The sordid and the sublime

1 November 2020

The Perth Symphony Orchestra took over the Concert Hall in an eye opening concert which Rosalind Appleby says revealed more than just the naughty side of Mozart.

‘Mozart by Candlelight’, Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 20 October 2020 ·

I’m not sure which was more exciting, hearing violinist Paul Wright make his debut as a viola player, his trademark energy almost erupting from the larger instrument, or witnessing the authoritative delivery of his ex-student, Shaun Lee-Chen (now concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) duetting alongside him. The two were leading the Perth Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 and the energy coming from the stage was incredible.

It was the first time in nine years of operation that the Perth Symphony have performed at the Perth Concert Hall. Partly because of the prohibitive cost but also because founder and CEO Bourby Webster prefers less-traditional venues like parks, warehouses and street corners. The audience flocking in the doors was a lot younger than the usual classical crowd, attracted by the orchestra’s fresh approach to classical music. Candles swathed the stage with golden warmth, there was relaxed cabaret seating plus a screen showing photos of the composers on the set list.

The concert wasn’t just a Mozart tribute, but promised a dive into the hallowed composer’s ‘private’ life. It was also an expose of the lives of classical musicians, drawing on excerpts from Blair Tindall’s reveal-all autobiography about life as a New York oboe player: Mozart in the Jungle, and the TV series it inspired.

The music ranged from 19th century Mannheim to 21st century New York. Mozart’s Horn Concerto K. 412 was a luxuriant opener, the golden warmth of Julian Leslie’s horn matching the glow from the surrounding candles. Leslie captured the poised nobility of this work, and concertmaster Paul Wright led the orchestra with deft vigour.

Two movements from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet K. 70 revealed the composer’s playful side, with Stephanie Nicholls, who has one of the creamiest oboe sounds you are likely to hear, capturing its delicacy and sweetness.

Helen Shanahan sings with members of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo Karen Lowe

Sitting comfortably alongside the 18th century repertoire were works by two contemporary American composers (used in the Mozart in the Jungle TV series). Caroline Shaw’s Is a Rose was sung by folk singer/songwriter Helen Shanahan, her jazz inflected performance potent with emotion, even if her top end was a little thin. Nico Muhly’s Etude for solo viola and electronics was performed by Katie McKay, her grainy viola interjections contrasting with the warm synthesiser sounds, a study in intensity and indifference.

The music was interspersed with commentary: excerpts from Mozart’s letters – ripe with incestuous innuendo and fart jokes – were read with flourish by Stuart Halusz; sections from Tindall’s book described the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll of the New York classical music scene, and PSO musicians shared candid reflections on the music and their connection to it.

It was entertaining and successfully lowered the pedestal on which classical music has been perhaps over-elevated, but there were also a few too many words. Fortunately, the second half balanced this out with two weightier pieces of music. Michael Nyman’s Drowning by Numbers: Trysting Fields is derived from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.364 and it was revealing to hear this work, which contrasts the sweet yearning of the violin with the melancholy of the viola, with the Concertante following immediately after.

In a concert of revelations it was the Concertante that felt most risqué. Two of Australia’s greatest string players shared the stage in a performance that simply sizzled. Paul Wright stepped smoothly from violin to viola soloist (how is that even possible?), playing with a more muscled physicality that injected a thrilling interplay between the two soloists. Lee-Chen (still so familiar from his years tucked away in the violin section of the West Australian Symphony) had stepped in as soloist just three days earlier. Now a musician of immense authority, his performance had an exciting frisson, sometimes attacking, sometimes floating a phrase with silken tenderness.

The shared history between the two gave them an uncommon unity in not just their technical coordination but also their clarity of purpose and the candour of their delivery. Lee-Chen’s gleaming sound danced alongside the darker viola. Their dialogue, supported by the orchestra playing at peak intensity, revealed the beauty and spirituality of Mozart’s music, in stark contrast to the excerpts from his letters.

This was the enigma underpinning this fascinating program; the capacity of humans to produce both the sordid and the sublime. I suspect you won’t find programming this ambitious nor so well delivered, anywhere else in the country. Unsurprisingly, the audience gave a rock star ovation.

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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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