West Australian Symphony Orchestra is about to embark on tour to the United Arab Emirates and China, and to give Perth audiences a taste of what they’ll be bringing to distant shores, they’ve presented Tour de Force. Over two evenings, Asher Fisch conducted four of the works which will be performed overseas in Beijing and Shanghai: Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture (performed at Friday night’s concert), Sculthorpe’s Kakadu (performed at Saturday night’s concert), Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No.5 Egyptian, and Mahler’s Symphony No.5. This marks the first time in 10 years the orchestra has toured overseas, and by the sound of it, the ensemble is primed to showcase its outstanding talents.
First on Friday night’s program is Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture, which sets the evening off to a lively, playful start. Mendelssohn began writing the piece when he was just 17, and indeed it is youthful and vivacious, with all the puckishness that a piece inspired by Shakespeare’s work demands. Part of our enjoyment of the piece comes from matching each of its sections to the corresponding components of the play: the fleet-footed scurrying of Puck, the lovers in the forest, the nuptial celebrations, the ‘mechanicals’ putting on their play, the mix-ups and mishaps, and the somnolent, dreamlike state into which the story repeatedly enters and wakes from. The romantic opener is a light and breezy set-up for the next piece in the program, Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
After a quick re-set of the stage, with piano front-and-centre, we welcome Jean-Yves Thibaudet to the stage to perform Saint-Saens’ Egyptian concerto, so called because it was written while the composer was in Luxor. It’s a sea voyage to exotic lands, evoking rushing water, the adrenaline of embarking towards foreign climes, observing the new sights and most importantly, mysterious new sounds. The influence of middle-eastern and Eastern scales and tonalities comes into play, and suddenly we’ve lifted the lid of a sarcophagus, laid eyes on golden treasures, and perhaps got wind of an ancient curse. Thibaudet makes light work of Saint-Saens’ rapid tempos and flying runs; we hold our breath as his fingers make their way up and down the keyboard with furious impatience. The exhilarating climax of the third movement puts us on a nearly-capsizing boat, but adrenaline drives the ensemble right to a triumphant end. After several ovations, Thibaudet returns to the stage for an encore with a Brahms Klavierstucke of an entirely different character: delicate, sweeping, and gentle; with this piece, we become aware that Thibaudet doesn’t just play piano, he plays us. We’re held suspended by the music that moves through him.
An interval then gives us pause and time to mentally prepare ourselves for the juggernaut that is Mahler’s Symphony No.5, and as the unmistakable herald rings out from principal trumpet Brent Grapes, Asher Fisch and Mahler take firm command of the room. Seven French horns dominate the back brass line, and as the funeral march gives way to the Scherzo and the Adagietto and presses on to the Finale, we are led on an intense hour-long journey through the highest heights and deepest depths of the human soul. You couldn’t ask for a better brass section; they rise to Mahler’s challenge and excel. Grapes is particularly stunning throughout, as is principal hornist David Evans. The strings are lush and rich in the Adagietto, and despite some occasional uncharacteristic initial tuning problems in the woodwinds, the frequently jaw-dropping and breathtaking piece comes to a rousing finish.
WASO will take the international stage in top form, and West Australians can be proud to call them our own.