WA Symphony Orchestra, Ben Northey and violinist Baiba Skride perform film repertoire at the Perth Concert Hall
Did Hollywood draw its best pieces from classical music or does the orchestral tradition owe a great debt to the cinema?
It might be a first-world conundrum, but also matched the theme of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s film program at the Concert Hall on Friday.
From the prodigious tones of 2001 and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra, to a whimsical suite by Nigel Westlake for the children’s film Paper Planes, to Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto No. 4, it was difficult to disentangle the fate of the film and the orchestra over the decades. .
Westlake’s Flying Dream opened with a delicate rustling of harp and bells in a scene of mystery shot on piano, piccolo and flute, with heavy brass to swell a stunning theme; cinematic, even (hold that thought).
Crowd-favorite bandleader Ben Northey kept the tone light and airy to fit the film’s title in an ever-changing soundscape where no voice dominated; maybe fit into an orchestra bolstered by guests and COVID reinforcements.
Chicken and egg, film and classics? Korngold’s concerto had a gamble each way, relying on its immersion in film music for its escape into the concert hall of post-war America.
Violinist Baiba Skride graced the motif in a touch of technicolor with a crimson robe and richly romantic phrasing to channel the Golden Age – and just a hint of The Simpsons in the tune’s jarring ‘devil’s interval’ of the beloved show.
Chicken and egg again?
Korngold beat the well-worn path of refugees from Vienna to Los Angeles in the 1930s, but here he seemed to return to the greats of the romantic era, adding a touch of popular pizzazz.
There was also a touch of modernism in an angular, frenetic cadence that Skride pursued relentlessly in the high harmonics before returning to earthy drama to close the first stanza of the Allegro nobile.
Sighing strings with harp reflections opened the second movement, Romance, then healthy chords supported a narrative solo line; perhaps a leitmotif for a matinee idol, elusive in the upper register.
Skride seemed to flourish in the midrange before relentlessly returning to harmonics; maintain a contactless distance with tutti strings, woodwinds and brass, meditating mysteriously in meditation to conclude.
The solo and ensemble hustle for the finale flipped the switch with a touch of humor in vamp chords, morphing into virtuosic bursts of Skride’s arc.
Warm orchestral playing suggested you could pull the boy out of Hollywood, but not Hollywood out of the boy; a bucolic timbre in stark contrast to the will of Skride o’the whisp, elusively skimming the top before plunging decisively into a vigorous climax.
After the interval, a deep rumble in the organ as always evoked in the Sunrise moment of Also Sprach Zarathrustra, the trumpets rising ominously before the orchestra burst into flames and the timpani hammered the glory of the universe; Northey’s grandiose gestures are a work of art in themselves.
Were we listening to Nietzsche’s 19th century hymn to Superman (no, not that Superman), Strauss’ symphonic poem or Kubrick’s Space Odyssey?
Whatever the answer, Kubrick faded as the work progressed through dark machinations in low brass and strings then horns, offset by lush melody in violin and viola and on sustained cello and bass, becoming rhapsodic; supported by deeply harmonious organ chords as Daniel Schmitt’s viola sang a suave solo.
Turning to melodrama in stentorian trumpets, the surging strings create a stark contrast to the fateful crackle of the timpani.
Tipping again into chromatic glissando slurs through the orchestra, Rod McGrath’s solo cello descended in funeral mode to tutti cello and bass.
The bassoon followed darkly, echoed by the clarinet, as the latent tumult resurfaced, unleashing syrupy strings.
The looping lines across the stage decidedly hardened into high drama in lavish flourishes and a sudden pause.
The commotion resumed and then resolved into dancing, a sumptuous waltz with undulating harp and sturdy rubato firmly in Northey’s grasp and played decisively on the strings under the direction of concertmaster Laurence Jackson.
At the end, triumphant phrases with fanfares of trumpets and bells faded over shimmering strings at an infinitesimal cadence.
Applause and standing ovations followed in a cinematic “you watched” sequence: soloists, sections, full orchestra – everyone.
The cinematic is rebroadcast on Saturday, August 27 at 7:30 p.m.
WASO returns to the Concert Hall with Beethoven and Prokofiev on September 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m.