Asher Fisch has the air of a man who’s deeply satisfied, but keeping it under wraps. It’s the morning after West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s superb concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and there’s every sense that new levels of greatness have been attained. Few would hesitate to point to Fisch as the driving force behind this achievement – careful programming choices have allowed the orchestra to really flex its muscles in the Romantic repertoire, developing a rich sound profile that he doesn’t hesitate to place alongside central Europe’s best bands. But no one’s popping the champagne just yet – at the moment we’re meeting to discuss next year’s season, there’s still one more performance of Tristan to get through. The party can wait.

Asher Fisch. Photo © Christophe Canato

“That we play in a certain way and that people can say ‘that’s the WASO sound’ – it’s the culmination of the work we’ve done in the last five years together,” says Fisch. “We started with Beethoven, then Brahms and then the Wagner symphonic excerpts, including the overtures. We also did a concert with Stuart Skelton and then recorded with him [ABC Classic’s Shining Knight]. But that’s all preparatory – it’s with something like Tristan that you realise if you’ve actually pushed the needle. If the orchestra is getting it without me having to say it, which is what has happened and it’s so great.”

Unsurprisingly, Fisch is full of praise for his orchestra. It’s been a long journey since he took up the position of Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser in 2014, and he’s proud of the strides its taken, particularly now in its 90th year. “The orchestra used to excel at piano, but they were afraid to make noise,” he explains. “Making noise meaning digging into the strings until they burn. Mostly because they didn’t trust that it was going to work. This is frustrating because we in the audience, especially if we’re not covering singers, like a visceral sound. So, this has been a long process but yesterday [conducting Tristan], I said, ‘a man is singing his heart out, basically screaming, but we’re still playing hard which is fine.’ And I notice that when I say, ‘that’s too much’, they immediately react.”

Fisch and the orchestra

He gets a familiar twinkle in the eye and leans in close. “I want to do this test once. I want all you critics to sit down with unseen recordings of a section from Tristan by the Berlin Phil, Vienna Phil, MSO and WASO, and I’m convinced it’s not going to be easy to say who’s who.”

I daresay he might be right about that, and 2019 will give the orchestra a chance to prove its mettle once again. Though there’s no opera in concert next season – Tristan was no drop in the bucket, budget-wise – there will be an opera gala featuring last night’s Isolde, the revelatory German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin. Conducted by Fisch, Barkmin will perform arias from Fidelio, Tannhäuser and Salome, as well as Strauss’ Four Last Songs. It’s no scant tasting dish of this soprano’s manifold talents.

Gun-Brit Barkmin in WASO’s Tristan und Isolde. Photo supplied

Though Barkmin had not yet been confirmed as the soloist at the time Fisch and I meet, he’s clearly pleased to have introduced Perth audiences to somebody of her stature. “She told me after the concert, ‘oh yes, I will be singing more Isoldes now’,” recalls Fisch. “Gun-Brit is fantastic and there’s no doubt she’ll be singing it all over the place.”

Another singer to be featured by WASO in 2019 is Australian Siobhan Stagg, a treasured fixture in European houses. A principal soloist at the Deutsche Oper, she has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann and at the Royal Opera House, opening its 2017/18 season in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Stagg will be making her Victorian Opera debut as Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande next month.

WASO’s first Artist in Association, she will appear as the soloist in three concerts conducted by Fisch. Stagg kicks off her tenure with Ravel’s sensual song cycle Shéhérazade and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, to be performed alongside Mozart’s penultimate symphony. Later in the season, the soprano performs orchestrated songs by Strauss and then takes part in performances of the Verdi Requiem, alongside mezzo Stefanie Irányi, tenor Paul O’Neill and baritone Warwick Fyfe.

Siobhan Stagg. Photo © Simon Pauly

Building on the success of the Wagner and Beyond series in 2018, Fisch is particularly looking forward to conducting – and generally holding court at – two Discovery Concerts next year. With keynote discussions, musical excerpts and full performance finales, it’s intended to bring the audience closer to the music. The first of these, The Classical Symphony, sees Fisch exploring music of the classical era through excerpts from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, before culminating in a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth.

The second, The Art of Orchestration, explores how composers transformed keyboard works into orchestral masterpieces. “Joseph Nolan is going to play Bach on the organ, and then we’re going to play the Stokowski arrangement [of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor] for orchestra,” explains Fisch. “I’m going to do Strauss songs with Siobhan Stagg where I play at the piano and then immediately we hear them in orchestration. And then I will do what for me is the best example of improving on the original – Pictures at an Exhibition. I always call it a Ravel work because it’s a much better work orchestrated: for me it’s not even a Mussorgsky work. This concert is all about seeing how you can take a piano work and make it sublime just by using the orchestra.”

