With the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth being celebrated around the world in 2020, you can pretty well expect the composer to be prominently featured in most orchestral seasons next year – and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is no exception.
Following the stunning concert version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that WASO’s Chief Conductor Asher Fisch led in 2018, and his comment to Limelight that he would love to see an opera in concert as an annual event, it’s exciting, but maybe not a great surprise, to see the orchestra staging Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio in concert next year, conducted by the Israeli maestro.
Asher Fisch. Photograph © Nik Babic
Asked how he decided what WASO would do for the Beethoven 250, Fisch says: “Well, of course, with my background, the biggest idea I had is to do the Fidelio in concert. That was number one for me. And Missa Solemnis, which we’ve not done in many, many years, that was number two. And then the question was what do we do in the concert repertoire and we went with the Concerto Cycle and we opted for one pianist [Uzbek’s Bezhod Abduraimov] in one week, because we did the symphonic cycle a few years back. So, I am doing two symphonies but basically the centre of the year is the three pillars – the Fidelio in February, the Missa Solemnis in June, and in November the Concerti.
Produced with Perth Festival, in association with West Australian Opera, German soprano Christiane Libor will sing the role of Leonore, with Croatian tenor Tomislav Mužek as Florestan. WASO’s version will be directed by Clare Watson and will use a new dramatic text by Alison Croggon, narrated by actor Eryn Jean Norvill.
“The task is always when you do Fidelio or The Magic Flute or such works in concert, what do you do with the dialogue?” says Fisch. “I have seen various solutions. You cannot get rid of it all together because the numbers are not supposed to follow each other. It doesn’t work musically not to have anything. You can do very shortened dialogue but that looks like lip service, it seems like you are saying something because you have to say something. And full dialogue is not feasible – in concert, in German, it’s not going to work. So, I think the best solution is to have somebody [narrate] something. The dialogue is often done by a male narrator, I don’t know why because the opera is about a woman and all told from Leonore’s point of view so I thought it had to be a female actor who reads something. We’re still working on it but the idea was to write something in English that is appropriate that would add maybe a psychological level so we understand the story and a little bit of what Leonora is going through. We are still working on it but that is the idea.”
Fisch will also be on the podium for Beethoven’s choral masterpiece Missa Solemnis with singers including soprano Kiandra Howarth, tenor Paul O’Neill and bass James Clayton, all Australian. Howarth sang with WASO in the Mahler 2 in 2016 and Fisch instantly took note of her.
“The role in Mahler 2 that she has to do is very, very small but she has managed in just a few bars to move me like very few singers in the past, and it’s mostly the quality of her voice, the sound and how she moves around with it. Just the phrases that she sang in the Mahler 2 stuck in my mind,” says Fisch. “I wanted to have her for many things, she’s busy though! I am very happy to have her for the Missa Solemnis.”
The cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos will be performed by Behzod Abduraimov. “He has played here before but I have never worked with him, but I really wanted him to do it because you can either go with an old-timer who has done it five million times or you can look at the future and take somebody who you think can be a very exciting pianist to do all five – and I think he is – that’s why we chose him,” says Fisch.
The three concerts will be presented in one week. “I think we should do it in a week because I want it to be an event rather than a series of concerts,” says Fisch. “It involves three nights but the proximity helps the listening I think, and can be more exciting for the audience.”
Fisch will also conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 in one of the Piano Concerto concerts, and Symphony No 6 on World Environment Day in June as part of an international United Nations-led project to inspire everyone to take a stance on climate change. The Pastoral Symphony concert will also include two works by Britten – Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with Iain Grandage as narrator. Fisch says that he “adores” both pieces, and thinks that Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra “should be done in regular concerts and not only in family concerts”.
Ludovic Morlot. Photograph © Marie Mazzucco
Ludovic Morlot will conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 in a concert called Absolute Beethoven, which will also feature John Adams’ Absolute Jest, in which the American composer uses fragments from the scherzos in Beethoven’s late string quartets to create a high-energy 25-minute concerto for string quartet and orchestra. The Australian String Quartet will join WASO to perform it.
