- CD/DVD Reviews
- Live Reviews
It’s Friday morning and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra are in rehearsal. Principal Conductor Asher Fisch arrives at the podium and picks up his baton, which has been accessorised with a ping pong ball. He holds it up for the orchestra to see and joins in the general laughter.
It is four years into the maestro’s contract with the orchestra and the relationship has produced quite incredible results. Fisch has an obvious camaraderie with the musicians, but there’s also a marked improvement in the string blend, a more cohesive warmth from the winds and brass, and profound detail in the musical interpretation. In a recent Limelight review, Fisch was credited with transforming the orchestra into the best interpreter of German Romantic repertoire this side of Germany. How has he done it?
West Australian Symphony Orchestra Principal Conductor Asher Fisch. Photo © Christophe Canato
I sat in on a rehearsal last April to attempt to discover the magical formula. The programme included Mozart, Stravinsky and Sibelius, a welcome relief for those who might have found Fisch’s focus on Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner a little conservative. It was the final rehearsal but there was still time for Fisch to relate the last time he was on the receiving end of an orchestral prank: his baton was substituted with a sausage during a performance of Manon and he used the sausage to conduct the remainder of the opera. More laughter from the orchestra... and then the rehearsal began.
Mozart’s Symphony No 29 took up most of the session. Much of it was nuts and bolts; correcting bowing and articulation, checking balance. Fisch often deferred to assistant conductor Elena Schwarz who was sitting in the auditorium and following the score. The assistant conductor position was created under Fisch’s tenure and the Swiss-Australian Schwarz is the second recipient following on from Christopher Dragon. Fisch turned often to look for her nod of confirmation: “Can you hear the violas?”; “How is the volume here?”
Fisch was even-handed and energised, leaping lightly from his rehearsal stool to give direction to a phrase. At times, he would experiment on articulation with the orchestra before marking it in their parts and there was a sense of working it out together. “Yes, that is better don’t you think? Write it in.” He used words sparingly and effectively: “Don’t take this personally but it [the Andante movement] sounds like Versailles and the nobility are eating chicken; too relaxed. Which is how it was back then, but I want more.”
Asher Fisch and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Craig Kinder
Fisch listened carefully to the opening of the symphony from the auditorium before asking for two-thirds less volume from the second violins, viola and cellos. He was already taking it at a quite moderate tempo. Now the softer tone gave a hushed expectancy before erupting into the fully-fledged theme, a wonderful exploitation of the pristine acoustics of the Perth Concert Hall.
The opening eight bars of the Minuet and Trio were worked over in detail to get the exact rise and fall. At bar 26 he stopped again: the violins needed to take time on the dotted rhythm before landing on the trill. They played it again and this time it had lift and elegance. “Perfect”. Gradually the often lightweight minuet movement was transformed into a deftly elegant dance. Again, in the fourth movement, a simple request for a more energetic upbeat from the violins meant the whole phrase bristled with energy.
Slowly the symphony took on a distinct shape. The clean simplicity of Mozart can be unforgiving but Fisch’s attention to detail was paying off. This was Mozart so distilled that, like a miniature painting, the impact was compact and vivid. During the break I chatted with Assistant Concertmaster Semra Lee-Smith who confirmed that the orchestral players are just as delighted as the audience. “I’ve been here 14 years and the last six or so years have been amazing. Now the emphasis is more on the music,” she said.
She goes on to describe Fisch’s opening concert with the orchestra, when he performed as a soloist in a Mozart piano concerto, as a turning point. “He started as one of us. I have so much respect that he performed as a pianist with us first. It feels like he is one of us. And he allows us to make mistakes and will laugh with us. That is really important.”
After the break, the rehearsal continued with a top-and-tail of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto featuring Concertmaster Laurence Jackson as soloist (a little hard to recognise casually attired in jeans and sneakers!). Jackson’s incisive rhythm and bright sound gave a shining clarity to the rarely heard concerto. The ex-Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concertmaster joined the orchestra in 2016 and is no small part of WASO’s transformation. Quietly spoken, unassuming and with faultless musical intuition, he is respected and admired by the players. They warmly applauded him at the end of the rehearsal.
There was just time for a few touch-ups to Sibelius’s Symphony No 2. This would be the first time Fisch had performed a Sibelius symphony and it marks a departure from standard German Romantic repertoire. Fisch has often commented about the chemistry he felt with WASO from the beginning and this more adventurous programming makes it clear that now there is also trust.
His approach to rehearsing Sibelius showed the same detailed faithfulness to the score with an instinctive ear for balance and dynamic contrasts. Nothing that magical then. But combined with a world-class concertmaster, orchestral players who feel like they are integral to the team, and an organisational structure that puts the emphasis on the music, the results are consistently outstanding. Later in the year the focus will be on Wagner’s symphonic repertoire and there is a Tristan und Isolde planned for 2018. But I hope Fisch continues to expand his repertoire choices because as far as I can see the sky is the limit.
Asher Fisch conducts Schumann (with Jayson Gillham) and Schubert’s The Great from August 17 – 19 and then Mozart (with Karen Gomyo) and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony from August 25 – 26.