Something of a thrill, 2019 also sees Fisch exchange the podium for the keys when he performs the Schumann Piano Concerto under Danish violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider. Znaider will perform the Elgar Violin Concerto under Fisch earlier in the season before returning to conduct Fisch in a program that includes Strauss’ Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration.

Nikolaj Znaider. Photo © Lars Gundersen

“I think it will be good for the audience to see me react with the orchestra in a completely different way,” Fisch says. “It also shows them what a good, harmonious situation we’re working in which is not always the case at other orchestras. Usually even if it starts well, in many cases after two, three years, something gets lost. This has not happened here – we are as strong as we were at the beginning.

“And the musicians gain two more percent support for me!” he laughs. “For musicians, as long as you cut air, you cut air. The minute you produce one sound on the piano, you’re on their level. You’re a bassoon player, I’m a pianist, great: let’s make music together. And this doesn’t happen when you’re only conducting.”

For all his self-deprecation, what Fisch is conducting in 2019 is nothing to be sneezed at either. The Russian virtuoso Vadim Gluzman returns in June to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the centrepiece of an evening that includes Mendelssohn’s sunny Fourth Symphony and Pfitzner’s Palestrina. Earlier in the year, Fisch conducts Respighi’s beloved Pines of Rome and his orchestral suite Rossiniana, as well as selections from The Nutcracker.

And there’s no shortage of star soloists either. Andreas Ottensamer plays the Mozart Clarinet Concerto under Mark Wigglesworth in May, who also conducts Elgar’s First, while pianist Behzod Abduraimov returns to give Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, paired with Stravinsky’s Petrushka and conducted by Jamie Martín in his WASO debut. The dazzling Alexander Gavrylyuk also returns to perform Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto.

Andreas Ottensamer. Photo © Katje Ruge / Decca

A going concern for Fisch has been to elevate the quality of guest conductors, something he’s pleased to say that WASO has achieved with 2019’s line-up. “I’ve learnt in my life as a music director that the better conductors you engage, the better it is for everybody,” he says. “My ego doesn’t suffer for that. I’m very happy when somebody comes in and has a huge success with the orchestra. The most important thing is that they keep working at a very high level when I’m not around, which doesn’t happen in a lot of cases. When the chief conductor is there, it’s hard work, but when they’re gone it’s like a little vacation. So we’re always striving to get the best possible conductors.”

Simone Young returns in August to helm a new initiative, Side by Side, which sees the orchestra joined onstage by some of ANAM’s best and brightest to perform Shostakovich’s titanic Leningrad Symphony. Young also conducts Bruckner Six later in the year, following up her thrilling Fourth with WASO in 2016, and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto performed by returning artist Javier Perianes.

Simon Young. Photo supplied

Another Australian conductor to take the reins next year is Nicholas Carter, who returns to WASO for Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s the centrepiece of a program that includes the Glazunov Violin Concerto, performed by Sergei Dogadin, and Dukas’ evergreen The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Meanwhile, Elena Schwarz, the orchestra’s former Assistant Conductor, will return to open the season with WASO’s Favourites, a program that includes Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

International conductors making their WASO debut include Dima Slobodeniouk, who will lead the orchestra in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, to be played by Narek Hakhnazaryan.

WASO’s 2019 also boasts two world premieres from homegrown composers Iain Grandage and James Ledger. Grandage has written a cor anglais concerto for Leanne Glover, Principal Cor, while Ledger’s Viola Concerto will be performed by Brett Dean and conducted by Fabien Gabel. Remarkably, it will be the composer’s 11th work to be premiered by the orchestra.

Iain Grandage. Photo © Pia Johnson

As our time draws to a close, Fisch leans back in his chair and thinks about where next to take the orchestra. Exciting suggestions can’t help but tumble out of his lips, including increased international touring, the creation of a summer venue and school for conductors, musicians and singers. But it is opera that he returns to, with a tantalising mention that it will soon be the 150th anniversary of the Ring Cycle in 2026.

“I would love to cover more Wagner and Strauss because the Perth audiences don’t get that at the opera,” he emphasises. “A Salome or a Rosenkavalier or Tannhäuser. Everybody tells me it won’t sell but they were screaming at the end of Tristan.”


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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine