Review: “Inspiring Wagner”, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, presented and conducted by Asher Fisch –
Perth Concert Hall, 6 September –
Review by Leon Levy –
For audiences, accustomed to the traditional formalities of the concert hall, the moment when a conductor turns around and addresses them can be slightly jarring. But when that conductor is the genial Asher Fisch, the atmosphere immediately relaxes. And so it was that Wednesday night’s crowded Concert Hall was happy to be led and enlightened by an expert in the field, one capable of communicating his knowledge and informed insights.
The occasion was the first instalment of a two-concert series entitled, “Wagner & Beyond”, which took us to the sources of Wagner’s inspiration, against a background in which some believed that, with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the possibilities of traditional musical forms had been exhausted. Fisch drew an analogy with another non-figurative art-form, namely architecture: here features such as domes and arches and traditional materials and methods, were eventually supplanted by freedom of design and construction that, instead of being bound by rules, might instead by guided by location and environment. The example of the Sydney Opera House in its harbour setting conveyed perfectly the nature of this change.
But, as in architecture, so in music the old traditions were staunchly upheld by some and, broadly speaking, two camps emerged: Schumann exemplified the conservatives, and Liszt the progressives, while a then-influential composer, Marschner, had his roots in Beethoven. Wagner took inspiration from all three, as demonstrated in the works programmed before interval, Marschner’s overture to his opera The Vampire, the overture to Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust and Liszt’s symphonic poem Mazeppa. As vividly portrayed, Schumann demonstrated freedom within structure, while Liszt dispensed with contrasting themes, modifying a single idea to reflect an unfolding story.
Meanwhile, Wagner’s growing impatience with tradition was illuminated by the conductor’s lucid explanations, each one illustrated by the players. One especially striking example was Wagner’s quest to achieve new sounds and new colours, firstly by promoting the brass section from its role of simply providing chords, to one of prominence and, secondly by commissioning a new instrument, the Wagner horn. By then adding a bass trumpet and contrabass trombone, a brass sound of subtle beauty emerged: that was something to behold by Wednesday night’s rapt audience.
Throughout the evening, Fisch led an unerring path through Wagner’s innovations —of which the development of the leitmotif as a defining musical and dramatic device was just one example. The extended works in the second half were all by the man himself, being excerpts from the four operas that comprise the Ring Cycle and all were given incisive and absorbing treatment such that even the rousing “Ride of the Valkyries” in no way overshadowed the quieter pieces that had preceded it; on the contrary.
This enterprising presentation, an inspiration on the part of Fisch and WASO management, and magnificently executed by the orchestra, will surely come to be seen as a highlight of the season. The evening was filmed which will enable others to enjoy the memorable journey. This coming Saturday night’s “Wagner’s World” will continue the masterclass, and any who might be hesitant about this particular style of presentation or indeed about this pioneering composer are encouraged to head for the box office.
Top: Asher Fisch led an unerring path through Wagner’s innovations. Photo: Emma van Dordrecht.