Children, Features, Music, News

Ben Burgess takes WAYO to infinity and beyond

From budding violin player to executive director, Ben Burgess has had a long association with the West Australian Youth Orchestra. Burgess chatted to Rosalind Appleby about a new commission and other innovations that are providing WAYO’s 400 young musicians with opportunities to reach for the stars.

Ben Burgess, executive director WAYO. Photo supplied

Seesaw: You’ve dedicated 14 years of your working life to this organisation. What is the appeal of working with the Western Australian Youth Orchestra?

Ben Burgess: The main appeal is giving young people fantastic performance opportunities and seeing young people grow and improve through all our groups, over many years.  We also have many individuals and organisations that support what we do which is always encouraging. Because it is a small team at WAYO you can really see the results of your hard work be it in concerts, sponsorship or funding.

S: WAYO has been around since 1974. Has the role of the organisation changed much over the years to attract new generations of audiences and musicians?

BB: WAYO’s core values have never changed but we have been able to introduce new programs such as the International Conductor Season and collaborations that add a new element to being in a youth orchestra program. We also invest time and resources in creating and promoting programs and concert that interest the concert-going public as well as our members.

S: Recently I’ve noticed a new focus on Australian composers, particularly women, with the commissioning of Melody Eotvos and the performance of a piece by Dulcie Holland this year. What has prompted this?

BB: WAYO’s last four commissions have been from Australian female composers which we have premiered on main stage concerts plus a work we toured internationally, and all our groups regularly perform Australian music. Recently and justifiably there has been some focus on bringing gender equality into programming but it’s something WAYO and the small-to-medium sector have been doing for many years, but possibly not everyone has realised.

Melody Eotvos’ Solar Wolvz will be premiered by WAYO on July 13. Photo supplied.

S: On July 13 WAYO’s flagship ensemble will perform Eotvos’ Solar Wolvz. Can you give us any clues as to what the piece is about?

Solar Wolvz is based on a very peculiar chain of ideas, all related to meteors, comets and any unpredictable objects in space. Inspired by the ghostly Spider Crater in the Kimberley region, the icy Oort Cloud that surrounds our solar system, and Ouamama (the only known interstellar object that has passed through our solar system), Solar Wolvz is a musical journey through time and space filled with brilliant orchestral colour.

S: The concert will be conducted by Benjamin Northey, Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and Associate Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Why is it important to secure high profile conductors like Benjamin Northey to work with the orchestra?

BB: Many years ago, the idea of getting an international conductor straight off the professional circuit to spend a week with WAYO was a pipe dream. Now we have had 13 years of having conductors from all over the world come to Perth for a week. This program has meant the orchestra spend an intense week like a professional orchestra does instead of rehearsing once a week over a few months. It provides WAYO members with a glimpse of the professional world but in a supportive and exciting environment. One of the really nice things of the program is the enthusiasm the conductors themselves show in embracing the orchestra and working together for a week.

S: I still remember the thrilling feeling the first time I played in an orchestra. Did you participate in WAYO when you were studying oboe? What was it like? Was it a good stepping stone to a career in music?

BB: I was lucky enough to do WAYO both as a young violinist and later as an oboe player and spent upwards of 10 years as a member. It was a terrific experience musically and socially and it was a big and vital help when I later performed professionally in orchestras around Australia, and even later when I transitioned to arts management.

S: What is your favourite orchestral work?

BB: Anything by Richard Strauss, so likely Don Juan.

S: Under your directorship WAYO has experienced significant growth in audience and sponsorship partnerships, as well as international tours. What is your secret to success?

BB: WAYO has a lot of great people and organisations that believe in what we do and contribute in all sorts of ways. We honour the long tradition and history of what WAYO has done, but also look to continually improve it and be ambitious with new things that a youth orchestra typically isn’t known for. For example our collaborations with Orchestra of the Makers (Singapore), the Perth Festival and delivering special events for our major sponsors.

S: Where is the organisation heading next?

BB: In addition to our standard big concert seasons and our world famous Babies Proms, we are looking at more unique events and  collaborations within the Western Australian community and an international tour in a few years.

Benjamin Northey will conduct WAYO for the premiere of Solar Wolvz on July 13.

Pictured top: the West Australian Youth Orchestra performing with conductor Peter Moore. Photo: Andrew J Clarke Photography.

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Circus, Classical music, News

Circus spectacular

Review: ‘Tutti: Circus Oz and WASO’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 30 ⋅
Review by Laura Biemmi ⋅

The concept of Circus Oz performing with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is as brilliant as it is intriguing. Watching two seemingly separate art forms collide and interact not only puts a new spin on each discipline, but it can potentially introduce new audiences to each art form (such as myself; a classical music lover who hadn’t been to the circus before).

Throughout the performance the collision of classical music and death-defying circus acts was an awe-inspiring spectacle. Nigel Westlake’s Flying Dream suite was the perfect accompaniment to the ascents and descents of the performers, who scaled ropes and used them to soar above the orchestra. Similarly, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre suited the terrifying trapeze display, the dangerous nature of which drew gasps and cries from the audience. Semra Lee-Smith’s devilish violin solo with its perfectly tuned tritones was just as exciting as the visual spectacle. The evening was also filled with mind-boggling juggling, some terrifying unicycle riding that involved more people than wheels, and plenty of acrobatics to keep the eyes of the audience entertained.

As a classical musician and a regular concertgoer, the frequent audience applause and cries that interrupted the performances was a new and interesting experience for me. How freeing to clap whenever one feels like it! However, the cries of the audience when a trick nearly went wrong was uncomfortable; how awful for the performers to know that the audience not only witnessed but felt the need to draw attention to a momentary stumble. I couldn’t imagine this translating into an orchestral context; imagine playing a wrong note, only to have the audience gasp at your mistake!

Whilst the orchestra may not have been the focal point for the audience, the music was just as integral to the evening as the circus acts on display. However, it would be reasonable to assume that Circus Oz may have been distracting for the orchestra, as questionable intonation pervaded several wind chords, and there were a few moments where the brass playing wasn’t as clean as usual. Nevertheless, WASO and guest conductor Benjamin Northey did a fantastic job of supporting Circus Oz, always maintaining excellent rhythmic clarity and cohesion.

The orchestra may have always been in time, but there were moments when the circus performers did not align in their manoeuvres. Perhaps this is informed by my musical and rhythmic training, but I found the moments where two performers were performing the same acts side by side but not in an entirely synchronised manner, quite distracting. However, this may be me misinterpreting the aim of the artform; synchronisation and unity may be valued more in music than in the circus arts.

Circus Oz and WASO was a fantastic visual and aural feast for a diverse audience of all ages and backgrounds. Though some of the numbers may have been a bit longer than necessary (and, perhaps the number of numbers too numerous), the evening was unlike anything that I had experienced in the Perth Concert Hall.

Pictured top L-R: Kyle Raftery, Sam Aldham, Tania Cervantes Chamorro, Alyssa Moore, Josie Wardrope, Robbie Curtis. Photo Rob Blackburn.

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