For the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to program a cor anglais concerto (performed by Principal Cor Anglais Leanne Glover) and enlist the expertise of Scottish conductor and oboist Douglas Boyd is a guaranteed way to coax out Perth’s double-reed community (to which this critic belongs) from their reed-making desks and into the Perth Concert Hall.

Prior to the performance, the foyer of the concert hall had been repurposed as an impromptu double-reed conference space, as everyone gathered to express their anticipation and enthusiasm for the night’s program. That’s not to say that only the oboists and bassoonists of Perth had come to hear Vaughan Williams, Iain Grandage and Beethoven, for the intriguing program drew a crowd that nearly rendered the hall at maximum capacity.

Iain Grandage, Leanne Glover and WASO

 The opening chord of Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was so balanced and delicately voiced that it set the bar extremely high for the rest of the piece. Fortunately, Boyd and a reduced WASO string section crafted a highly engaging performance of Vaughan William’s ode to Britain’s 16th century master composer. The opening section showcased beautiful musicianship of the section’s inner voices, particularly the violas, and the modal colours of the score were excellently situated within the context of the piece. Making full use of the Perth Concert Hall stage, the small ‘second orchestra’ at the back of the stage was wonderfully sensitive in its soft echoes of the main ensemble, and the quartet of two violins, viola, and cello that interjected throughout the work brought excellent soloistic colour to an otherwise ensemble-focused work. For all the beauty and homogeneity in the score’s sound, it was great to hear Boyd encourage moments of bite and almost pungent sound qualities to complement moments of modal inflection; this added another layer of depth to the work that could have easily been neglected.

If audiences felt somewhat intimidated by the excellence of WASO’s musicianship in the first piece, the sight of Iain Grandage holding an accordion on the conductor’s podium (“Leanne’s Glover’s first instrument!”) and lamenting that he confused Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia with Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra in his composition’s orchestration closed that gap immediately. Composed in honour of Emeritus Professor David Tunley, Grandage’s new concerto for cor anglais, Orphée, draws on everything from the French Baroque work of Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, antiphonal string writing, octatonic pitch sets, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In bringing these influences to fruition,  Glover demonstrated once again why her musicianship is such an important asset to WASO. Her performance alternated effortlessly between moments of smooth lines and immense control, to agile explorations of the cor anglais’ range, to punchy multiphonics and impressive pitch bending.

Many of Glover’s finely crafted phrases concluded on penultimate high notes, and though these were extremely satisfying to experience for their control and expressive, singing quality, they were often subsumed within the Vaughan Williams/Tippet-inspired texture of the orchestration. The cor anglais doesn’t have the piercing brilliance of the oboe in its upper register; it sounds more like a muted saxophone in its third octave. Though this does make for some interesting and complex instrumental colours, the many lines composed for the upper register lost some of their potency against the sound of the WASO strings. Boyd sometimes succeeded in subduing the strings to allow Glover to shine (as an oboist himself, he must have been keenly aware of the limits of the cor anglais), but the strings were too prominent within the texture. Aside from this, the concerto was varied and engaging, so much so that it ended almost too early! It would have been excellent to hear more of Glover and the WASO strings, though a privilege to witness in its existing form all the same.

Beethoven’s 250th birthday might not be until next year, but there’s nothing wrong with a little preview of what WASO can do with Beethoven’s music ahead of the 2020 season. Boyd and WASO approached Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with crisp rhythmic detail and a swift energy that served the outer movements beautifully; the fugal passages of the fourth movement were particularly well realised in their execution. The inner movements were also imbued with a quick energy. While this lent the second movement’s funeral march a refreshingly restrained stoicism, the scherzo of the third movement was a bit untidy in some places, particularly in the back-and-forth between the winds and the strings (though it must be said that the horns were flawless in their interjections throughout the movement.) Nevertheless, all the quick shifts in mood and colour throughout the work were fully realised by Boyd and WASO, and the orchestra’s agility in its reduced orchestral forces never impeded the shifts between force and lightness throughout the score. It appears that the celebrations of Beethoven’s music next year will be in excellent hands!