Perth Concert Hall
November 16, 2018

Dvořák’s Symphony No 9, or New World Symphony, is particularly meaningful to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. WASO’s first ever performance as an orchestra, held 90 years ago on September 16th in 1928, featured the Czech composer’s most famous symphony; a performance which was described in The West Australian as ‘surprisingly good’ for the newborn orchestra. Whilst celebrating its past, WASO also chose to showcase the music and musicians of today, programming both the world premiere of Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland and Grieg’s Piano Concerto with young Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin as soloist.

WASO, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch, review, Dvorak New World, Grieg Piano Concerto, HinterlandAsher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Emma Van Dordrecht

Skipworth’s Hinterland is described by the composer as focussing on “how the landscape elicits direct psychological responses through its various reflections of sound and light… taking the many unique rock formations of Western Australia as a starting point, Hinterland becomes a series of imagined sound and light plays acted out in music.” The types of lights and sounds one might encounter in Australia’s natural landscape were convincingly evoked by Skipworth, whose use of restless, rhythmic figures and inventive instrumentation were nicely brought to life by WASO. Particularly impressive was the way Skipworth created lines and sounds that either collided or were absorbed into other instrumental parts; Chloe Turner’s percussive contrabassoon solo descended seamlessly into the double bass section’s pizzicato, and the searing trumpet trio that bounced between each player was sonically captivating. In Skipworth’s colourful score, each section of WASO was given their moment in the sun, yet the final dramatic swell of the work indicated much cohesion and unity within the orchestra.

Andrey Gugnin, winner of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition, announced himself to Perth concertgoers with a stately, measured opening gesture in Grieg’s Piano Concerto. However, the stiff introduction soon gave way to the animated, almost playful manner of Gugnin’s playing. A delight to watch, Gugnin’s engaging playing style permeated and heightened every mood of Grieg’s music, from the sparkling whimsy of the second movement to the intense rhythmic drive of the third. Gugnin’s cadenza in the first movement was a highlight of the performance, encompassing the entirety of the concerto’s emotional spectrum in miniature. The orchestra was careful throughout the piece not to overpower nor impede the soloist. This made for a somewhat lacklustre climax in the middle of the second movement, and the orchestra struggled to assert itself following extended cadenzas. Nevertheless, the softer moments of the second movement were beautiful in their textural clarity, and the horn solos throughout the concerto were excellent in their sensitivity.

Freed from the balance considerations of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, WASO allowed themselves to achieve a stunning level of power in Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, alternating between hair-raising storminess and relaxed pastoralism throughout the work. Conducted from memory by Asher Fisch, the communication between conductor and orchestra was apparent, with Fisch guiding the orchestra through lilts and gestures that breathed much life into a somewhat overplayed symphony. Leanne Glover’s cor anglais solo in the second movement, controlled yet beautifully yearning, was a highlight of the symphony, and the boisterous final movement was a thrilling conclusion to the night. Ninety years on from the initial performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, there is nothing ‘surprising’ about how well the symphony was performed, and how well it was received by the audience in the packed Perth Concert Hall.