In the space of two weeks, I've had the opportunity to attend two West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) concerts in Perth. The first one was at Kings Park and the musicians were playing with the singer and songwriter Ben Lee. The second was at the Perth Concert Hall, where they presented The Valkyrie/Gala. After this second experience, I went home with the impression that the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is shying off from showing its real talent. As I wrote last week, with Ben Lee, this group of fine musicians were following arrangements that made it sound mostly like a background synthesizer.
I thought this time things would be different, as now The Valkyrie/Gala would be a classical act of the sort WASO should be at it highest level of performance. However, it happened again, and after a brilliant first half, I found myself all the way till the concert's end anxiously and in vain waiting for all that talent to come out again. My anxiety was overcome by sadness as the second half came to an end, because WASO simply confirmed it preferred to be, as in the Ben Lee gig, the supporting act to the group of singers, which this time was led by the outstanding soprano Lisa Gasteen. Questions kept popping inside my head on my drive back home: Why do they shy away from being the leading performers their public seems to expect? Are they ashamed of their talent?
The Valkyrie/Gala was divided in two parts/acts. In the first, WASO performed the world premiere of The Madness and Death of King Ludwig, by the orchestra's composer-in-residence James Ledger. The new composition was followed by two Wagner pieces, both from the opera Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), written in 1874: “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Funeral music”. I was delighted, especially during the two Wagner pieces, because for the first time I was able to hear loud and clear WASO close to its full potential. Everything seemed to be perfect. One of the best musicians on stage was Malcolm Stewart, who was playing a Wagner Tuba. At the end of the first act, Asher Fisch, WASO's enthusiastic conductor, asked him to stand up as the audience applauded wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, the first act was too short, and ended too soon. In the second half of the concert, WASO presented the third act of the opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Both, Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre, together with Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”) and Siegfried form a cycle of four epic musical dramas written by Wagner between 1848 and 1874. The Valkyrie's third act is one of the most well known Wagner pieces. In five minutes, the small stage was full of singers and WASO disappeared in the backstage, and slipped onto its “supporting” mode, which is disappointingly faded.
But WASO's watered-down performance in the second act wasn’t the only disappointment I had. The entire second act was actually confusing. As one after the other the singers stepped onto the stage, this suddenly became too small for all of them. Some singers had a booklet in theirs hands, while the bass Harry Peeters put his in a stand and Lisa Gasteen didn’t use one at all. Then there were the dresses... OK, this was a Gala, which did justify the knighting dresses, but this couldn’t justify the diverging tastes. With so many on stage, only two seemed to be in the right place, at the right time: Harry Peeters and Lisa Gasteen, her being better than him, but both singing beautifully. The captioning, which could have been helpful to understand the story behind the music, wasn’t visible for all the audience. I, for instance, had to move from the seat I was given, otherwise I would not have been able to see them.
Once again, in The Valkyrie/Gala, WASO musicians could have shone more. After all they are not simply a theatre orchestra, which is there just to support a dance group, a singer or an opera. They are, as their name makes clear, the State's Symphony Orchestra, so whenever on stage, their public is expecting they will shine as much as their guests.
Wesfarmers Arts Masters | GALA
Venue: Perth Concert Hall
Dates/Times: 8pm, Friday 7 & Saturday 8 March
Tickets: $20.00 - $85.00
Bookings: WASO on 9326 0000 or www.waso.com.au