At the risk of sounding like a smug Western Australian, it was easy to forget about the pandemic during West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Carmina Burana concert. The orchestra played in top form while the soloists and conductor could have easily been plucked from any international musical centre, with only the socially distant audience seating and spaced out choristers indicating anything occurring beyond the concert hall.  For those missing international travel, Leonard Bernstein’s overture to his 1956 operetta Candide was like a quick trip to Broadway; all sparkling brass, colourful winds, ceaseless strings, and catchy tunes. Conductor Jessica Gethin set a crackling tempo with an abundance of energy, and every section of the overture – from the lyrical middle section to the woodwind solo passages – was carried with cheerful momentum right until the end. Particularly impressive was the orchestra’s ability to maintain both a warmth of sound and pinpoint accuracy, with the final flourish of the overture balancing the two beautifully.

Jessica Gethin. Photograph supplied

WASO could probably perform Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 in their sleep at this point, yet the orchestra still managed to turn in an engaging performance when presented with the score. The famous opening of Morning Mood was sensitively realised by the flute and oboe, The Death of Åse was voiced with organ-like precision, Anitra’s Dance was all controlled swells and delicious pizzicato, and the horns and bassoons nailed the opening of In the Hall of the Mountain King. A baton-less Gethin placed her trust in the orchestra, and was rewarded accordingly.

Fictional musician and unwitting philosopher Super Hans once remarked that, to produce an effective musical experience, “what we really need to do is create a powerful sense of dread”. I was reminded of this in the opening of Carmina Burana; the dissonant chords, the menacing brass, the powerful percussion, and the choristers sounding triple their actual numbers. The opening of Carl Orff’s 1935 cantata has the potential to be an absolute force of nature when experienced live, and Gethin, WASO, and the WASO Chorus reminded its audience that the ubiquity of O Fortuna often conceals the music’s mightiness and force. Iconic opening aside, Carmina Burana has the potential to be a draining concert experience, with Orff’s relentless repetition of material bordering on tedious. Fortunately, Gethin used this to her advantage, utilising the repetition to correct previous mishaps (such as the lack of synchronicity between the basses and orchestra at Fortune plango vulnera) and directing the audience’s attention to the dynamic performances of the soloists. Said soloists were a joy to behold; the golden-voiced and serene soprano Amy Manford, the humorous and tortured tenor Perry Joyce, and the sheer versatility of baritone James Clayton. The size of the baritone role notwithstanding, Clayton was a standout, manoeuvring wonderfully between the restraint and clarity of Primo Vere to the boiling rage In Taberna and the drunken shenanigans of the Abbot of Cockaigne. The orchestra too showed similar versatility, balancing the sensitivity of their accompaniment role with instances of positively filthy, Weimar-era jazz-like sonorities. So effective was the performance that, as O Fortuna returned as a finale (Orff clearly knew he was onto something), I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to regard the piece in a new, more appreciative light.

WASO performs Carmina Burana again on October 3 & 4 but both concerts are sold out

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