The West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s (WASO) Easter Event was a dazzling performance. Conducted by Richard Mills, the program contained three baroque pieces and Mills’ new secular piece Passion according to St Mark.

Three short pieces made up the first half of the program, and these light baroque pieces were a joy to listen to. Venice born Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canon IX from Canzoni e Sonate was a wonderfully majestic proclamation of late Renaissance/early Baroque music superbly played by the brass musicians. Scored for three Trumpets, a French Horn and four trombones it was the style of piece one could imagine at a royal procession. The movement is written primarily in triple metre, adding a light, dance like feel to it.

Two Vivaldi pieces followed; the first a Motet for Soprano, String and Continuo. Whilst Motets (a piece of music in several parts with words) changed significantly between the 13th and 16th Century, at the time Vivaldi was composing they were traditionally secular pieces for either solo voice plus orchestra; soloists, choir plus orchestra; or choir plus orchestra. They follow a Cantata format (Aria, Recitative, Aria); with the added concluding movement of a sole word “Alleluia”. There are only 12 surviving Motet’s of Vivaldi’s, all for solo voice and string orchestra plus harpsichord.

Having recently appeared in John Adam’s A Flowering Tree, Soprano Rachelle Durkin returned to Perth for the Easter Event. Durkin, ably supported by WASO spent a glorious 12 minutes trilling up and down the octaves, vibrato in overdrive, in possibly one of the most complicated voice pieces I’ve heard. Although she was occasionally drowned out by the strings, the mood of the audience at the conclusion was “Wow”.

Anything directly following the Motet was going to struggle I feel, and Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, whilst enjoyable, lacked the ‘wow’ factor of the Motet. WASO member Shaun Lee-Chen played with passion, but it lacked the sharp, clean sound I was seeking. It is a familiar piece, with some complicated double bowing, and whilst the string orchestra (again with harpsichord) had their timing spot on, Lee-Chen’s performance sounded too casual.

Written by Richard Mills the Passion According to St Mark rounded out the evening and brought the full orchestra, WASO chorus and soloists on stage. Written in seven parts, it describes key incidents of the Easter narrative, with the story evenly distributed between the five soloists (Rachelle Durkin, Aivale Cole, Elizabeth Campbell, Stuart Laing and Harry Peters). It was announced before the show that the original Tenor Charles Mellor was ill and that Stuart Laing had stepped in at very late notice. I doubt the audience would have noticed, as his timing and voice was well in sync with Mills’ and the orchestra.

This was a really interesting piece to listen to, although it had its faults. The size of the orchestra meant that the soloists were often drowned out. As with most operatic pieces, even when sung in English, listeners struggle with comprehension of words (although the diction of the soloists was exceptional). The chorus sung in Latin which sounded brilliant, but I completely lost the plot, struggling to understand the emotion and story behind each section.

The greatest criticism I have is that the Passion According to St Mark is too busy. There was so much going on for so much of the time it became like getting stuck on a rollercoaster and not being able to get off. After a while, it lost its impact, and at 80 minutes it became too much. The soloists would have been better if they could be heard properly, but what I did hear was clear, pure and passionate.

This Easter Event was an enjoyable evening, although I confess I much preferred the light, simple music of the renaissance and baroque period over Mills’ Passion. As normal however, I could not fault the orchestra, or the exceptional WASO chorus and soloists.

West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) presents

Conductor Richard Mills

Venue: Perth Concert Hall
Date/Time: 6.30pm, Wednesday 8 April
Tickets: $49
Bookings: WASO box office 9326 0000 | BOCS ticketing 9484 1133

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