“It’s a way of highlighting what Beethoven bequeathed to future generations [and how he is] still exciting musical ideas and new works, so I guess if I have one pet piece in the whole year, that’s probably the one,” says Evan Kennea, WASO’s Executive Manager, Artistic Planning, of the Adams piece. “And then to work with the Australian String Quartet is great, it’s nice to have these ways of collaborating with other great musicians and other great music ensembles. And [the ASQ] are lovely to work with.”
Fisch will also conduct Bruckner’s Symphony No 7 paired with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, performed with WASO Concertmaster Laurence Jackson and the orchestra’s new Principal Viola from Germany, Daniel Schmitt, as well as Brahms’ Symphony No 4.
“We are now slowly revisiting the Brahms symphonies, having played them all in our Brahms Festival four years back, and [made] a recording,” he says. “But then I go and do some stuff that is a little bit outside the regular framework of what I do, so I do The Rite of Spring and I do a Discovery Concert [which Fisch presents as well as conducts] called Infinite Variations with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. There’s also a very exciting program for me which is the Korngold Violin Concerto [with Baiba Skride], Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Gershwin’s American in Paris and Kurt Weill’s second symphony, which I think has never been performed in Australia as far as we can tell. So it’s a little crossover program but serious at the same time.”
Stefanie Irányi. Photograph © Christian Debus
The Rite of Spring concert will also feature German mezzo-soprano Stefanie Irányi (Fisch’s wife) in Berlioz’s dramatic solo cantata The Death of Cleopatra. “It’s a fabulous piece which doesn’t get a lot of performances and for us it’s very exciting and for her, of course,” says Fisch. “It’s a wonderful work to do with this orchestra. It’s just amazing how revolutionary and modern [it was] for the time it was written.”
Musicians making their WASO debut next year include Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, American violinists Gil Shaham and Benjamin Beilman, Macedonian pianist Stephen Trpčeski, German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son and Chinese violinist Bin Huang.
Russian maestro Vasily Petrenko, who is Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra, as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, will make his WASO debut conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11, The Year 1905, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, Elvira Madigan, with Yeol Eum Son.
Other conductors making their WASO debuts include Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, recently appointed as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Hong Kong-born Elim Chan who is Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chief Conductor Designate of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, and British conductor Ben Gernon who is Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
Yeol Eum Son. Photograph supplied
Other highlights of the program include a World Premiere by young West Australian composer Olivia Davies, to be conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, who is Artistic Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California. “It takes place about three weeks after Olivia’s piece has premiered so he is going to premiere the piece here then we are going to put Olivia on a plane so she can go and experience the Cabrillo Festival,” says Kennea.
In collaboration with Short Black Opera, Benjamin Northey will conduct Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace, which got a huge response when Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performed it this year, with a five-star review from Limelight, while Joseph Nolan will join the orchestra for JS Bach’s Easter Oratorio and Duruflé’s Requiem for organ and chorus. New in 2020, for those who love WASO concerts but don’t always have someone to go with, is Music Every 1 for solo attendees so that they can meet up with others who share a passion for classical music prior to selected concerts, while Naked Classics offers one-hour concerts starting at 6.30pm presented in a relaxed, social atmosphere at Perth Concert Hall with audiences able to take a drink to their seats.
Six years after taking on the role of Chief Conductor, in 2014, Fisch is more than pleased with the progress of the orchestra. “[We are just going] along the path, and quicker than I thought,” he says. “[There have been] great additions to the orchestra, with our Concertmaster and now our principal viola and, in my time, the first the trumpet. I think the orchestra is in very good shape now and when we revisit repertoire that we’ve done before, in my first years, [you can see the progress]. We did Brahms’ Second last week. It’s all there and it’s very quick to put it together again, and the style has been really ingrained. It’s in the orchestra now. They play the way I want them to play and it’s great, it’s very rewarding.”