Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Perth Symphony Orchestra – varied take on classic local tale

20 February 2022

Perth Symphony Orchestra’s innovative program and talented soloists recount Rockingham’s role in an iconic story of escape on the high seas, writes Claire Coleman.

“Symphony on the Green”, featuring Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
Village Green, Rockingham, 19 February 2022 ·

There’s a festival atmosphere in the air at Rockingham’s Village Green, where locals and visitors of all ages are gathered to see Perth Symphony Orchestra’s “Symphony on the Green” as part of Perth Festival’s free community event series.

Before PSO arrives, we are treated to some upbeat tango music from Danilo da Paz and Perth Choro, as kids zoom around picknickers on pathways invisible to the adult eye. Family members look on, trying to judge whether calamity is nigh or if they can relax and enjoy the music and the sea breeze. 

Irish-Australian Brian Dalton follows, performing some of his own folk-influenced originals in duo format with Jason Snook on mandolin, and foreshadowing the Celtic links to come.

PSO takes to the stage, with an introduction by MC Bronwyn Ife to the adventurous tale of the Catalpa rescue, around which the evening’s repertoire has been programmed.

The Catalpa was a merchant ship, hired in 1876 as the getaway vehicle for six Irish Fenian convicts busting out of Fremantle Prison. Escaping on ponyback, the Fenians met the Catalpa off the coast of Rockingham, evading the governor and the Royal Navy despite a storm breaking the Catalpa’s mast. Ife drip feeds us the story, nestled among illustrative musical works.

An image of Perth Symphony Orchestra, pictured a conductor stands raised before string players.
Conductor Craig Dalton and PSO players. Photo: Corey James

The opening premiere of Sing Me Back, commissioned from Dr Richard Walley for this concert, links the story of these incarcerated Irishmen to First Nations prisoners. Both are desperately homesick victims of the colonial “justice” system, although the Noongar prisoners lack the luxury of influential friends that allowed the Fenians to escape. 

Like its subject matter, the performance serves as a meeting point between cultures, with Walley (didgeridoo), Rickeeta Walley (vocals in English and language) and Fiona Rea (vocals and guitar) accompanied by a lush backing from PSO, orchestrated by Niels Rosendahl. “Sing Me Back” is among the evening’s highlights, along with Walley’s solo performance of “Mamong (the Whale)”, arranged by Iain Grandage, which has dozens of captivated kids gripping barrier at the front of stage and looking on in awe.

Special mention also goes to local composer Jonathon Yang, whose work Cartographer’s Expedition creates an adventurous sense of voyaging with cross rhythmic patterns, and a spotlight on the superb PSO woodwinds. Conductor Craig Dalton’s precise approach suits the work’s cinematic scope.

Other familiar tunes elaborate on the evening’s oceanic themes, including excerpts from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack and “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, sung by PSO trumpeter Mark Underwood. Morgan Cowling’s rendition of the overdone “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic was excellent, and won over the audience despite some initial winces.

Escape-themed songs round out the narrative, including Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” sung by Dunsborough high school student Sofia Watt, plus The Doors’ “Break on Through” and Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock”, both with singing and snappy dance moves by Salvatore Di Criscito. 

Mozart’s duettino “Sull’aria”, which featured in a key prison scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, is well executed by sopranos Daniella Sicari and Jesse Chester Browne.

Some of the other programming draws a longer bow, such as the themes from Black Beauty or The Pink Panther. It would have been great to see some of the repertoire more targeted to the many children in the audience, since none of the “popular” music on the program was less than 25 years old.

Regardless, “Symphony on the Green” has the broad appeal of events such as Sydney’s Carols in the Domain, with the rich offerings of the orchestra alongside a cast of talented soloists. 

Building the program around local history proves an effective way for PSO to connect with the community, and drawing repertoire from various musical traditions ensures rock fans, folk traditionalists and classical buffs alike go home happy.

Perth Symphony Orchestra has another free performance, Symphony under the Stars, presented by Perth Festival and the City of Wanneroo in Yanchep on 26 February 2022. 

Pictured top: Richard Walley on didgeridoo. Photo by Corey James

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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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