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Reviews/Music

Young guns debut with orchestra

10 May 2021

Two emerging Australian talents join the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for a performance Claire Coleman says was well prepared and coolly controlled.

Fantasy, Tragedy and Passion”, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 8 May 2021 ·

It was a masked crowd that assembled at Perth Concert Hall for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance “Fantasy, Tragedy and Passion” on 8 May. Faces are a big part of emotional communication, and there was a strange irony in attending a performance promising big drama while wearing something that limits your own ability to show feelings. Performers, thankfully, are exempt from masks, so we strapped ourselves in for an evening of vicarious spectacle.

The program opened with a short and spicy fanfare by Carl Vine. Titled V, the work foregrounds the brass section, as a fanfare should, but rather than neglecting the rest of the orchestra it adopts a conversational style. The grand and spacious opening statement from WASO’s brass, whose tonal richness perfectly articulated the Copland-style depth in Vine’s chord voicing, was met with a stately response from the strings and woodwind. A short, bouncy solo from associate concertmaster, Riley Skevington, rounded out the work and was a welcome foregrounding of the emerging Australian talent on display in the next piece.

Harry Bennetts was the soloist for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, having recently returned home to take up the position of Associate Concertmaster with the Sydney Symphony, after what he described in the post-concert artist interview as a “formative” period with Berlin Philharmoniker’s Karajan academy.

Bennetts’ performance exploited what he calls the “dark and sexy” tones of the 1716 Grancini violin he plays, and featured a wide vibrato suitable to early Romantic works such as this. Mendelssohn famously claimed the first movement’s opening gave him “no peace” during its composition, and Bennetts captured the restlessness of this familiar melody well.

A man with a baton in his  upraised hand stands facing an orchestra of musicians
Associate Conductor Thaddeus Huang conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied

WASO’s Associate Conductor Thaddeus Huang led the orchestra with particular sensitively in the soft moments of the first movement, and Huang and Bennetts’ connection seemed at its best in these artfully controlled moments. Elsewhere communication between the two seemed a little uncertain, which led to momentary tempo instability in the third movement.

Throughout the performance, Bennetts’ technical security was on point. In his encore, J.S. Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondo” from Violin Partita no. 3, Bennetts demonstrated a particular skill at balancing contrapuntal voices. But for a concert predicated on passion Bennetts was not particularly flamboyant. The Mendelssohn concerto also calls for a slightly smaller orchestra than the Vine, and the sudden removal of the low brass after their sparkle in the evening’s overture was felt as a lack in the second work, making for an oddly reserved journey towards the interval. Nevertheless, the audience were rapturous in their applause and the work was extremely well received.

The second half of the program promised spectacle in the form of Bizet and Tchaikovsky, and it delivered. Huang made more of the dramatic shifts inherent in both works and cut a showy figure.

The five short, contrasting movements in Bizet’s Carmen Suite no.1 draw on the orchestral music from the well known opera, and retain all the Spanish-styled flair of the original. Regimented tambourine figures contrasted with sinuous lines from the oboe in the “Aragonaise”. Flute and harp solos in the “Intermezzo” brought calm, and the mood remained understated in the cute “Les dragons d’Alcala”. Huang pressed the tempo for a flashy finish to the work in “Les Toreadors”.

Tchaikovsky’s well known musical narration of Romeo and Juliet, styled as a “Fantasy Overture”, is always a whimsical and sensory listening experience. Huang’s orderly approach fed the action in the sections depicting conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, and the instantly recognisable love theme was a luscious way to usher the evening to a close.

While it was a delight to view a program showcasing some of the fine talent Australia has recently produced, the evening would not have passed the musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test. Males were in every spotlit position: all four composers, plus the concertmaster, soloist, and conductor. Some readers may consider such an observation a cheap shot, especially given that the gender split in the orchestra itself is almost exactly 50/50, but even within the restrictions of COVID 2021, state-funded arts bodies should be trying to make space for women to also express experiences that are fantastic, tragic and passionate.

WASO’s next concert is “Latin Fiesta!” on 27 May 2021.

Pictured top: Harry Bennetts as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with conductor Thaddeus Huang and the WA Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied

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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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