Orchestral magnificence

13 September 2021

Asher Fisch and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra demonstrate the delicacy and power of symphonic music, says Rosalind Appleby.

“Power and Passion”, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 11 September 2021 ·

It’s a remarkable beast, the orchestra. It can sound colossal and then moments later exquisitely intimate; ferocious and also tender. But it requires immense discipline and courage from both conductor and orchestra to achieve that unity and flexibility.

On Saturday night the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Asher Fisch seemed to have this synergy, perhaps the result of four weeks of performing together (including a regional tour to the Great Southern).

When the concert opens with a “Suite” from Wagner’s opera Die Mastersinger von Nurmberg, I am immediately surprised by the understated brass playing – normally front and centre in Wagner. But Fisch opts for a contained radiance which allows the strings to showcase their voluminous, glistening sound.

Meistersinger is the most traditional of Wagner’s operas, rich with references to 16th century musical styles. The opera’s themes ruminate philosophically before building in layers of counterpoint to a moment of magisterial clarity. But Fisch is not feeling indulgent and Wagner’s romanticism is resolved in a briskly refined conclusion.

Asher Fisch stands with the orchestra to acknowledge the applause on Saturday night. Photo Linda Dunjey

The orchestra is joined by Sydney violinist Grace Clifford, a late addition to the program, replacing Jayson Gillham who couldn’t make it across the border from Victoria. Clifford, who has been soloist for the past two weeks with the orchestra, was able to extend her trip and join the orchestra to perform Chausson’s Poeme, bringing a delicate French counterpoint to balance the German and Russian works on the program.

The violin concerto, written by the introspective Chausson (who was also a painter and writer), is one moody, rhapsodic movement, an evocation of poetry, perfumes and colours. Clifford plays Chausson’s long unfolding phrases with fragility but also potency. The orchestra seem to respond intuitively, weaving around her with hints of birdsong and waltzes. It is intimate, melancholic music, often featuring just the solo violin, with climaxes much more subtle and fleeting than Wagner. Eventually the wispy trills echoing between Chausson and the orchestra dissolve into a final shimmering chord.

After interval is Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1937 and shaped by the political and social upheaval of Socialist Russia. Shostakovich was writing to save his life, adopting a neoclassical, more accessible style, brimming with heroic optimism, that he hoped would appease the Soviet Party. But with Fisch at the helm of an instinctively alert orchestra, the deeper layers of this Symphony are revealed. There is no rounded warmth to the brass here; they blaze with a vicious militarism in the first movement, while the strings have an eerie iciness.

The folk dances of the second movement provide a brief relief – the cameo pairing the lumbering contrabassoon with pizzicato strings unfolds with Charlie Chaplin-esque slapstick. The intensity returns for the slow third movement, with its lamenting echoes of the Orthodox liturgy. The strings divide into different parts creating a dense wail of sound. This contrasts with the solos from individual string and woodwind players, plaintive utterances like anguished prayers. Fisch coaxes his players even softer and darker until all that remains are ghostly harp droplets, disappearing like vapour.

It is a profound moment, over too soon. Fisch barely pauses for breath, launching into the blazing opening of the fourth movement, its brittle triumphalism like a kick in the stomach. Shrill, egotistic and very fast, Fisch drives the work to its grimly proud close. The relentless commitment of the orchestra is breathtaking, and the audience roars approval. We had witnessed courage, discipline and the magnificence of symphonic music making at its best.

Asher Fisch returns to Perth in November to conduct two concert programs with WASO.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch directs the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in a stirring performance. Photo Linda Dunjey

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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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