Heroic women in hefty concert

12 April 2021

Wonder woman Claire Edwardes was the star of the night with a monumental performance with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. And Tiffany Ha says there’s room for plenty more classical music heroines.

‘Dances, Devils and Arabian Nights’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 9 April 2021 ·

The title of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s concert over the weekend struck me as a strategic marketing choice: “Dances, Devils and Arabian Nights” is sexy and click-baity and gives off the kind of vibe that might entice under-30s and couples on a date night. In fact the title undersold the program, which contained two hefty musical works tied together by the through-line of, in the words of composer Iain Grandage: “what a single woman can do against a hostile world.”

Grandage’s percussion concerto, Dances with Devils, is a four movement work inspired by women from the 19th century Australian gothic literary tradition. First performed in 2015, the concerto is a true collaboration between the composer and soloist Claire Edwardes. After witnessing Friday night’s performance I could not imagine anyone else performing such a monumental, idiosyncratic piece. Edwardes was like the wonder woman of percussion, transitioning effortlessly between thunderous bass drum and tom rolls, to clacking, hoof-like woodblock textures, to intricate marimba patterns, often changing instruments mid-phrase.

A man onstage wearing a 3-piece suit holds a microphone, flanked by cello players from the orchestra behind him
Iain Grandage introduces his percussion concerto before its West Australian premiere. Photo supplied

I was deeply moved by the concerto’s second movement, which is based on Edward Dyson’s story about a woman in the bush who, driven mad by isolation and incessant bird sounds, drowns herself and her child. Edwardes embodied the helplessness of the story’s heroine by literally chaining herself to her instrument – a metal frame on which two cylindrical chimes were suspended by pulleys. The chimes were submerged into sheaths of water to produce an eerie, synth-like pitch-bend. This, in combination with disquieting, staggered string glissandi, yearning oboe passages and twinkling, metallic xylophone painted a scene that felt surreal, dreamy and very noir; like listening to a modern take on a Hitchcock score.

The final two movements were a whirlwind of musical ideas: ghostly bowed wine glasses were juxtaposed with machine-like mallet rhythms, flowing into sparse, quiet string-laden textures which abruptly launched into a tango interlude. Then, before we knew it, we were swept away by the rollicking tarantella of the final movement. The endless variety of melodic material, texture and timbre felt overwhelming at times, but the work remained unified and coherent, thanks to Edwardes’ virtuosic agility and WASO’s professionalism under the very capable baton of Benjamin Northey.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for the night, we still had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade to come. I can see why it was programmed with Grandage’s concerto – the two works are thematically related and scored for similar instrumentation – but this was a lot to take in for one night, like eating two main courses or seeing a double feature at the cinema.

It seemed like the audience still had an appetite though, and the orchestra pulled out all the stops for a dynamic, thrilling performance of the 47-minute work. Northey was confident and compelling; he steered the orchestra with impressive control through tricky transitions and tempo changes, never losing momentum. The brass-driven climax in the fourth movement was like being engulfed by a tidal wave. It was a joy to see so many of the orchestra’s principal players showcased in the work’s numerous solo passages. Concertmaster Laurence Jackson and guest harpist Yi-Yun Loei gave a sumptuous, lyrical rendition of the recurring violin and harp theme, evoking the narrator and heroine of The Thousand and One Nights, the Sultana Scheherazade, who escapes the grim fate of many women before her by way of her ingenuity and resourcefulness.

I hate to say it’s refreshing to see examples of heroic women – agents of power and desire, creators in their own right – simply because it’s 2021 and this should not feel like such a novelty. But alas, here we are, applauding vigorously to express our approval, in the hopes that we can persuade institutions who seem so anxiously attached to the traditional classical canon – one in which women were repeatedly side-lined – that it’s okay to let go. This is a promising start, but to wax lyrical about women’s stories and women’s voices without a single piece written by a woman in sight? We can do better.

Pictured top: Claire Edwardes plays toms and marimba in the opening movement of Iain Grandage’s percussion concerto, supported by conductor Benjamin Northey and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. 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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