Orchestral comeback

16 June 2020

After a disastrous start to the year the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is returning to the stage, albeit without an audience. Rosalind Appleby discovers how the orchestra has fared through the COVID-19 crisis.

Like many arts organisations, 2020 has been devastating for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. In March as the COVID-19 lockdown commenced the orchestra cancelled four months of mainstage activities with the flow-on effect of salary reductions for staff and musicians. In May chief executive Mark Coughlan announced his resignation. Despite all this the orchestra is in good shape, according to executive manager of artistic planning Evan Kennea.

Evan Kennea is executive manager of artistic planning at WASO. Photo supplied

“It’s been a really horrible horrible time, we’ve missed our audiences, we’ve missed playing and we’ve seen all the plans we’ve put together disappearing in a puff of smoke which has been pretty depressing,” Kennea said.

“But actually at this point everybody’s in pretty good spirits. People have looked after each other really well… members of the orchestra have been reaching out and checking in on each other. It’s been a horrible time but the way people have rallied around has been really fantastic; it has been very special to be part of that.”

WASO played its last concert on March 13 and has cancelled all remaining performances until the end of July. The orchestra is facing a loss of $2.5 million in budgeted income from the ticket sales of more than 30 performances. However all musicians and staff have been retained, Kennea explained, with the help of Job Keeper, audience donations and salary top up.

“We wanted to go into this together and come out of it together. We have all had some reduction but everybody is still at WASO and for us that was a really important thing. We need those people there so that as we are ready to come back we have the skills and people to bring the orchestra and the concert hall back to life. We will come out of this period feeling every person in the company made a contribution to keeping it going and navigating this terrible time.”

In May the orchestra announced Mark Coughlan had for personal reasons decided to tender his resignation as Chief Executive, effective immediately. Currently WASO board member Paul Shannon is acting as interim CEO and the hunt for a replacement is on pause until the orchestra resumes a level of normalcy again.

This month the orchestra has taken the first steps towards returning to normal, with musicians returning to the stage of the Perth Concert Hall. Every Friday the orchestra will release a video of members of the orchestra performing on stage together together as part of Ensemble Editions, a new digital concert series. Kennea said the recordings capture the delight of the musicians as they emerge from months of solitary practice.

“For a period there the practice was undirected, it wasn’t goal oriented, it was just practicing for the sake of keeping instrumental skills up and your musical mind engaged. But as you can hear the musicians have very much kept their chops up. They are professional orchestral musicians who work at an incredibly high level, and that’s just what they do.”

And it is not just the musicians who are excited to be back.

“Our audience have missed seeing their orchestra on the stage… the feedback has been really touching. A lot of the audience feel like they know players in the orchestra personally, so to see them on the screen making music is like ‘there’s my team back together’. It’s been really wonderful feedback.”

eight string players perform socially distanced on a stage.
Laurence Jackson leads WASO string players in the digital concert series the Ensemble Editions. Photo supplied.

The repertoire for the Ensemble Edition is entirely chamber music; pieces written for small groups, with just one player per part and fairly easy to perform with social distancing in place. The first two programs, compiled in consultation with the musicians, have included works by Hans Richter, Mendelssohn, Haydn and Mozart. The next concert on June 19 will feature Mozart’s Horn Quintet performed by principal horn David Evans, and Saint-Saëns’ Fantasie performed by concert master Laurence Jackson and harpist Yi-Yun Loei.

“Laurence is just such a beautiful player,” Kennea said. “Every time he takes a solo or you hear him in chamber music there is this sheer musicianship that spills out of him so naturally. It is such a joy to listen to him.

“And Dave Evans is so incredibly rock solid as a player. I mean that with the highest praise because the horn is such a notoriously tricky instrument to play, and he just puts it down solidly ever single week, it’s pretty amazing to watch him. Mozart is this incredible balance of sounding so simple – there is nowhere to hide – and yet so magical, and to be able to capture that balance and bring the music to life is an incredible skill.”

“Hopefully sooner rather than later we can get back to being the company we love being: live performing artists playing phenomenal music in the same room as the audience and getting that immediate feedback. What we do is really special so let’s hope we can get back to doing it.”

Evan Kennea

The online concerts are important to keep the musicians and the audience connected, but Kennea says community feedback indicates that nothing replaces the enveloping experience of a live concert. It will be some time, however, before WASO will return to live performances. The government’s anticipated plans to scrap the 100 people restriction on indoor gatherings in July will allow large venues to open with a four metre square rule, but Kennea said operating the Perth Concert Hall at 25% capacity was not a viable option.

“If you only have a quarter capacity that won’t work, not in terms of a full orchestral concert. And just because a venue is open doesn’t mean we should rush in and use it to the maximum capacity. We erred on the side of caution when the outbreak happened, and we have to emerge also with safety as the first priority for everybody.”

When it comes to the 2021 season, Kennea is waiting for the dust to settle, but is keen to support Australian musicians.

“If you are a freelance musician in Australia you’ve suffered terribly in the last several months so we’ll be looking at how we can support them into next year. And we’ve go to think about the financial health of the company and what that does in terms of shaping the program we put out – how many concerts, who the artists are, what the repertoire is. Minimising the downside risk is part of it, while trying to be artistically vibrant, with a big element of sector support.”

“Hopefully sooner rather than later we can get back to being the company we love being: live performing artists playing phenomenal music in the same room as the audience and getting that immediate feedback. What we do is really special so let’s hope we can get back to doing it.”

WASO’s free Ensemble Edition videos are released every Friday. Support the orchestra by making a donation

Pictured top: WASO wind musicians make their return to the stage performing Mozart’s Serenade. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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