REVIEW: Beethoven Festival Final Weekend | WASO

After hearing the last four of the nine Beethoven symphonies that WASO performed over two weekends, one thing is absolutely certain: Perth loves Asher Fisch. Fisch is the Principal Conductor and  Artistic Advisor for WASO until 2016, and he has made quite an impact on both the orchestra and crowds. He’s known for his affinity for German composers of the Romantic and post-Romantic era, and cites Beethoven as the major inspiration and cornerstone of 19th- and 20th-century music, so it seems beautifully logical that he and WASO should bring this Beethoven festival of all nine symphonies to the Perth Concert Hall.

These nine works do not often get played together in succession, and it seems like a mammoth undertaking. Is it possible to suffer from over-saturation of Beethoven? When planning such a program, how likely is it that the orchestra and audiences can endure the whole thing? Host Janet Holmes à Court, when introducing the evening’s program on Friday the 29th (Symphony nos. 6 & 7), she drolly remarked that everyone “had managed to stay awake.” It’s likely there never was a chance for a quick nap on Fisch’s watch; his nuanced interpretations of these beloved classics were superbly delivered by this vibrant and frequently joyful ensemble. Together they lovingly and painstakingly sculpt Beethoven’s delicate phrases and his madly passionate dynamic shifts and tempo changes so that they sound new and fresh. WASO makes these classic, historical pieces sound as young as when they were written.

The Pastoral, number six, is such an aurally descriptive work, inspiring imaginative flights of fancy that create mental pictures of a day in the country. The third movement in particular shows Beethoven at his most playful and joyous, and the ensemble sounds bountiful and vivacious, dancing along at a flying pace. This could easily be one of Beethoven’s most direct and accessible works, as it tells a clear story that moves along prettily, and it’s here rendered with absolute finesse by Fisch and the orchestra.

Number seven opens with a dance similar to the third movement of number six, but more aggressive and rambunctious, as if the peasants had moved from the countryside to the tavern, have had a bit too much while weathering the storm, and are perhaps capable of starting a brawl. But it’s the second movement, the Allegretto, that absolutely stuns the audience into silence; once the main melody repeats a second time, you can’t hear a breath (let alone a cough or a lozenge wrapper) from any corner of the room as the orchestra suddenly becomes stiller, stealthier and more solemn. The stillness and solemnity are well and truly dispersed by the final galloping movement that races to a triumphant close for the evening’s program.

The final two concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon wrap up the series with Symphony numbers 8 & 9. Number eight is a pleasant pre-cursor to the final symphony, with a driving, stormy mid-section in the first movement, an assured, steady marching second movement, and a running take-off to a soaring fourth movement. However, there’s no denying that the pièce de résistance can be no other than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The WASO Chorus fills the loft, the orchestra is bolstered with more percussionists and a fuller wind section, and there are four chairs placed at the front of the stage that will soon be taken by Soprano Marcy Stonikas, Mezzo Soprano Fiona Campbell, Tenor Steve Davislim and Baritone James Clayton.

To say that this particular performance of number nine is rousing would be an understatement. The soloists are sublime, with Stonikas soaring over the top of the entire ensemble, strings, winds and chorus included. This is a work that sends chills up your spine, brings tears of joy to your eye, and inspires awe at the genius who wrote such a masterpiece. Beethoven deconstructs his own work, turns it inside out, ushers in a new musical era, expresses the extremes of darkness and light that coloured his life, and creates something that may never be paralleled in terms of its popularity and power to endure, inspire and permeate. WASO and the WASO chorus under Fisch’s direction perform this wondrous piece of music with absolute devotion, and the audience springs to its feet for a lengthy ovation.

Perth is in for another magnificent year of programming under Fisch’s Artistic advisement, and can look forward to a Brahms festival in 2015.