Philharmonic fantastic

• Soloist Katja Webb brings a high note to the launch of the West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday. Photo by Matt Lim.

DAVID MACONOCHIE is a violinist and GP and has been performing with WACO for three years.

AS the last glimmer of sound from the violins faded away, leaving a faint pulsing from the basses, the lights of Perth Concert Hall dimmed and a multitude held their breath, tears in many eyes.

For a full 10 seconds the world stood still.

At last a roar of approval greeted the director and driving force behind Perth’s newest musical ensemble, the West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra.

Who? More of that later.

First, the music. We had just sat spell-bound through A Sea Symphony by the very English composer Ralph (pronounced Ray-ff) Vaughan Williams (note, no hyphen).

The only dissenting sound throughout the entire concert was a single baby’s cry – not a cough, a mutter or a dropped program anywhere.

A Sea Symphony is an unusual work for a classical composer from the turn of the 20th century and was Vaughan Williams’ first major orchestral foray.

It could have been written by no-one else, such is the individuality of his style.

It is scored for soprano, baritone, large chorus and orchestra and revolves around settings of poems by the American poet Walt Whitman from his collection Leaves of Grass.

The work opens to a fanfare from trumpets and horns, and a rumble from the surf rolling back from the beach as the choir sings as one; “Behold …” before a massive wave draws itself up and  “The Sea itself” pounds into the cliff-face, sending shimmering clouds of string sound roaring into the air in one of the most dramatic key changes ever from B flat minor to a triumphant D major, and we are under way on a voyage that will last significantly over an hour.

The first verse gives a flavour of Whitman’s style, both mystical and a little melodramatic.

Behold, the sea itself,

And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;

See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the green and blue,

See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,

See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.

Behold, the sea itself,

And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships.

The four movements have descriptive titles: A Song for All Seas, All Ships; On The Beach At Night Alone; The Waves; and The Explorers. The movements are in turns monumental and evocative, quiet and contemplative, dashing and exciting, and lastly, mystical and narrative.

Words cannot do justice to this work or its performance on Saturday night. You had to be there.

A word about the two soloists. Katja Webb is an alumnus of  WAAPA and was one of the WA Opera Company’s emerging artists for 2006. Since then she has built a career as a soloist here in Australia and in Germany.

Webb has a rich, dramatic soprano voice which soared over the full orchestra, and a stage presence that greatly enhanced the music.

Kris Bowtell is also home-grown, and combines roles as soloist with music director of the UWA Choral Society. He is shortly to appear as Peter in Hansel and Gretel on  February 22 for Opera in the Park.

His rich but clear baritone voice was most profound in the meditative On the Beach at Night Alone.

With such a monumental item for the second half of the concert, we might have expected a more lightweight first half.

Instead the concert opened with a masterpiece of impressionist orchestral writing; Debussy’s La Mer.

Suffice to say every one of Debussy’s detailed markings of sforzandi, sudden swells and subito pianos was observed to the letter in a performance that many a well-known orchestra would have been proud to call their own.

Being of a generation that had never heard of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, my expectations for Alan Menken & Howard Ashman’s score were not high.

But it turned out to be pretty reasonable; cheerful and entertaining and performed with enthusiasm by the chorus and soloists Jocelyn Campbell and Joanna Parry (standing in the choir stalls). It was an appropriate filler and sent the audience humming into the interval to build up stamina before the title piece of the concert took up the second half.

Joy

What is this about the new West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra, announced on the night  by director Sam Parry?

The Western Australian Charity Orchestra was founded in 2008 with the twin aims of raising money for deserving causes, and bringing music and joy into the community.

The WACO website says it best; “music has the power to touch human hearts in unique ways that can reach beyond the struggles of dementia, depression, anxiety and loneliness”.

The WACO umbrella organisation now includes the orchestra, a fabulous and world beating Wind Symphony, and choir. From these, smaller groups bud off to bring music to hospitals and aged care institutions.

It became apparent WACO needed a new name to reflect the high standard of performance exemplified by Saturday night’s concert, and incidentally avoid accidental association with an unfortunate incident in Texas, 1993.

The West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra (or West Coast Phil as it inevitably will be called) is the result.

While it is still the case that members of the orchestra are all volunteers, like most paid orchestras each has to pass an audition to gain a place.

Around half are full-time professional musicians. Several are casual members of WASO, one was concertmaster of one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras in a previous life, at least two are medical doctors, another a psychiatrist, several are retired. All give up their free time for the love of music and their belief in the aims of the group.

Look out for future concerts from the West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra, and tell your friends. Not only will you be doing yourself a favour, but you will also indirectly help in the community work that the orchestra does to bring joy to those who would not otherwise be so lucky.

This is what you missed: https://www.waco.org.au/events/a-sea-symphony/

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