Perth Concert Hall
July 14, 2018

The stormy Perth weather may have deterred some from venturing outside, but the West Australian Symphony Orchestra seems to command a determined audience. The Perth Concert Hall was crawling with concertgoers, all eager to see the young, award-winning Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández make his WASO debut with Dvořák’s extremely popular cello concerto. For those unswayed by the glitzy trio of the young virtuoso, his Lord Aylesford Stradivarius, and the famous work, the concert promised much more. Alongside Ferrández, American conductor Joshua Weilerstein was also making his WASO debut. In keeping with his commitment to showcasing the work of living composers, Weilerstein programmed Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, a short showpiece inspired, according to the composer, ‘by the original mid-18th Century promenade concerts held in London’s pleasure gardens.’ And for those who simply yearned for a solid sliver of the symphonic repertoire, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony assured concertgoers that they would experience dizzying dance episodes, haunting melodies and full-blown orchestral drama.

Pablo Ferrández

A piece of just five minutes long, Clyne’s Masquerade didn’t have the luxury of easing the orchestra into its sonic midst. From the first beat, the WASO strings expertly navigated the rushing string patterns that would occasionally melt into warm lyricism. This was aided by an entirely uniform string tone that would endure throughout the piece, conjuring the image of a singular, assured dancer rather than several frantic individuals attempting the same moves. This sound was eventually pitted against an equally excellent brass chorale and complemented by evocative wind interjections.  From this texture emerged a familiar, tonally assured Western dance idiom that rendered the work a somewhat conservative ‘crowd-pleaser.’

Even with the reduced orchestral forces required to adequately support a concerto, the orchestral opening of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto was emphatic and assured and featured a beautifully inflected horn solo. Ferrández’s opening gesture matched the energy of the orchestra yet died away much too quickly. Throughout the concerto, it became apparent that Ferrández is an extremely sensitive, introspective player; some of the most beautiful music came from the slower moments, where Ferrández managed to keep the audience waiting with bated breath for his next note. That’s not to say the more technical passages weren’t technically assured; they just weren’t as thrilling as the anticipation he could wring from the stillness, such as the heart-stopping cadenza in the second movement. Unfortunately, such introspection doesn’t always lend itself to the most convincing ensemble work; Weilerstein and WASO worked extremely hard to accommodate the sometimes unpredictable Ferrández. Ultimately, Weilerstein managed to coax Ferrández into interacting with the ensemble by the third movement, the dialogue of which made for an exhilarating conclusion to the work. Throughout the concerto, WASO held together beautifully under Weilerstein’s baton during the ‘tutti’ sections; in particular, the winds in the second movement almost outshone the soloist. But Ferrández was the soloist for a reason, with musical maturity and a commanding stage presence that did Dvořák justice.

Longer than Masquerade and lacking a soloist, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was the perfect space for Weilerstein’s conducting to shine. With WASO extremely responsive to his energetic conducting style, Weilerstein’s attention to detail was plainly apparent. The first movement saw an intensity of phrasing and an agreement on articulation and attack across the orchestra, which culminated in a stunningly hair-raising final chord. The exhilarating second movement was appropriately edgy, with virtuosic wind solos sitting perfectly atop the restless texture. The sombre third movement achieved the seemingly contradictory combination of warmth and spookiness, with Weilerstein allowing the inner string voices to breathe and develop their perpetual rhythmic figures. Whilst maintaining a masterful control of the orchestra, Weilerstein gave the orchestra space in the final movement to display their virtuosity, with extremely impressive wind passages and wonderfully jarring brass interjections bringing the symphony to an explosive finish.

Braving the weather for the WASO debuts of two fantastic musicians was an extremely worthwhile outing. I hope either Weilerstein and Ferrández (or both!) return to Perth for more spectacular music making.