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Fascinating musical exposé

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘The Art of Orchestration’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 23 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

As audiences for the traditional concert format age and a younger generation seeks a fresh approach, it is exciting to see the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s creative initiatives taking flight. ‘The Art of Orchestration’ is the second of WASO’s two Discovery Concerts this year featuring affable principal conductor Asher Fisch offering insights into the music. As judged by the enthusiastic reception, there are plenty of Perth folk of all ages who are open to having their musical appreciation expanded.

All three compositions in the programme were conceived for keyboard, but it took their orchestrated versions to bring them to their current renown and, as explained and illustrated by Asher Fisch, each work took a different route to orchestral life.

The evening opened with the conductor’s introduction from a dramatically deserted stage. Joseph Nolan’s masterful performance of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on the Concert Hall organ (and on a scale that would not have been known in Bach’s time) was followed by Stokowski’s technicolour orchestration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The orchestration is now considered to be in poor taste but it was impossible not to feel admiration for the skill with which the transformation was achieved; and for the fact that the movie is believed to have brought a generation of children to a love of music.

By way of contrast, it was Richard Strauss himself who sought a richer palette for some of his songs.  Here the audience had the immense pleasure of hearing Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, WASO’s first “Artist in Association”, deliver a bracket of five songs. Earlier in her career Stagg won the Richard Strauss song prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition with An die Nacht, and it was clear why.  Stagg has a voice of rare beauty, deployed with utmost sensitivity and with a core of contained intensity; the words have a natural flow and her stage presence is a delight. Regarding the transcriptions themselves, the first and last songs were accompanied successively on piano and by orchestra: unsurprisingly the composer achieved a close match of scale and mood between the two, both in the restraint of Morgen, as in the concluding Cäcilie, with its freely expressed emotions.

Following interval, Asher Fisch continued sharing his absorbing insights, happily contradicting Yvonne Frindle’s admirable programme notes by arguing, contrary to general belief, that Mussorgsky always had orchestration in mind when he set Pictures at an Exhibition for piano. At the keyboard, Fisch, a fine pianist in his own right, self-deprecatingly contrasted the unpianistic nature of certain passages with Ravel’s inspired orchestration. And if the audience was stimulated by this fascinating exposé, no less did the musicians respond. Older listeners might have been happy to see out their remaining days without ever needing to hear Pictures again, but here was a beautifully paced and weighted viewing of the chosen drawings and paintings, with the delicacy and wit of, say, Tuileries not suffocated by the mighty grandeur of the concluding Great Gate of Kiev. Played to death it may be, but here the introductory discussion of the work seemed to infuse new life into an old warhorse.

Asher Fisch and the artistic planning team must be saluted for being prepared to challenge the venerable ‘symphony-concerto’ formula without any dumbing-down, instead embarking on new paths designed to draw in younger audiences and stimulate old ones alike. On this occasion, with the conductor as an engrossing guide, the risk of a fragmented evening was entirely avoided: instead an appreciative audience went home savouring a small but memorable Richard Strauss song recital and consummate performances of the two other orchestral settings.

Asher Fisch and Siobhan Stagg join WASO again in Verdi’s Requiem on November 29th and 30th.

Pictured top: WASO’s affable Asher Fisch. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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Rosalind Appleby

Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based arts journalist, author and speaker. She writes for The Australian newspaper, The Guardian and Opera magazine (London). She was music critic for The West Australian for 14 years (2002-2016). From 2012-2018 she operated the blog Noted, providing insights into the Perth arts scene.

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