The COVID wheel of fortune

3 August 2020

Perth conductor Jessica Gethin comes full circle as she makes her debut with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in what will be an emotional return to the stage. Rosalind Appleby reports.

The wheel of fortune in medieval philosophy symbolises the capriciousness of life. The wheel spins and some people suffer misfortune while others gain a windfall. For Perth conductor Jessica Gethin the wheel has spun full circle this year.

When coronavirus hit in March Gethin’s entire work schedule was cancelled. Now she finds herself preparing to make her debut with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in their return to live performance at the Perth Concert Hall in October.

Gethin has previously conducted the orchestra in the pit for West Australian Ballet and recorded the film score 100% Wolf but October will mark her mainstage debut. In another twist of fate she will be conducting Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the work she played as a student violinist in her first performance at the Perth Concert Hall in 1997.

Perth conductor Jessica Gethin has come full circle. Photo supplied

“If you’d told me then that twenty-something years later I’d be conducting it with the WASO I wouldn’t have believed you,” Gethin said.

The 40 year old has been staying up late at night engrossed in the medieval collection of poems and texts that inspired Orff to write his secular cantata in 1936. The ancients songs address the goddess of fortune and explore the ephemeral nature of life, including the fickleness of wealth, the joy of spring and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gambling, gluttony and lust.    

“What a work [for WASO] to come back with! The theme of fortune is so apt, that part of life where you don’t know when opportunity will come up. It’s such a great work to explore, it’s got so much energy and character and covers all of the different emotions. My goal is to bring all of those different characters out of it.”

Over the next few months Gethin will record several ballet scores with the orchestra, conduct them in the pit for WA Ballet’s Dracula in September, and conduct a second concert in October, performing Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in October and Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto (with violinist Emmalina Huning) before principal conductor Asher Fisch arrives from Germany for two concerts in November.

Evan Kennea, WASO’s manager of artistic planning, said the orchestra had beenworking on a 2021 engagement with Gethin and circumstances meant they were able to bring the opportunity forward.

“Jess will bring a huge dollop of enthusiasm, which given what a strange and awful year this has been, will be extremely welcome,” Kennea said. “She has been steadily building her experience across a number of different genres and it’s that level of experience that is important when we first step back onto the stage – it brings a level of comfort that the orchestra will be in good hands after such an extended time not playing together. Having someone who will bring a level of care and empathy to that situation is very important.”

orchestral musicians onstage poised to commence playing
WASO musicians will return to live performance in October. Photo supplied.

Orff’s Carmina Burana calls for large forces including an enormous orchestra (triple winds, two pianos and a huge percussion section), a 130 strong choir, a treble choir and three vocal soloists. Perry Joyce will take on the demanding tenor role including a solo that is almost entirely in falsetto, and Amy Manford and James Clayton will sing the soprano and baritone roles, also written in a high tessiatura to express the suffering and tension of the characters.

The cantata opens with strident drums and an explosive “O fortuna” from the choir. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Orff’s style is accessible and exuberant, and the music is built on beautiful melodies and raw rhythm.

It is an epic work and a critical time in WASO’s history but Gethin, who cemented her foundations at the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and as Chief Conductor of the Perth Symphony Orchestra, is undaunted.

“My job is just to be as prepared as I can be, and that can help a lot with nerves. You are there for a bigger reason than yourself. You’ve got this incredible orchestra on stage of amazing individual musicians, 130 strong choir, all of the staff and team that make this stuff happen, an audience out there who is just bursting to hear stuff; you can’t make it about you. I’m only one thread in a pretty incredible tapestry – although still a very important thread! The pressure – and that’s what leadership is – is being able to enable other people.”

A collaborative approach

Gethin’s approach to conducting is vastly different from the tyrant maestros of the past and draws on an appreciation of psychology and her experiences as a musician and parent.

“The conductor role has been put on a pedestal, but things are different now.  First and foremost I’m a musician and I’m working with some of the greatest musicians around. A lot of them know the score better than a lot of people would ever guess; they know this music inside out and they have their own ideas and interpretation of how they want to do it. It becomes a collaborative journey of realising that my role is to enable them to be able to speak and to do this. Sometimes I’ll absolutely step in and have to say: ‘This is where it sits’, and other times I’ll say: ‘This is your moment’. It’s knowing when to yield and when to say something. But it takes years to learn that. A bit like parenting!”

There is one other thing that gives Gethin a twinkle in her eye:

“I know I have the orchestra’s support. They are so incredibly responsive and collaborative. The amount of support I’ve received from working with the WASO players has been overwhelming.”

Rebuilding the orchestra

Kennea has also invited Gethin to conduct the orchestra’s first full rehearsal since Covid lockdown. The ‘rebuilding’ rehearsals in early August will give the players an opportunity to reconnect as a team after their long break.

“Football players need preseason training after a break, and so do musicians,” said Kennea. “It makes perfect sense for Jess to lead the rebuilding sessions as she will be the first conductor the orchestra works with in the pit at His Majesty’s and on the stage at the Perth Concert Hall. We have three sessions with Jess, and a few pre-rehearsals on other repertoire which will be lead by our Concertmaster, Laurence Jackson.”

Gethin agrees the preseason rehearsals are crucial. “Some of those players have spent their lifetime playing in an orchestra, and this is the longest [break]. That’s a really big thing for them. We’ve selected repertoire both the orchestra and myself feel comfortable with. Even though they’ve been playing their instruments individually and doing some amazing chamber music, it’s still a different thing when the orchestra breaths and moves together. It takes time to reconnect that. It’s an amazing opportunity and I feel quite privileged to be part of the first sound that will be made.”

A smiling woman with a baton gestures forwards with her hand
Jessica Gethin has a collaborative approach to music making. Photo supplied

After two decades honing her skills on concert platforms around the world (Dallas Opera, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Malaysian and Auckland Philharmonic Orchestras), Gethin says the time is right to make her debut with WASO.

“As a conductor you spend the first decade on the podium buried in your own stick technique and holding it together… You are so focused on what you are doing but after a while that becomes second nature and you can listen to what is being given back, and then you can listen to what is NOT being said, and you go through all these different stages of what you can do. I feel like I am finally at a stage where I can play with that more…. I can express myself with a freedom I probably didn’t have 10 years ago.  I feel like it is the right time now.”

Gethin anticipates it will be an emotional return to the stage.

“It’s going to be an amazing feeling in the concert hall. I think the audience will be excited and emotional because it is so long since they heard live music en masse. I think they are hungry for it and I hope it leaves them feeling energised and a bit positive about things. It has been a really hard and strange six months for people and it’s made people think about their lives perhaps a bit differently. This is a great opportunity for what music has the potential to do: to move people, help them escape from those thoughts and connect with each other. I think it’s going to be quite magical.”

WASO will return to the stage with Carmina Burana on October 1, 2 and 3, and Dvoraks Symphony No 8 on October 8, 9 and 10.

Pictured top: Jessica Gethin prepares to conduct the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. 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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