Perth Symphony Orchestra lights the way in a captivating collaboration delivered with poise and polish, writes Angela Ho.
Handel by Candle, Perth Symphony Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall, 31 August 2023
Every West Australian has a seat in the salon of Perth. That is the prevailing mood of Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Handel by Candle, which delivers the hallmarks of a commercially successful performance: impeccably executed and joyously received.
Amid the diverse crowd at Perth Concert Hall tonight, I see a smattering of suits and swathes of dressy chiffon. Some usher children with electric candlesticks, while others attend to their glass of wine and company. Whether it’s a sign of those drawn by Minderoo Foundation’s support of the orchestra or simply the allure of an evening bathed in candlelight, the Handel by Candle concept has attracted a wide-ranging slice of the community.
The program is similarly broad: 19 snapshots of the prolific Baroque composer spread across 1.5 hours of play time, including well-loved epics such as the Messiah Hallelujah Chorus interspersed with snippets of smaller orchestral scenes from the likes of Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Water Music.
The concert opens to the solo organ bell-tones of Air in G Major (featuring the talents of Stewart Smith) as the Aquinas Schola Cantorum glide through the audience from the rear entrance in streaming red and white robes, holding candles.
Gentle processional elides seamlessly into the jubilance of coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Choral director Hugh Lydon leads the Aquinas choirboys through their triumphant first piece alongside Perth Symphony and the UWA Choral Society in a heartwarming collaboration between WA’s finest musicians, young and older.
Ensconced among the spill of golden candlelight and candelabra, the 21-piece orchestra holds its own with the almost 100-strong voices of the combined choirs. Backlit and smoky staging heightens the drama. It’s an awesome visual feast.
Perth Symphony creative director Fiona Campbell is a sublime host, emanating warmth and wit in her explanatory segues and question-and-answer style emceeing. Highlighting the many strings to her bow, the mezzo is joined by celebrated soprano Sara Macliver for an expressive duet of Handel’s Theodora oratorio, before kneeling among the candles for an intimate rendition of the Lascia ch’io pianga aria from the opera Rinaldo.
Campbell’s intensely intimate pianissimos generate deserving plaudits from the audience. I take it as a moment of humbling, to be reminded of the glory of the Baroque period’s delicate harmonies and simple moods.
You can’t help but surrender to the joie de vivre of the evening and its characters.
If Handel’s impact can be seen as democratising music, then I’d say Perth Symphony’s contribution tonight has extended those aspirations. Self-described “rule-breaking” initiatives, such as Campbell inviting audiences into lights-up stage selfies and “stadium moments” involving phone flashlights and candle waving, breathe modern relevance into the sanctity of Handel’s chamber and choral works.
The night feels like one of reclamation. Of relevance, of ideas, and of access to the jubilance and class of Handel’s music.
A duet by Year 8 Aquinas choirboys William and Nathan in the second half of the concert nails the scale of the occasion in my mind. Beyond a gift of simple pleasures for audiences, I think of the value a collaboration of this nature has for emerging talents in the Aquinas Schola Cantorum, and imagine what the inner child chorister in me would have felt to be one small part in this picture. Community building, to say the least.
Perth is conclusively a place of many talents. And concerts such as Handel by Candle have a way of reminding us once again of the top-class musicians we have in Western Australia.
Pictured top: The UWA Choral Society, Perth Symphony Orchestra, Aquinas Schola Cantorum and guest artists show the depth of West Australian talent. Photo: Vin Trikeriotis, Trik Photography
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