Orchestra busts barriers with smashing time

13 November 2022

If Mahler or Metallica require it, a chamber-sized version of Perth Symphony Orchestra is ready to get heavy, writes Claire Coleman.

‘Mahler, Merlot, Meatballs … And Metallica’, Perth Symphony Orchestra  •
Perth Mess Hall, 11 November 2022 •

Programming Metallica alongside Mahler might seem like an odd choice, but Perth Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Mahler, Merlot, Meatballs … and Metallica” shows that divisions between “popular” and “classical” music are not so clear cut. 

With PSO in chamber formation, neither of its headline items is played with the composers’ intended instrumentation. 

Mahler’s gigantic symphony orchestra is reduced to just 16 players in British composer Iain Farrington’s arrangement of the Fourth Symphony

Farrington is not the first to imagine Mahler on a more intimate scale. Like Stein’s 1921 arrangement, this version brings to the spotlight individual musicians and motifs that might go unnoticed in the full orchestra. Balance can be an issue in such a set-up, and PSO’s robust four-piece woodwind and brass sections have to work hard not to overpower the temperate five-piece strings in the first movement’s development section. 

A woman clad in an orange gown, hair elegantly arranged, stands at a lectern, smiling. Behind her a group of musicians holding various instruments concentrate. This is soprano Rachelle Durkin with members of Perth Symphony Orchestra.
Rachelle Durkin lends a suitably childish curiosity to Mahler’s ‘Das himmlische Leben’. Photo: Callen Dellar

The ensemble is joined in the fourth movement by WA-born, NYC trained soprano Rachelle Durkin, whose performance of “Das himmlische Leben” is neat, but still suitably characterised by childish curiosity. 

Under the highly capable baton of Sara Duhig, a graduate of PSO’s Women on the Podium program, the ensemble creates a distillation with all the grandiosity of Mahler’s Fourth in concentrated miniature. The audience drinks it up like cordial. 

Metallica share Mahler’s penchant for extravagance. Ahead of the first song, “Master of Puppets”, violist Christian Read describes his own teenage attraction to the band’s “rich and powerful sound world”, revealing a Metallica t-shirt worn under his concert blacks, and asking the audience (as lead guitarist James Hetfield is known to do): “Perth, do you want to get heavy?!”  

In a marriage of two equals, arranger Emily Gelineau captures the aggression and energy conventional to thrash metal, translating it to string quartet using writing techniques idiosyncratic to strings, such as busy tremolo and stompy double stopping. The quartet themselves lean in with a bombastic performance.  

A woman dressed in black has her arms stretched out, one hand holding a baton, facing musicians. An audience cast in red light can be seen in the background. It is Sara Duhig, conducting Perth Symphony Orchestra
Women on the Podium graduate Sara Duhig directs Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Callen Dellar

Oboist Stephanie Nicholls reveals her own passion for Metallica while introducing her arrangement of “Nothing Else Matters” for wind quintet plus double bass and percussion. The ensemble is predictably superb, and the arrangement succeeds where it adopts the promised folk-inflected style. More licence could have been taken with the material to better play to the strength of the quintet. The tinny cajon plus small ride and crash cymbals, though played expertly by Paul Tanner, fail to capture the essence of Lars Ulrich’s massive, driving drumming and feel a little monotonous. Coupled with a directive to the audience to wave their lit phones in time to the music, the overall outcome was a little too kitsch for my taste.  

Around these headline items, recent WAAPA graduate Klearhos Murphy’s new work Perennial marks him as a composer to watch. The folk-style melody is first stated delicately on harp by Kira Gunn, then, with clarity of intention, Murphy transforms it harmonically and texturally as it passes around the ensemble. Though it feels like it’s leading to a climactic hymn-like statement, Murphy chooses subtlety and eschews so obvious a compositional turn. 

Elsewhere winds and brass take turns in the spotlight. Tricky “Afro” from Valerie Coleman’s Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet is elegantly handled by the winds. Poulenc’s Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone is slightly upstaged by trombonist Kieran Hurley’s extremely funny critique of society’s general nonchalance towards brass trios. 

With classically trained musicians rhapsodising their love of Metallica and long-haired metalheads giving Mahler a devil’s horn salute, PSO’s programming shows that perceived divisions between popular and classical music might be kind of a myth. Judging by the audience’s rapturous responses throughout, they did indeed want to get heavy. 

PSO’s next performance is The Snowman at Scotch College, 10-11 December 2022. 

Pictured top: Perth Symphony Orchestra’s combination of Mahler and Metallica was rapturously received at Perth Mess Hall. Photo: Callen Dellar

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

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.

Past Articles

  • Baroque tour of Europe one to savour

    French in name only, Telemann’s ‘Paris Quartets’ offer a suite of European flavours. Australian Baroque charms Claire Coleman with a polished performance.

  • Vanguards bring poetry to vocal music

    Armchair poets become legends in their own lunchtimes in Vanguard Consort’s imaginative Saturday Night Poetry, writes Claire Coleman.

Read Next

  • Just what the doctor ordered

    Just what the doctor ordered

    29 September 2023

    Dr AudiYO uses vocal gymnastics to take the audience on a fun adventure. Junior reviewers Jackson and Chloe Davis are happy to take this prescription. 

    Reading time • 3 minutesTheatre
  • Seadragon weaves magic spell

    Seadragon weaves magic spell

    28 September 2023

    The Magical Weedy Seadragon enchants junior reviewer Isabel Greentree with a winning blend of story, song and humour.   

    Reading time • 4 minutesMulti-arts
  • Lifting the weight of the world

    Lifting the weight of the world

    28 September 2023

    Junior reviewers Jackson and Chloe Davis are taken on a thoughtful and funny journey to the Moon with one overwhelmed girl.

    Reading time • 4 minutesTheatre

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio