WASO’s new online chamber music series bristles with life and infinite tenderness, as though months of pent-up feelings were finally released. Leon Levy reviews the Ensemble Editions.
‘Ensemble Editions 1 & 2’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Released online, 5 & 12 June, 2020 ·
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought misery to many, but alongside that there has been an extraordinary flowering of global access to the arts. As a local online listener, the dazzling global opportunities that have become accessible, as well as the generous allocation by the ABC of recorded WASO performances, have had the effect of diverting attention from what is not happening on our doorstep. And I have to admit to being seduced by the free offerings from the National Theatre in London, opera and ballet at Covent Garden, various lecture series from Sydney, Melbourne and New York and much else. All of this has masked the brutal truth of a closed Concert Hall.
But having said that, I cannot understate my enthusiastic reaction to the return of local performance ‒ albeit on a small scale ‒ via the Ensemble Editions project. Simply put, the new series is a burst of musical joy for local audiences. Who were the geniuses who, with such imagination, dreamed up the idea of drawing players from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and have them perform in recital from the stage of Perth Concert Hall? At every level the experiment has been a resounding success. For a start, what an unpredictable but stimulating selection of works has been scheduled: in the first programme the horn section took us through Hans Richter’s Wagneriana, a delicious six-minute romp through a handful of Wagner’s operatic themes, played with exemplary assurance. Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, written at the age of 16 almost two centuries ago, was the inspired choice as the main work in this 40-minute recital. With the eight players arrayed socially distanced across the stage and sympathetically lit, the performance ‒ immaculate in every way ‒ bristled both with life and infinite tenderness, as though months of pent-up feeling was finally released. If Mendelssohn’s miraculous creation may be viewed as an ode to freedom from the repression suffered by his own people, this performance also seemed to embody freedom, albeit of a different sort.
The second instalment of the Ensemble Editions, released a week later, again reflected the capacity of the orchestra to yield up any combination of musicians, and then for each group to do something quite wonderful. Four string players brought to Haydn’s late String Quartet in D minor, a similar concentration of feeling to that exhibited a week earlier, the old master’s wise smile contrasting with Mendelssohn’s swallow, freewheeling through the sky. Part two of the concert saw six wind players bring geniality and fizz to Mozart’s urbane wind Serenade, K375.
Conclusions? Viewing and listening via YouTube on a modest-sized television screen in an equally modest suburban lounge room, the chamber scale of each performance felt ideal for a domestic setting, the camera moving gently from the group to the individual as might one’s gaze in the concert hall. To complete the illusion, the sound came through as rich and immediate, and the opportunity to see “our own musical family” and their tiny interactions ‒ a brief smile here, a quick glance there — made the experience all the more vivid and moving. Not only were the WASO players flawless in execution throughout, but there was a palpable sense of fresh, live music-making. Clearly the musicians were grateful to be performing again… and so are we to be their audience.
In any event the Ensemble Editions series suggests that there is potential for something new in the structuring of the annual season, both for the musicians and their audiences, whether in the concert hall or via streaming. In the meantime this weekly series is a triumph for WASO and is not to be missed. Has there been anything finer to be heard on the international stage during the pandemic? I would suggest not!
Pictured top: WASO string players bring a concentration of feeling to Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor. Photo supplied