WASO Master Series: Mozart and Beethoven Gala Season Opening

Last night was the opening of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra's 2011 Masters Series.  Combining two new Australian works, one of them a world premiere, with two staples of the classical repertoire, the night was an interesting mix of the old and new.

Beginning with Brett Dean's Amphitheatre, composed in 2000, the evening was off to a strong start.  An amazingly evocative work, describing the 'ruins of ancient Roman amphitheatre on the outskirts of a modern city', this is one Australian work that apparently has had quite a bit of attention overseas.  It is easy to hear why, it is rich in tonal variation and colour and contrast.  I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that the work wasn't longer, the 14 minute duration slipped by so quickly.  What is worth mentioning about this piece is that Dean has transcended the assertion that Australian composers need to sound "Australian", whatever that means, but more on that later.

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K.622 is familiar to the regular concert goer and Paul Dean, the soloist in this performance and brother to the aforementioned Brett Dean, showed us just exactly why this is probably the most popular showcase for the clarinet.  His work was stunning, it was an amazing piece of virtuosity and loads of fun. His use of dynamics was nothing short of, well, dynamic!  He is the consumate showman, being great to watch as he effortlessly delivered what must be a difficult piece to perform.  It is no wonder he is internationally acclaimed and sought after world wide, not to mention the recipient of numerous awards.  With a luminescent accompaniment apt for an enlightenment orchestration, he was a pleasure to listen to and this echoed in the rapturous reception he received.

It was Ross Edwards' Spirit Ground, for for solo violin and orchestra that greeted the audience after interval.  This was the world premiere we were witness to.  I must admit I find Edwards' style of composition somewhat dated, and this is what I mean by the "Australian" sound I mentioned earlier.  Championed by musical heroes such as John Antill, Peter Sculthorpe and Colin Brumby, as much as I recognise the necessity to find a cultural musical identity, while I believe it was necessary when Australia was still regarded as somewhat colonial, in my view it is no longer relevant.  This music comes across as a provincial mix of late Sculthorpe and Percy Grainger and I think Antill with his Corroborree and Sculthorpe in Sun Music said the same message in a much more powerful way.  That is to say, I found this a great improvement on the last Edwards piece I was witness to, last year's experiment with ambience and day spa meditiation music that was Elegies and Epiphanies, which was overly long and too dependent on nature sounds on a backing tape not to mention a 'light show' which seemed to be there to bolster up what was lacking in compositional skill.  

A question to the Artistic Planners: why is the audience subjected to an interview of the composer before the work is performed?  Correct me if I am wrong but isn't that the purpose of the Meet the Artist talks before the show?  From discussions with other audience members I am not alone in this, something to think about maybe, Mr McGuire?

The highlight of the evening was Beethoven's Symphony No 7.  Paul Daniel is obviously an aficionado of the great man's work and it shows.  It was an ecstatic reading, full of joy and set to a brisk tempo in all movements including the funeral march of the second movement.  Daniel and his orchestral forces achieved in this movement what the program notes describe as "Death, it seems, is no longer tragic", it was a depiction of transcendence, something to be celebrated rather than mourned.  

The contrast between the Mozart and Beethoven performances was pure chiaroscuro.  The raw quality of Daniel's 7th was invigorating, one only had to listen to the exceptional work of the double basses to understand how he achieved an 'original instrument' quality from his orchestra, very apt in Beethoven, matching the Romantic energy in this symphony perfectly.  

A special mention to the brass in the final movement, this was pure joy personified in music, I left the Concert Hall in jubilation, as one should after the 7th, it was a truly memorable evening.  

It will be hard to find an ensemble as perfectly attuned to their conductor as WASO, they have a punishing schedule this year, but the price of this is an incredibly tight ensemble that Western Australia can be proud of.