Orchestra returns in full force

5 October 2020

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has returned to the stage, bringing the blast of sunshine we needed after a long dark year. Rosalind Appleby reviews the first concert back at the Perth Concert Hall.

Carmina Burana, West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, UWA Symphonic Chorus ·
Perth Concert Hall, 3 October ·

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra made an explosive and joyful return to the stage of the Perth Concert Hall over the weekend. In their first concert since closing the doors in March nearly 200 musicians and choristers celebrated a return to live music with a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The program, repeated across four days to allow for venue capacity limits, was lapped up by an audience hungry for a share in live performance. Orff’s secular cantata with its medieval texts about the wheel of fortune and fickleness of fate was apt in a year which has turned so many lives upside down.

Carmina Burana‘s driving rhythms and the lusty folk songs make it immediately accessible, but it takes an alert conductor to balance the enormous forces on stage with precision while exulting in the bawdiness. On Friday night Gethin (making her debut with the orchestra) maintained a steady ship, enabling the multiple flavours to come through clearly as the work unfolded.

Jessica Gethin conducts Orff’s epic Carmina Burana, with soloist James Clayton. Photo Rebecca Mansell.

The infamous opening “O Fortuna” declamation from the chorus and incisive brass heralds set an exultant tone. Although diminished in size and missing the treble chorus (thanks to COVID restrictions) the combined forces of the WASO Chorus and UWA Symphonic Chorus were impressive. The men sang with gleaming fervour, the women with well-cushioned tone. The diction was not always clear, perhaps due to the social distancing in the choir stalls and the slightly cavernous effect it had on the sound. But there was an infectious gypsy spirit in songs like “Veni veni” and an engaging interplay of brashness and coyness in the love songs.

Baritone soloist James Clayton excelled as the belching Abbot whose descent into drunkenness took a thrillingly sinister turn. In contrast his “Dies nox et omnia” (“Day, night and all things”) was positively seductive with its crooning falsetto and sonorous low notes.

Tenor Perry Joyce was both comical and terrifying in his wailing depiction of a swan about to be devoured at a feast. Soprano Amy Manford, recently returned from singing Phantom of the Opera in London, brought a sweet naivety to “Amor volat undique” (“Love flies everywhere”) and there were echoes of Christine in her glittering top D in “Dulcissime”.

As the beautiful melodies and raw rhythms unfolded it became clear this was a performance that favoured intricacies and sound quality over the more brazen underbelly of Carmina Burana. In some cases Gethin’s restraint meant the incisive rhythms became sluggish and I missed the lusty vulgarity and wild abandon. Perhaps the musicians were pacing themselves (four performances in as many days is a big toll)?

However, Gethin’s knack at elevating expressive character meant the miniatures that opened the program were exquisite. There was a sublime calm generated by the silken winds and strings in “Morning – Mood” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1, and Gethin’s weighty but forward leaning momentum made “Death of Ase” intensely moving.

The Overture to Candide was a skittish and joyful concert opener, showcasing mighty horn playing, crystalline winds and velveteen strings, bringing the blast of sunshine we needed after a long dark year.

On Thursday night the audience response was somewhat subdued, possibly because, like the choir, we were socially distanced and it was not quite the communal experience we’ve been missing. But the standing ovation at the end confirmed that nothing can replace the energy and emotional release live music can bring.

Pictured top: WASO returns to the Perth Concert Hall in full force with Carmina Burana. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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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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