Fisch’s big gamble richly rewarding

27 May 2023

The orchestra is huge and so is the music. Bourby Webster revels in the masterful direction of two of opera’s greatest composers and welcomes the next generation to the stage.  

Asher Fisch conducts Die Walküre,
West Australian Symphony Orchestra  
Perth Concert Hall, 26 May 2023 

I always get a buzz walking into the concert hall to hear WASO: the sea of music stands, the glint of percussion, the red velvet seats and carpet, people smiling, musicians tuning. This time, seeing the stage absolutely bursting with not one but two sets of timpani drums, every square metre covered in chairs and stands, my tummy jumps in anticipation. 

The first half of the program is a Verdi banquet. Having performed Otello with Birmingham Opera in 2009, I fell in love with the drama, passion and skill of this composer, able to draw pictures in the air with his beautifully crafted melodies, evoking intense and immediate responses.  

Programming four operatic overtures back-to-back is a rare move, and the result is stunning. The rollercoaster journey all stems from principal conductor and artistic director Asher Fisch, whose influence and impact on WASO cannot be overstated.  

Fisch’s impact on WASO can not be overstated. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

I Vespri Siciliani: Overture is regarded as one of Verdi’s best with good reason. It’s grand, expansive, expressive, and instantly attention grabbing. It’s a wonderful way to open the program. The richness of the orchestra (in part due to the enormous string section) instantly hits me. 

Fisch – who knows his repertoire so well there’s no score or music stand in sight – addresses the audience after the opening work, an engaging and endearing touch. He explains his intention to showcase two of opera’s greatest composers side by side, but also to give emerging orchestral musicians a rare opportunity to play an entire act of a Wagner opera. Fisch asks the 18 musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) to stand to be acknowledged. I am struck that such a large percentage of some sections, specifically brass, are students. With works such as this, they will surely be tested tonight. 

We are then treated to Aida: Prelude, La Traviata: Prelude to Act 1 and La Forza del Destino: Overture. Fisch’s request for no applause in between is respected. The energy coming from the orchestra, so critical to bringing Verdi’s music to life, positively radiates from the stage. In the Aida Prelude the strings are frequently ‘divisi’, with only a few players to a part. Intonation and timing issues could be exposed here, but there are none.  In the prelude to La Traviata, Fisch steps back from the cello section, allowing them to shine, Eve Silver’s solo exquisite. The overture from La Forza del Destino, so frequently used in films due to its soaring melodies and emotional power, is superb. 

Stefanie Irányi and Warick Fyfe perform Die Walküre. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

After the interval the orchestra swells to its full complement. It’s an enormous beast to behold. Soprano Stefani Irányi (Sieglinde) and tenor Paul O’Neill (Siegmund) take their seats either side of Fisch, and we launch into the first act of Die Walküre, one of the four operas from Wagner’s Ring cycle.  

Unlike Verdi, Wagner doesn’t indulge in glorious melodies and elevation of the singers. Each element (story, music, set) is of equal importance, fusing in a seamless whole. The absence of a strong melody is something I miss, but the singing and storytelling by Irányi and O’Neill is of such high quality I am enthralled. When Warwick Fyfe (Hunding) enters, his stage presence and vocal tone take my breath away. Here is a master Wagnerian in full flight. Brass passages are confident and evocative, remarkable considering the large number of students. The future of orchestral music in Australia is in safe hands. 

This was a brave and important concert on so many levels. We feel fortunate that Fisch invited ANAM musicians to join WASO for the occasion, for it gave us the privilege of hearing great work on such a grand scale. 

WASO’s next concert, Symphonic Titans, is at Perth Concert Hall, 2-3 June 2023.

Pictured top: The ranks of WASO are swelled with 18 musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the director of North Street Music – a creative production and artist development company. She is also the founder of Perth Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and has an MBA from UWA. She is a professional violist, entrepreneur, concert promoter and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

Past Articles

  • Masterful soloists lift the mood

    WASO’s latest program promises intensity but Bourby Webster is surprised by its sense of optimism – and fun. So much so, she could do it all again.

  • Sure hands touch the heart

    Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 60 years and this concert is no exception. Bourby Webster savours every moment. 

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