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Reviews/Music

Homegrown classical collaboration a thrill to witness

12 October 2020

Perth violinist Emmalena Huning makes her debut with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in a program of comfortingly familiar classical favourites, reports Tiffany Ha.

‘Dvorak Symphony No. 8’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 9 October 2020 ·

I don’t mean to gush about a building, but I really love the Perth Concert Hall. I love its stocky, brutalist exterior; I love its warm, red-carpeted interior. It feels timeless, rooted in history – existing before my lifetime and (hopefully) long after it too. It’s a comforting symbol of WA’s past and ongoing commitment to the performing arts.

On my return there (the first time post-lockdown) I felt a mix of elation, nostalgia, relief and homecoming. I imagine I wasn’t the only one, judging by the relaxed, chatty, quietly buzzing atmosphere of the half-filled (due to physical distancing) auditorium on Friday night.

WASO recently returned to the stage with their 2020 Remixed program, welcoming to the podium for the first time highly accoladed Perth conductor Jessica Gethin. I was pretty excited about this fresh collaboration, which seems like a natural progression in Gethin’s already impressive career.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture – an impressionistic, panoramic musical landscape depicting the “strange beauty” of the Scottish archipelago. Gethin was controlled and understated in her fluid, circular gestures. The exquisite sound from the players seemed to move Gethin as much as her gestures moved them. It was a thrill to witness this collaborative process unfold in real time; Gethin’s approach gave the piece the clarity and spaciousness it demands.

Next up was another rising star: 19-year-old Emmalena Huning, making her WASO debut with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. The accomplished young performer (currently studying on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music) impressed with her shimmering tone and her effortless, lithe technique. Huning’s phrasing was gorgeous in its grace and simplicity; she carried the music along at a light, agile tempo and used vibrato sparingly – even in the cadenzas.

The orchestra, conductor and soloist were sensitively balanced and attuned to one another, though at times the relationship (and consequently the musical interpretation) seemed a little too polite and considerate; some boldness and artistic risk-taking would not have gone astray. Fortunately Huning was able to show off this side of herself with a spirited encore of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 5 (originally for piano) arranged for solo violin.

Dvorak’s distinctively Bohemian eighth symphony rounded out the night’s offerings. It was supremely satisfying to see the woodwind and brass sections do their thing after the very string-heavy Mozart. Gethin’s choice of tempo and pacing felt just right; she moved us through the piece with momentum while still allowing space for musical ideas (bird-like flute chirps, undulating triplet figures in the strings, and joyous brass exclamations) to emerge organically from the texture. The orchestra and the conductor handled the broad emotional range and stylistic eclecticism of this piece with cohesion and flexibility. The sheer number of melodic ideas, set against a revolving backdrop of modal tension (in which clear major diatonicism slips into dark chromaticism and then back again) can be a little disorienting, but Gethin and the orchestra made it seem as natural as the transition of day into night.

While part of me longed for more contemporary, inspired programming (which seems especially appropriate given this new constellation of rising stars emerging at a time when arts organisations are scrambling to find ways to stay operational and relevant in a post-COVID world) I was grateful to be back in the concert hall. I’d forgotten how much I missed those red velvet seats, that warmly-lit stage beneath the magnificent pipe organ, that last hurried sip of Earl Grey tea as the final warning bell signals the end of intermission. There’s comfort in the familiar.

Pictured top: Emmalena Huning makes her WASO debut under the attentive baton of Jessica Gethin. Photo supplied

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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