WA Symphony Orchestra performs the Holst Planets suite with Asher Fisch at the Perth Concert Hall

Journeys into the Unknown was a leitmotif through the WA Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Holst, Berg and Wagner on Friday, with a touch of swagger on stage at the Perth Concert Hall.

Principal conductor Asher Fisch presented “possibly the greatest orchestra to be played in the world today”, with the addition of 20 rising stars to the assembled ranks for Berg’s Innocently titled Three Pieces for Orchestra and the monumental suite Planets by Holst.

A planned collaboration with the Australian National Academy of Music fell victim to COVID travel restrictions, so WASO recruited local talent to pump up the numbers.

The impact of Holst’s opening, Mars Bringer of War, was precise and impressive.

An almost imperceptible rhythm on the timpani and percussive strings summoned dark tones on the bassoon and then on the brass; the “devil of music” diminished the fifth, creating a century-old resonance played in modern Hollywood space dramas.

Relentless rhythm captured the sense of escape from the original, with overall power complemented by towering chords from the pipe organ.

For Venus, David Evans’ horn was as calming as it had been threatening to Mars; the harp swaying over gently undulating woodwinds leading Riley Skevington’s lyrical violin solo in a serene string serenade perfectly reflected in Liz Chee’s rhapsodic oboe and Rod McGrath’s cello; fading to become arachneal varieties.

Camera iconAsher Fisch addresses the audience at Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Linda dunjey

Mercury erupted in rushing lines through sections and registers, violin, oboe, flute, celestial and clarinet chasing the “messenger” in a full ensemble hymn with trumpet highlights; never rely on a theme or a soundscape.

Holst has written as much about gods and horoscopes as he has written about celestial bodies, his Jupiter Bringer of Jollity light years away from the distant gas giant we now know. The energy teeming in the strings took off in the horns and then the brass before the full effects of the ensemble led to the central hymn, appropriated by the empire of Holst’s time as “Je vous voue my country “.

Saturn featured Adam Pinto on celeste and harpists Yi-Yun Loei and William Nicols softly intoning a clock-like figure to support fragments of melody rich in tone and color; a brief burst of horn, a taste of Star Trek, perhaps, and chimes ringing for the finality of old age.

Uranus rose majestically in brass and timpani – timpanist Alex Timcke heart pounding with Fisch in assured and polished delivery. Holst’s self-proclaimed “galloping dance” followed; complex harmonies facilitating the jumps of strong sensations to calm and appeasement.

Finally, Neptune sailed in a whirling mystery, an evocation of distance enhanced by the silver harp and the celestial, with woods delightfully balanced by strings.

A backstage female choir offered another eerie echo of Star Trek, fading into the vastness of space just as Voyager now expands our limits with each passing day.

The WA Symphony Orchestra performs the Holst Planets Suite with Asher Fisch at the Perth Concert Hall.
Camera iconThe WA Symphony Orchestra performs the Holst Planets Suite with Asher Fisch at the Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Linda dunjey

Fisch drew a direct contrast between Holst and Berg’s Three Pieces, each reacting to the onset of WWI. “If Holst is a trip to the planetarium, Berg is a visit to the shrink’s office,” he said.

Berg opened in mystery, with the drums of war and the plaintive cries of humanity in the woods overwhelmed by the power of the bass brass and the piercing trumpet: Apocalyptic visions reigned then as they do today.

In the Reigen (“round dance”), a stammering, floating opening gradually developed a sense of rhythm and consistency, demonically difficult to sustain but finely balanced in performance.

Finally, the Marsch was martial if not walkable, a deconstruction of the destructive myth of the Berg era. The hard bow in the ropes seemed to anticipate decades of Hitchcock’s films: a psychopathic drama contrasted here with the star-eyed hope of Holst.

If war was the background, fog and friction seemed to be the theme; Stratospheric trumpets reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s ‘demented shrill choruses of howling seashells’, fascinating by the bubbling, teeming impact of such a large ensemble – quieter passages perhaps Owen’s ‘bugle calls for sad counties’ – and a conclusion as overwhelming as any other.

The two main works have almost erased the memory of the opening, The Flying Dutchman; a calm and confident reading by an avowed specialist of Wagner.

Brass and stentor horns give rhythm to a swarm of strings supported by the fateful rumble of the timpani and a burst of wood.

Each line was delivered with precision by skillfully energetic Fisch on the catwalk as the tumultuous narrative ebbed and flowed, exploring every tone of the sonic palette in the rousing climax.

The Planets resumes tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the concert hall. www.waso.com.au.

Corina C. Butler

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