The West Australian Symphony Orchestra are doing something spectacular and audacious this coming weekend: they’re performing Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring together in one concert. Performing one or the other would be enough to get audiences excited, but both? In one night? How is it even possible? Can we all (musicians and audience) handle such a thing? I was so intrigued by WASO’s daring that I had to ask Evan Kennea, Executive Director, Artistic Planning, just how the idea for this pairing of modern orchestral masterpieces came about.
About a year and a half ago, he had been talking to guest conductor Simone Young about what she’d like to do during this period. He asked, ‘What would you really like to do if you could have open access, so to speak?’ and she thought, ‘I’d love to do The Rite of Spring.‘ Then it was a matter of what to do in the first half, and Kennea says, “According to Simone, it was an idea from me, but I suspect it was an idea from her. Apparently this was ‘borne over a relaxed chat over a glass of good Western Australian wine.’ I can’t remember that bit. My memory is walking in late to a dinner and Simone smiling and saying ‘I think I’ve got the first half. It’s a crazy idea, but it’s so crazy it’s fantastic,’ recalls Kennea.
He explains how it went from a crazy idea to something that made logistical sense. “Sometimes you want to do something that’s so completely outside of the programme parameters. You’ve got a huge orchestra on stage for The Rite of Spring, so while you’ve got a huge orchestra there, why not just use the rest of the huge orchestra for the first half as well? So it came about as ‘this is a crazy idea, but what if…’ and it turned into ‘let’s actually put The Planets and The Rite of Spring together and make it a kind of mega-concert?”
So in practical terms, the idea does have its own logic, but will it actually work? “The funny thing is, I don’t know if it’s going to work,” Kennea says. “It works on the level that they’re both masterpieces. The Rite of Spring is one of those works that changed music history and was written at a time of great turmoil, great social change and artistic change. Whether they work on the concert together, I guess we’ll find out! I can’t imagine that they won’t; The Planets ends in a very beautiful gentle way, and The Rite of Spring of course ends in an incredibly loud, aggressive way. They balance each other as halves of a programme. I guess we’re going to find out, and that’s kind of the exciting thing,” Kennea says.
The audience reaction at the premiere of The Rite of Spring is stuff of legends, so I ask Kennea if it’s possible for audiences today to have such a wild response to classical music. He says, “I think we now have developed music so much further, there’s so much music of all periods and genres around us from the classical side, rock and roll, hip-hop, noise, grunge, everything, that I don’t think there’s anything that’s completely shocking in that way that The Rite of Spring would have been. I think where we do create shock is in context.
“I remember quite a few years ago now, the last night of the BBC Proms, the outgoing Prom director programmed a new piece of British music that was pretty strident and full-on. Of course, at a standard concert at the South Bank of London, maybe that would have been fine, but it was in the last night of the Proms. And so contextually it was shocking because it didn’t easily sit within that concert framework. So putting things in context, I think you can still create really interesting little shocks of surprise in how things sit together or don’t sit together, or work well together or bash off each other,” he says. We’ll soon be learning how Planets and Rite sit together.
Kennea remains confident that it’s a sound idea: “The great thing with this concert is that both pieces are great, great masterpieces. They really exploit the modern orchestra in terms of colour, in terms of rhythm. They’re both incredibly virtuosic. The players will be exhausted after this week, I’m pretty sure. But they’re also two pieces that orchestras love, love, love to play and they don’t get to play that often because they require huge orchestras: The Rite of Spring needs five flutes and five oboes and five clarinets and five bassoons (we normally deal with a maximum of three in each), huge percussion sections – the biggest orchestras we put on for the year, so it’s incredibly exciting to play.”
So what about The Planets? It also requires a mega-group to perform its seven movements which are dedicated to each planet’s astrological characteristics. I ask Kennea if he’s got a favourite movement, and my question catches him a little off-guard. “I’ve never been asked that before, I’m now trying to think of that…It’s probably ‘Mars,’ let’s face it. There’s something incredibly powerful about that movement. I love the way it’s written. It never feels quite settled, it always has a nervous power behind it. It’s a fantastic movement. I’m going to have to go with ‘Mars.’ Like everybody else, probably.”
Guest conductor Simone Young is here with WASO for two weeks this year, which is a great treat for the orchestra. “Simone weeks are always really special,” Kennea says. “This orchestra has worked with her for nearly 20 years now, she’s now a guest practically every single year. She’s incredibly demanding, and that’s a good thing. She has a really fantastic ear, a great sense of the structure of a piece of music. She knows exactly what she wants to get out of the performance and she’s very demanding in getting it – but the thing is, she also gives a huge energy. She’s incredibly experienced; the orchestra always feels very safe in her hands. They know that she knows the music inside out and back to front, so there’s a huge musical trust between the orchestra and Simone. The orchestra feels a freedom to absolutely push to the edge, knowing that Simone won’t let it fall apart. She knows exactly where the edge is.”
And that musical trust also exists between the orchestra and its principal conductor Asher Fisch. “The orchestra has taken itself to another level because of the great musical relationship between Asher and the orchestra that’s really bearing fruit. It seems to always be getting better and better. Our audience has been very loyal, despite the fact that there’s been a big economic downturn for the last year or two. It’s not easy to keep orchestras afloat at the moment across Australia and around the world, but we’re doing okay. It just feels like the puzzle pieces have come together a bit which is realy fantastic.”
Continuing with the puzzle metaphor, Kennea says, “It’s a jigsaw puzzle programming for an orchestra: there are lots of different audiences that come to hear us, lots of people who like different types of music, plus there’s what the conductors want to do and what the orchestra needs to play, and then there’s not playing the same pieces over and over, but also not leaving things that people always want to hear too long off the rotation so to speak. It’s a great thing and I think we have loyal audiences across all the types of music that we play, which is really nice.”
It sounds like a tough (and puzzling, and rewarding) job, so good thing WASO has Evan Kennea to do it.
To take the The Planets & The Rite of Spring challenge with WASO and Simone Young on August 5 & 6 as part of City of Perth’s Winter Arts Festival, head over to the WASO website for tickets here.