WASO and friends in show of western force

11 October 2022

An evocative evening of orchestral prowess, including a concert-stealing world premiere, impresses Emma Jayakumar.

‘Sibelius’ Second Symphony’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 8 October 2022 ·

It was clear from the outset, as the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) delivered a warm and stirring performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, that the audience was in for something special.

Delicate solos from Allan Meyer (clarinet), concert master Laurence Jackson and associate concert master Riley Skevington (violins) led to a rousing finale, with graceful and fluid leadership from Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen.

But it was the world premiere of Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s six-movement orchestral song cycle Ave Maria that stole the penultimate concert in the 2022 MACA Classics Series.

Commissioned for WASO by Dr Paul Rodoreda in memory of his mother Mary, this emotive work established the composer’s signature hauntingly beautiful tonal language from the opening movement, “Ballina”. 

It was engaging, often highly moving, and frequently swoon-worthy. Accomplished soloists Sara Macliver (soprano) and Fiona Campbell (mezzo-soprano) complemented each other beautifully, with impeccable intonation and clarity. Textual and musical call and response sections from the singers floating over the top of strings, xylophone, harp and woodwinds were very effectively rendered, if a little hard to hear at times as the density of orchestral forces increased. 

Three elegantly dressed women stand holding hands, arms raised toward an audience, an orchestra smiling behind them. They are singer Sara MacIver, composer Elena Kats-Chernin and singer Emma Campbell.
Sarah Macliver, composer Elena Kats-Chernin and Fiona Campbell take a bow. Photo: Adrian Thomson

The second movement, “A Life Travelled”, showed the strength of those forces, stirring in a challenging meter, with fetching moments of soprano popping out through denser textures.

Sparser orchestral forces in the third movement, “Bird on the Bench”, produced a better balance between voices and orchestra, with a charming staccato-laden vocalisation reminiscent of Kats-Chernin’s appealing “Eliza Aria” from Wild Swans. Campbell skilfully negotiated an arduously low opening section of the fourth movement, “Ave Maria”, giving way to mesmerising chant-like passages of repeated text with a luminous Macliver. 

The fifth movement, “Share Wisdom”, displayed genuinely gorgeous moments of textual and musical clarity, with a repetitive trope trance-like in its simplicity. A joyous and buoyant final movement, “Thank you for the Memories”, evoked the opening call and response theme of “Ballina”, receiving rapturous applause from the audience. The composer, in Perth for the premiere, graciously accepted multiple bows. 

From the opening lush string chords of Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony, conducted skilfully from memory by Inkinen, it’s difficult not to imagine pastoral landscapes with the expansive motivic ideas beautifully interpreted by strings and brass. But, firstly, kudos to the impressive and energetic Alex Timcke, whose timpani mastery was on display throughout the entire symphony.

A conductor with his back to the camera raises his baton to the orchestra, musicians concentrating on their instruments. It is conductor Pietar Inkinen with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Led by Pietari Inkinen, WASO was firing on all cylinders. Photo: Adrian Thomson

WASO’s consummate use of a full dynamic palette was masterfully employed in the first movement, with some wonderful meaty low brass passages, horn lushness and spritely woodwind interjections.

The second movement, with its pizzicato low strings and bassoon solos, was uniformly excellent. Moments of exquisite pianissimo playing alternated wonderfully with bombastic sections of development. The disparate musical ideas of the second movement challenged me as a listener, but WASO remained laser-focused on the task, repeatedly drawing me back into the action.

The frenetic string opening of the third movement gave way to woodwind solo loveliness from Kyeong Ham (oboe), Andrew Nicholson (flute), Allan Meyer and Alexandra Thomson (clarinets), and Rod McGrath (cello), accompanied skilfully by the horn section. These moments were beautifully executed. 

I adored the final movement’s fantastically expansive theme. The three feverish minutes of the finale reminded us all of the supreme power of an orchestra firing on all cylinders. The engrossing wash of sound across the concert hall was thrilling to behold. And the audience wholeheartedly agreed.

Organ Grandeur, the final in the 2022 MACA Classics Series, is at Perth Concert Hall 25-26 November.

Pictured top: Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen led WASO to a powerhouse finish. Photo: Adrian Thomson

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Author —
Emma Jayakumar

Emma Jayakumar is an Australian composer and librettist whose recent major works include commissions for West Australian Opera, the ABC, Darwin Symphony Orchestra, Awesome Arts, West Australian Ballet and Music Book. Emma is an advocate for accessible works for young audiences, as well as new music celebrating diverse Australian voices.

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    Choral leader and conductor Joseph Nolan tackles some of the most challenging and virtuosic organ music with flair, giving the audience a rare view into the process, writes Emma Jayakumar.

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