delicately played by James Huntingford. This delightfully represented the idea that Mozart flew around the world in a plane, and encapsulated musically the different countries he visited (northern Europe, Italy, Hispanic countries) culminating in a modern ragtime/Broadway like finale.
The centrepiece of the evening was the premiere of a chamber work by Australian pianist and composer Joe Chindamo (who was in attendance), commissioned by the PSO. This lively work entitled Fantasie auf Nachtmusik intertwined variations on said Nachtmusik sounding as though they had been written by a variety of people from Shostakovich (in Moscow Cheryomushki mode) through Strauss to Stravinsky but returning punctually to Mozartian sonorities. An exciting premiere which elicited much applause.
The final piece for the evening was a more or less traditional rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 17 in G major (K453), said to include aural references to the composer’s pet starling. This is a relatively large scale work; as well as strings and piano, it features a flute, the welcome return of the horns, two oboes, and two bassoons. Gethin held this together with flair and discipline, with excellent dynamics in the remarkably good cathedral acoustics. Huntingford has a wonderfully light touch while clearly articulating every note, and sparkled where the score calls for sparkles. The Andante was noticeable for the mellow tone of the band overall, and the winds shone in the last movement, the flute happily echoed by an oboe, the horns blending nicely for an exultant finale. Perth can be proud of its symphonic namesake, and Jessica Gethin’s mastery of her role as its conductor.
Pictured top: Jessica Gethin leads James Huntingford and the PSO through Jonathan Dove’s An Airmail Letter from Mozart. Photo by Ezra Alacantra Photography.