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Reviews/Music

Deep roots and musical connections

31 May 2021

Musicians of the West Australian Youth Orchestra bring grandeur to Nunggubuyu song and Mahler symphony, writes Claire Coleman.

Spirit”, Western Australian Youth Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 30 May 2021 ·

The Western Australian Youth Orchestra dynasty has been part of Perth’s classical music landscape since 1974. The self-described “family” of ensembles create performance opportunities for 12-24 year old developing musicians and this sense of family permeated their performance of Spirit, featuring their most senior orchestra WAYO.

The tone of familiarity is established at the outset with a warm Welcome to Country by Phil Walleystack. Walleystack describes the songline connections between the Noongar land we sit on and the Numbulwar community in the Northern Territory, where the evening’s soloist Don Nunggarrgalu hails from.

Nunggarrgalu sings and plays the the lambirlpil (didgeridoo) in Yuwani, a piece based on a traditional Numbulwar song. Yuwani was created in 2019 in collaboration with WA composer Lachlan Skipworth, involving iPhone recordings in the backseat of hire cars, campfire performances, and studio jams. In the video preceding the work, Skipworth describes approaching the orchestral scoring with a “lightness of touch”. The results are goosebump inducing, blending the original song’s flexible rhythmic and harmonic language with the tonal palette of the Western orchestra.

A man wearing a cap plays the lambirlpil (didgeridoo) in front of a youth orchestra, with a conductor on the podium.
Don Nunggarrgalu with the Western Australian Youth Orchestra and conductor Jon Tooby. Photo: Andrew J. Clarke

Yuwani begins with a kind of verse-chorus structure, and each time a theme returns the orchestration is fuller and more complex. WAYO’s execution of the work’s increasing intensity is flawless. When Nunggarrgalu sings, he rests one hand on the microphone stand and the other on his heart, tapping his foot where the vocal rhythms sync up with timpani and bass drum. A whirling instrumental including some call-and-response style writing between Nunggarrgalu’s lambirlpil and the strings is brought to a close with the return of the vocal.

In Yuwani’s final climax, the orchestra meets Nunggarrgalu at the top of his range and volume, in a moment that feels simultaneously empty and full, making me think of loss and restoration, and tightly connecting soloist, orchestra, conductor, composer, audience, Noongar and Numbulwar communities.

After interval the orchestra return with conductor Jon Tooby, himself a WAYO alumni, to perform Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 6. The symphony clocks in at 80 minutes, a taxing ask of even seasoned players, but there is no doubt that WAYO is up to the task.

Two things were notable during the Mahler. The first is that Mahler loves drama. If you’re not convinced of this by the massive 120 piece orchestra, the extensive use of mutes for tonal play, the theatrical “bells up” moments in brass and woodwind, or the off-stage cowbells emulating pastoral scenes, then the arrival in the final movement of a percussionist using a giant wooden mallet to convey the hammer blow of fate alleviates any remaining uncertainty. The orchestra met Mahler’s dramatic needs with speed and control, fierceness and weightiness, lyricism and power.

The second notable thing is this: WAYO is earnest about conveying Mahler’s grand design. You can see it in the triangle player’s poise, counting the 56th of their 57 bars of rest, alert and prepared for their entry. You notice it when the first desk French Horn purses their embouchure extra tightly so they don’t split the high note in an exposed solo. You sense it when the violins sit a little straighter in their seats, determined to nail the intonation for that tricky semiquaver run in third position.

Best of all, you feel it in the air as Tooby raises his baton and is mirrored in a unison of perfect connection by the timpanist’s rising sticks, the opening of the crash cymbals, the lifting of that massive mallet, and a collective intake of breath as every member of both orchestra and audience prepares for the arrival of those big, fateful hits.

In an adult orchestra this ardor might be politely hidden, but at WAYO it is a delight to be reminded that music like tonight’s repertoire is technical and complex. It requires skill and effort. For current WAYO members, for alumni like Tooby, for new classical composers like Skipworth, and First Nations people keeping culture alive, it is the work of a lifetime.

The WA Youth Orchestra’s next performance is “Rite and Revolution”, 10 July 2021.

Pictured top: Lachlan Skipworth, Don Nunggarrgalu and Jon Tooby share the stage in front of the WA Youth Orchestra. Photo: Andrew J. Clarke

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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