Orchestra rises to utopian vision

21 June 2021

Willy Wonka takes a trip to utopia in a concert by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra that entrances both young and old, writes Rosalind Appleby.

‘Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 18 June 2021 ·

Everyone loves a good theme and variations. It’s a musical form that is easy to follow with the theme spelled out clearly followed by sections where the composer employs all kinds of tricks to disguise and distort the tune almost beyond recognition. 

It’s not dissimilar to life in COVID times, with its recurring themes we are now all-too familiar with: lockdowns, zoom, hand sanitiser, reprieve, repeat.

However life in Western Australia at the moment is close to normal, so much so that the WA Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor Asher Fisch has arrived from Germany via quarantine for three weeks of concerts. His first concert featured two examples of theme and variations form by English composer Benjamin Britten, who was a master of the musical form.

It was fascinating to compare the two works as they were played alongside each other. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is for a small string orchestra, built around a terse violin tune, underscored by acerbic harmonies. On Friday night the orchestra relished the galloping energy of the ‘March’, and the merry Rossinian strumming of the cellos and violas in ‘Aria Italiana’ contrasted well with the reverential stillness of ‘Chant’.

a man in a top hat holds a microphone as he stands next to three horn players
Iain Grandage introduces the horn section of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is based on a regal, triumphant theme by Purcell, with variations vividly showcasing the different sections of the orchestra. It is usually performed with a narrator to introduce the instruments and in this case it was Iain Grandage took on the role, resplendent in top hat and scurrying around the orchestra with a Willy Wonka-like enthusiasm.

Grandage’s personalised script begins with a nod to the universal nature of music-making, pausing for an acknowledgement of country, before narrowing the focus, as Britten does, to the unique individuality of each instrument on stage. There is poetry as he describes the violas playing “dark swathes of warm glory” and humour when he explains the horn: “metres and metres of tube going around and piles and piles of goob on the ground”. At one point Grandage holds Fisch’s baton arm aloft, declaring it “the stick that makes no noise… says nothing but speaks for many”. Around him the orchestral players, maintaining impressive focus, deliver solo snapshots sparkling with precision and intensity.

There was a sense in the final fugue section of the players rising to the occasion to fulfil Grandage’s utopian vision of different parts, all equal, working together. The fugue grew with exciting complexity as each section joined, and then rising from within like a Phoenix was the magnificent Purcell theme, in a display of breathtaking talent and unity.

The “young people” in attendance with me were entranced. One child fell in love with the string bass for its “dark and powerful” sound, the other was captivated in turn by the harp, flute, clarinet, violin and couldn’t choose a favourite.

The scene was set beautifully for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony after interval, our ears alert to pick out the instrumental solos that bring so much of the colour to this sunny symphony. The Pastoral is a long-time favourite of mine, but even so, I was struck by how fresh it sounded under Fisch, with his impeccably buoyant classical phrasing. In the first movement, “The awakening of happy feelings on arrival in the country”, the delicate poise Fisch allowed between phrases gave a sense of delighted wonder.

 In the third movement the incongruous balance of elegance and bawdiness played out wonderfully, and there was no escaping the anguish of the stormy fourth movement. “It showed emotion more than any other concert”, my ten-year-old observed, “I heard the emotion, anger and discouragement.”

Throughout the symphony the musicians were imperceptibly adapting to match each other, breathing and surging forward in an inspiring demonstration of unity in diversity. As Britten, Beethoven and many other composers have discovered, the orchestra can demonstrate humanity at its inclusive best.

Asher Fisch’s next concert with WASO is ‘Brahms’ German Requiem’, 25-26 June 2021.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch returns to the podium with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

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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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