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Musical journeys

Review: Perth Orchestra Project, ‘Destinations’ ⋅
Calloway Music Auditorium, UWA, November 22 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Orchestra Project is proving a welcome addition to Perth’s musical landscape. Conductor Izaak Wesson, who founded the semi-professional ensemble in 2017, is a student at the UWA Conservatorium of Music and his ensemble draws on student and graduate musicians. As conductor and artistic director Wesson (and team) have established a reputation for thoughtful programming, innovative presentations and a relaxed atmosphere. It is an attractive package, but the highlight for me is the new works. POP has premiered eight pieces from local composers, an achievement that surpasses the efforts of Perth’s professional orchestras, and the thrill of the new brings a exciting frisson to their concerts.

“Destinations” was the ensemble’s sixth concert since founding and the featured composer was Kate Milligan. Her new work Migrations offered a reflection on the other pieces on the program and also on her trajectory as a composer currently based in France.

Opening the evening though, was a work by Charles Ives, the pioneer of American modernism. The Unanswered Question is normally heard as an orchestral work but this performance presented the original, more intimate version for string quartet, flute quartet and cor anglais. For this quasi-dramatic performance the instrumentalists were spaced around the audience in the darkened auditorium, their music illuminated by stand lights. Under the steady hand of Wesson, the piece unfolded with gently sustained chords in the strings punctuated by a “question” from the cor anglais and answered by the increasingly animated flutes. The sense of stasis generated by the string chords was not entirely effective due to wavering pitch but the interaction between the groups was compelling.

The propelling rhythms of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was a complete contrast. A montage of Reich’s recordings of trains, train conductors, interviews with Holocaust survivors and general station noise exploded from the speakers. The string quartet interacted with the recording, drawing our attention to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech and mechanical noise. It was a slick performance with all four string players navigating Reich’s complex changing metres in synchronisation with the recording. The funky syncopations of thrumming train wheels and the bustle of station noise generated a sense of journey, the thrilling feeling of seeking a destination.

The clatter of vintage early 20th century trains were replaced by the calm hiss of pneumatic doors in Kate Milligan’s Migrations. Her recordings of the Paris metro underpin her new work, in a stylistic nod to Reich. The flutes returned to the stage and their rushing air and spitting sounds together with the slowly accelerating string rhythms took the audience on a distinctly more modern journey. Milligan’s field recordings included snippets of buskers (the melody taken up briefly by the instrumentalists) and the chatter of people at a station. The use of sine waves droning at the edge of audibility (apparently generated from the geographical location of current displaced people around the globe) added an ominous edge to our contemplation of travel. The last sounds we heard were the chatter of people fading into the distance. The silence afterwards was achingly lonely.

The works on the program spanned a century and Milligan’s work was a reminder that, 100 years later we haven’t travelled very far regarding the humanitarian right of being free to choose one’s location and destination. The synergy between the works on the program and the compelling performances confirms POP’s capacity to deliver an engrossing evening of music.

Picture top: The string players from POP L-R: Jasmine Middleton, Shannon Rhodes, Adrian Biemmi and Liz Moss. Photo Finlay Cooper.

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