WA’s musical richness on display

10 March 2021

Perth Festival’s second chamber music concert highlights the extraordinary talent of Western Australian musicians in a concert of intimacy and magnitude, writes Rosalind Appleby.

One & Many: Shaun Lee-Chen and the St George’s Cathedral Consort, Perth Festival ·
Hackett Hall, WA Museum Boola Bardip, 9 March 2021 ·

When violinist Shaun Lee-Chen began playing Bach’s “Partita No 2 in D minor” in Hackett Hall on Tuesday evening he seemed dwarfed by the building and the enormous blue whale skeleton hanging over our heads. At the same time the reverberant acoustics of the space meant we could hear with great intimacy the smallest inflection of bow on string.

Lee-Chen is concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and one of Australia’s leading exponents of historically informed violin performance. His compelling performance drew us into a work considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of Bach’s string repertoire with its mix of tenderness and esoteric coolness.

The Allemanda movement floated over us with its stately tread and the Corrente skipped by with delightfully light bowing. Lee-Chen teased our ears by stretching the phrases, some sections hesitant and others rushing towards a cadence point with firm confidence. The Sarabanda was particularly soulful, and the furiously fast Giga crackled with virtuosity.

Over the past two decades new musicological research has suggested the Partita’s final Ciaconna (Chaconne) movement is a memorial to Bach’s wife, crammed with hidden references to Bach’s sacred works such as the “Cantata No 4” which meditates on death. University of Düsseldorf Professor Helga Thoene has gone so far as to overlay excerpts of this choral music onto the Ciaconna to highlight the references, and it was this version that Lee-Chen performed with the St George’s Cathedral Consort.

The addition of the voices gives the Ciaconna a more sombre tone and heightens the dissonance in Bach’s lines. In many cases the chorale melodies are truncated or rhythmically distorted beyond recognition, which makes me suspect that if Bach had wanted the references to be obvious, he would’ve done a far better job highlighting them himself!

A photo from the back of Hackett Hall, at the tail end of the whale skeleton, showing the audience watching the show.
The blue whale skeleton did not dwarf the acoustics of Shaun Lee-Chen’s violin. Photo: Cam Campbell

Whether you subscribe to Thoene’s theory or not, it is an interesting idea and set the scene for the works which followed in this carefully compiled program.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and John Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God also pay tribute to a significant woman and mother. The Consort singers under conductor Joseph Nolan shone in these works – you would be hard pressed to find better performances anywhere in the world. Their clean, uniform sound lent a sweet purity to the chant-like opening of the Magnificat, before widening into reverberant harmony that swarmed richly around the hall. In the contrasting sections of Tavener’s Hymn I saw a glimpse of Nolan the organist, drawing a reedy sound from his singers in the weaving layers of the opening, before (metaphorically) swapping to a flute stop for the softer sections.

Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia was a highlight with its folk-inflected solo lines, consonant harmonies and transparent joyfulness. Like a choir of angels, my guest whispered in awe.

This is the second “One & Many” chamber music concert as part of the Festival and it included, as did the first, the premiere of a new work inspired by the whale. If only all classical music concerts included a new commission!

Tura New Music commissioned Lydia Gardiner’s The Whale and I, which reunited Lee-Chen with the Consort. Gardiner is one of the vocalists from the Consort and her appreciation of harmonies makes this work a gem. The gently declaimed text (poetry by Caitlyn Stone) describes being safe in the belly of the whale, and as the choir intones the words the violin provides a rolling ostinato accompaniment. Gardiner uses whispers and other vocal techniques to good effect while in the background the violin cries the whale song. Her soft, intricate music with its echoes of maternal imagery was a calming end to this thought-provoking program.

Pictured top are Shaun Lee-Chen and St George’s Cathedral Consort. Photo: Cam Campbell

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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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