A world-class Tristan and a handful of classical music’s biggest beasts are joined by a raft of top soloists and premieres.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has launched its 2018 season with concert performances featuring Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as the centrepiece. Other highlights will include performances of Beethoven Nine, Bruckner Eight, Mahler Four and Richard Strauss’ epic Alpine Symphony.
In fact, 2018 is a special year for WASO, and not just because it will be Asher Fisch’s fifth year as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. It also marks 90 years since a group of orchestral musicians in Perth found themselves victims of the advent of the sound era, eclipsing the silent movies that had previously provided them with regular incomes. Finding themselves increasingly short of work, Harold Newton took an enlightened step and formed the Perth Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that offered a first concert series at the Queens Hall of the Regent Theatre. These days WASO, as the group gradually became, are increasingly ambitious, thanks in no small part to the bold artistic mission of their Israeli maestro. As Limelight has reported, WASO are now one of the finest German Romantic orchestras this side of… well, Germany.
Asher Fish. Photos © WASO
It’s that boldness that has led to a season with more big beasts in it than the Perth Zoo. For Fisch, it’s the groundwork of the last four years that means he can aim for the stars in 2018. “After exploring Strauss, a little bit of Wagner, a lot of Mahler and some Bruckner, we now have enough in the bag to go back and pick the real cherries,” he says, looking surprisingly relaxed at a Perth restaurant in between a pair of concert performances of Mahler’s taxing Sixth Symphony. “Now we’re aiming even higher, so there’s the Alpine Symphony, which is definitely the biggest and most fascinating Strauss symphonic work. And we have Bruckner’s Eighth, which is on the same level, and Beethoven’s Ninth. If we’re going back to Beethoven we’re going to start at the top – and I’m adding the Choral Fantasy to make my life even more difficult.”
This is the fourth year I’ve interviewed Fisch, one of the most engaging and intelligent conductors on the international circuit, and right back in 2013 I recall him citing Tristan as an artistic goal. “If we had the funds and the ability to do Wagner, it would always be Tristan first,” he admits. “We did play around with Salome, but then we saw that we actually had an option to get a stellar cast for Tristan, which means a potential recording. There’s not a recent recording of Tristan on the market because it’s very expensive to produce, and there’s no recording with Eva-Maria because she was taken off Bayreuth by [Christian] Thielemann. And Stuart hasn’t had one either even though he’s singing it all over the place.”
With Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne, Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal and Kwangchul Youn – whose Gurnemanz recently thrilled Sydney – as King Marke, it’s as impressive a cast as you’d be lucky to find at Covent Garden or The Met. “I want it to be such a big bang as it’ll be the first opera in concert we’re doing,” says Fisch with a gleam in his eye, “but certainly the first of many – and yearly. We have to do that.”
Fisch will open the season with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, a work that Sydneysiders got a taste of back in March when he conducted it with the SSO. “If you’ve ever thought Eine Alpensinfonie is nothing more than flash and fluff, prepare to hear it elevated to the level of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony,” said the Limelight review. “I never felt so strongly about it until I moved to the mountains,” says Fisch showing us a stunning vista taken on his mobile phone outside his home on the outskirts of Munich. “It’s at a completely different level than the tone poems. The tone poems are made for effect, and even though Alpine Symphony on the surface seems a very bombastic work, every bar has a great musical invention in it.”
But 2018 is not all Germanic meat and potatoes. Fisch, who will visit for four series of concerts this year, also plans to conduct Rachmaninov, Bartók, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel and Nielsen among others. “I did Sibelius’ Second this year,” he explains, “and I tell the story of an interview I heard with Lorin Maazel who said that until he was 55 or 60, he never touched a Sibelius symphony, but when he started to explore them he ended up recording two complete cycles. I suspect that I’m going through a similar process, which makes me very happy because I’m very happy to expand. I will not one day find Prokofiev symphony a great thing to do, never, it’s not going to happen.”
WASO will present four premieres next year, including the Australian premiere of the fine American composer Anna Clyne – her colourful Masquerade – and a new work by the popular former WASO Composer in Residence Lachlan Skipworth. And then there’s Carl Vine’s double piano concerto, a work commissioned for outgoing and incoming Australian Festival of Chamber Music ADs Kathryn Stott and Piers Lane thanks to a farsighted WASO patron. “It came about through a donor who got to know Kathy Stott, explains Executive Manager, Artistic Planning Evan Kennea. “Kathy and Piers are very good friends and all of a sudden it turned into could he commission a double piano concerto, and if you’re looking for an Australian who writes incredible piano music, it’s Carl [Vine]. He really knows how to write for the piano.”
