A musical reunion

8 August 2020

After five months of practising at home the West Australian Symphony Orchestra gathered this week for their first full rehearsal since lockdown. Rosalind Appleby witnessed the joyful reunion.

The last time the musicians of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) played together was March 15, their final concert before lockdown began. For the past five months the musicians have been practicing at home, gathering for the occasional small-scale, socially-distanced chamber music broadcast, and waiting for this day.

After witnessing WASO’s final concert on March 15 it was a thrill to be present at the orchestra’s first full rehearsal as they returned to the Perth Concert Hall this week.

The joyful reunion was made even more significant by Arts Minister David Templeman’s announcement earlier that morning of a $30 million upgrade to the Perth Concert Hall as part of the state government’s Recovery Plan. The orchestra’s home will be redeveloped as a music centre in the heart of the city and the news, when it is relayed to the musicians at the start of rehearsal, is greeted with cheers and foot shuffles (a way of applauding when hands are full).

There is a hush for the orchestra tune up and then conductor Jessica Gethin steps onto the podium with a radiant smile: “It’s wonderful to see you all onstage together, what a treat!”

Two violin players wait for rehearsal to start with big smiles
A joyful reunion for concertmaster Laurence Jackson and associate concertmaster Semra Lee as rehearsals recommence for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo Rosalind Appleby

COVID-19 has created a challenging work environment for musicians whose art form is built around communication and collaboration. The rehearsal today is not to prepare for a concert – the first performance will be in the pit with the West Australian Ballet in September followed by a return to mainstage concerts in October – but to give the musicians time to realign as a team.

Gethin launches straight into business – the overture to Verdi’s The Force’s of Destiny – and with one breath the collection of independent musicians merges into a united organism, creating a mass of synchronised sound.

I had forgotten the physical impact of experiencing a live orchestra. The energy generated from more than 70 musicians playing at this elite level is exhilarating. My body resonates with sound and I can’t stop smiling.

The orchestra moves onto Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and a blistering opening fanfare from the brass section bathes the string players in a wash of reverberating air. The sheer volume of sound filling the hall is thrilling. As the brass phrase winds down the strings offer a cushion of lush blended sound for the ear to rest on for a moment.

WASO’s manager of artistic planning Evan Kennea walks past, humming along as the cellos launch into a melody.

“I feel like a kid again,” Kennea admits later during the rehearsal break. “Look at me bouncing up and down on my toes. There’s an orchestra, on the stage, playing Tchaikovsky! We didn’t know when this day would come. It’s been four and a half months, that’s crazy!”

“There’s an orchestra, on the stage, playing Tchaikovsky! We didn’t know when this day would come.”

The elegant second movement of the symphony begins to unfold and time seems to stand still as oboist Liz Chee shapes her solo phrase with exquisite tenderness and yearning. It is a moment of spine-tingling intimacy and there is a supportive foot shuffle from the players around her. The cellos and then the rest of the orchestra sweep back in with the theme, a team of disciplined artists striving to communicate unspeakable beauty.

There are moments of sloppiness, a wry smile here and there, but Gethin plows on. The focus is intense, sleeves are rolled up and jackets discarded. It’s meant to be just a run through of the Symphony but concertmaster Laurence Jackson can’t resist a quick comment to his violin section about rushing; the team is coalescing again and the quest for excellence is ever-present.

It is clear the players are enjoying their return to core business. Alex Timcke sits at the timpani waiting for his entry, mallets pulsing gently in his hands as he silently sings along with the orchestra. In the back desk of the violins a player sits listening with her eyes closed, smiling.

Experience the joy of this history-making moment captured in Seesaw’s exclusive podcast.

WASO will perform Dracula with the WA Ballet September 11-26 and return to the stage with Carmina Burana on October 1, 2 & 3, and Dvoraks Symphony No 8 on October 8, 9 & 10.

Picture top: Jessica Gethin conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in their first full rehearsal since lockdown. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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