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.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto, West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall, 30 June 2023
I am intrigued by the program for this concert by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Elena Schwarz, titled after the highlight piece: Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C (No. 1) written around 1761.
Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite (based on short movements from his ballet of the same name) is the opener; Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 in E flat major brings the program to a close; and a new work first played in 2022 titled Hi-Vis by Holly Harrison, a young composer from western Sydney, brings us back from the interval.
My knowledge of Stravinsky, Haydn and Shostakovich (I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing Harrison’s work before) has me settling in for an intense night. To my surprise and delight, the longer the program goes on, the more uplifted I feel. These works are all filled with optimism, joy and a huge sense of, wait for it, fun! It might even be my new favourite orchestral program.
Yes, quite a statement. Let me explain.
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella was originally written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company with designs by Picasso and choreography by Leonid Massine, based on compositions by 17th century baroque composer Pergolesi and his contemporaries. Full of colour, texture and neo-classical references, the music is highly original and creative. The smaller orchestra feels hesitant to begin, but the wonderful solos within the orchestra are captivating and show the brilliant musicianship of WASO’s principals. Solos by principal bassoon Jane Kircher-Lindner and principal trombone Joshua Davis are superlative.
The anticipation for the Haydn is palpable. The audience, featuring numerous parents with children (maybe cello students?) are on the edge of their seats to hear Chinese-Australian cellist Li-Wei Qin. This concerto, a study in cello technique, is a test of stamina and energy. Qin’s playing from the first note is breathtaking. His mastery of instrument and music may have inspired the entire audience to want to take up the cello, so easy does he make this fiendishly difficult work sound.
The technical passages can make this concerto feel a little solid, or “blockish”, yet this performance captures every ounce of Hadyn’s vitality, exuberance and power. An audience cheer demands an encore, and Italian cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima’s Alone is a blistering way to close the first half.
The second half of the program is my big surprise. Harrison’s Hi-Vis starts with a bang and a gliss and we are hanging on for the ride. This phenomenally fresh work may be best described as Gershwin meets Stravinsky to write a Mission Impossible theme. It’s hugely entertaining; muted brass, slap pizzicato strings, jazz flute, drum kit – this work has it all.
I haven’t heard Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony before, and I’m absolutely enthralled. It’s short, exciting, colourful and full of optimism. It was written in 1945, possibly as an antithesis to the horrors of the war just ended. As with all the works in this program, the WASO musicians shine. The principal winds (with yet another world-class solo from bassoonist Kircher-Lindner) are next level.
This is brilliant programming by the artistic team at WASO, showcasing the gifts of its musicians, the connection between baroque themes to lockdown-inspired melodies, and the power of joy in lifting an entire audience, even with radically different works written hundreds of years apart.
I could easily do it over again.
Pictured top: Cellist Li-Wei Qin’s mastery of his instrument is breathtaking. Photo: Linda Dunjey.
Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.