Wigs, glitz and music worth the wait

18 September 2020

Perth Symphony Orchestra delivers David Bowie fans the concert they were waiting for, says Erin Hutchinson.

‘Stardust: The Music of David Bowie’, Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
HBF Stadium, 17th September 2020·

It’s been nearly seven months since Perth Symphony Orchestra last performed, and what a thrill to have to upgrade their planned venue of the Astor Theatre to the HBF Stadium to cater for the size of the audience! It was a strange vibe being in such a cavernous space, usually packed shoulder to shoulder, but now requiring COVID-spacing and extra hand sanitiser – a sharp reminder that here in Perth we are amongst the limited who can safely attend such an event. And what a privilege.

Beneath the well-wielded baton of conductor Elise Chong, the glitzed up, wig-wearing ‘orchestra that breaks the rules’ swept all thoughts of global pandemics aside with a programme voted on by fans earlier this year.

In the opening number, “Under Pressure” (lyrics suitable for a COVID-world), we were introduced to two outstanding and appropriately androgynous singers: Perth locals Addison Axe and Steve Hensby. The two sung their way through over 50 years of Bowie’s music with the talented PSO, and given the well-known aspect of Bowie’s work we were eased into what we expected. Axe and Hensby were a great mix of voices, blending well in the few numbers they came together to sing, giving their all to their solo pieces and sharing titbits of stories, facts and personal feelings about Bowie which somehow made the large space seem so much more private.  The charmingly awkward Hensby, with his long curly locks and gangly suited physique had a voice that soared in some beautiful ballads in the first half. He hit his rhythm in “Five Years”, showing more involvement in the emotion of the piece.

The finished, casually confident presentation of Axe was a joy to watch. Her energy and presence onstage was palpable, even swimming in an 80’s oversized pale blue suit. Her husky voice was perfect in “Life on Mars?”, exquisitely arranged by Jared Yapp, and she led the audience participation with enthusiasm in The Labrynth’s “Dance Magic” from the movie. The first half finished with “Ashes to Ashes” featuring a wonderful (though short) oboe solo, and “Heroes”.

“The real magic was the music”. Perth Symphony Orchestra and soloists perform the music of David Bowie. Photo Karen Lowe

The second half of the show opened with Hensby on electric guitar in a hot pink mullet wig for “Ziggy Stardust”. This was a lovely moment to see him looking more comfortable behind an instrument, though I questioned the costume. Actually, given the amount of costume changes after interval, it may have been useful to hire a costume designer to really embrace the uniqueness of Bowie’s look – though Hensby’s silver crushed velvet tight tracksuit he wore next may have been my favourite.  

We were treated to favourites such as “I’m Afraid of Americans”, “Starman” and “Space Oddity”, and there was a beautiful arrangement of “Lazarus” dedicated to the late founding chair of PSO, Maurice Spillane. Hensby gave a cheeky but heart-warming nod to his parents before “Changes” for encouraging a boy from Bunbury to pursue his dreams. The final number “Rebel Rebel” brought great applause and yells for more, and of course, PSO delivered with “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” complete with a groovy saxophone soloist which had the whole audience standing and dancing along.

Some of the problems with sound in the HBF Stadium were a little more evident in this half, with some minor balance issues between the vocals and bass sounds from the orchestra, but at least our ears were adjusted to the slight echoing that occurs in such a space. The lighting, whilst moody and creatively colourful, was a rig too short for the stage set up, meaning the singers often stepped out of light, though the projected live film work made up for this a little.  Even with these problems, this was a concert we were itching for. The audience’s positivity and excitement was substantial, and their appreciation for the skill and immense talent displayed on stage was evident, from quiet toe tapping and head bobbing to the fantastically energised flailing of one woman in the stands.

What was seriously beautiful about this show were the moments for each section of the orchestra to shine. With the ‘band’ as it was fondly referred to, filled out with many of the extra instruments Bowie was known to play, the real magic was the music, capturing the essence of Bowie in the distinctiveness of sound, the memorable hooks and the haunting, melodious ballads. Even as a child of the 80’s, I think my love of synth has been converted to a passion for the PSO after “Stardust”. 

Pictured top: Steve Hensby and Addison Axe are backed by the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Karen Lowe

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Author —
Erin Hutchinson

Erin Hutchinson is an actor, singer, theatre maker and teacher who is passionate about local arts. Whilst she wishes she could still be a ninja on the monkey bars, she’s content to enjoy a turn on the swings… easier to still hold a glass of wine.

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