Among the other pianists heading west in 2018 are Jean-Yves Thibaudet – who, along with cellist Gautier Capuçon plays the world premiere of Richard Dubugnon’s Eros Athanatos, a Fantaisie concertante for cello and piano – and Cédric Tiberghien who tackles the evergreen Rachmaninov Three in a concert alongside two seminal works by Béla Bartók, the Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin. “When I moved to Berlin in 1992, I was the assistant to Daniel Barenboim and one of the first things I had to do was a ballet evening with Verklärte Nacht in the first act and The Miraculous Mandarin in the second. It was phenomenal. The Mandarin is full of fantasy and the final dance is so hair-raising that it convinces everyone. The orchestra will love it – the trombones are already saying wow!”
For such a Germanophile, it’s perhaps surprising that the Bruckner Eight will be a first for Fisch. “I’ve heard it many times but I’ve not conducted it,” he says. “It was Zubin Mehta’s favourite Bruckner, so as a kid I heard it with the Israel Philharmonic. And of course I’ve heard Barenboim do it, so I feel that I have good schooling. I always had a plan, so I did Three and Four and then Six and then Seven (which was my highlight for a long time, because you can’t beat it!) And then I fell in love with Nine when we did it here. So the obvious next one is Eight.”
The other big anniversary next year is composer, conductor and all round musical polymath Leonard Bernstein who would have turned 100 in 2018. Contrary to the usual cautious public celebration of a dead ‘modern’ composer, all the state symphony orchestras are planning some kind of birthday bash, and WASO is no exception with Benjamin Northey conducting the Candide Overture, the marvellous suite from the film On the Waterfront, dances from On The Town, the Chichester Psalms and the West Side Story Symphonic Dances. “I think that we celebrate his personality, but he did write some very good pieces,” says Fisch. “I love the Jeremiah Symphony and Chichester Psalms just because it’s in Hebrew – how often do you get to teach a chorus to sing in Hebrew? I listened again recently to one of Bernstein’s BBC lectures, it will take your head off. It’s just incredible how he talks about music. I met him personally and watched masterclasses he did in Jerusalem and his charisma and knowledge of music…”
Programming is clearly important to Asher Fisch, and nowhere is this more intriguingly evident than in the coupling of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with Luciano Berio’s still surprisingly underperformed Folk Songs performed by German mezzo soprano Stefanie Irányi. What was the inspiration there? “Well, it’s a family thing because it’s my wife who is singing,” Fisch laughs. “She sang the Berio with the Munich Symphony and I coached her so I really learned it. I fell in love with the piece, I cannot tell you. It’s a crowd-pleaser. The most interesting part of putting the programme together was what do you play before the Berio? I wanted something very quiet, something that would not overwhelm the folk songs. And then I had the idea of doing the Death and the Maiden variations. The slow movement works brilliantly. It ties in so many ways to the rest of the concert because it’s a song, and Mahler Four ends with a song, and then we have the Berio folk songs. So it’s probably the most dramaturgically well constructed programme in the whole season.”
Counting up the debuts, there are five conductors making their debut with WASO next year – Ludovic Morlot, Karina Canellakis, Dan Ettinger, Joshua Weillerstein and Leo Hussain. Then there are three debuting violinists – Veronika Eberle, rising Australian star Grace Clifford and Alexandre da Costa, one pianist – Andrey Gugnin – and the cellist Pablo Ferrandez. And the soloists Asher Fisch is most excited by? “Only my wife, the rest are not important,” he laughs. “No, no, no, I’m kidding. A joke. I’ve not worked with three of my new soloists next year, but I must say I’m really happy to be working with [WASO Principal Flute] Andrew Nicholson. He is such a pillar in this orchestra and he’s such a fine musician. He takes things so seriously – we did the Bach Badinerie in the park, and he was practicing for hours, for hours. Wonderful!”
Looking back over four seasons, there are a lot of ticks on the Fisch wish list. So what’s next? Where does he see the orchestra in 2019 or 20? “I’ve been wanting for a long time to break the overture, concerto, symphony thing,” he replies. “If I do eight programmes a year, I think four of them should be symphonic, instrumental, but four of them should be of a completely different ilk. We have to expand. Also, the orchestra needs to play opera written by great composers. I’ve always said, if an orchestra doesn’t play Wagner and Strauss operas, it’s not fully tuned. That is a major part of the development of an orchestra.”
“We have also had a tremendous lack of big vocal works. I’ve not done Missa Solemnis here, I’ve not done Britten’s War Requiem, the Berlioz Requiem – and I’ve not done Elijah. Al these masterworks I think will sell very well, but they cost more and you need the chorus to be top level. So that’s where I’m pushing. I’m also pushing in the future to get out of the hall and do something a little bit different, because just to keep circling the works that we’re circling, that becomes boring for me at some point.”