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Vasily Petrenko, Emily Sun & WA Symphony Orchestra play Nielsen, Mozart & Shostakovich at Perth Concert Hall

An eerie calm hung over the Concert Hall stage as strings, harps and celeste evoked the whisper of wind on snow for Shostakovich’s epic Symphony No.11, “The Year 1905”.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko, his heritage torn between Russia and Ukraine, put a human face to a dramatic account of tyranny and destruction, echoing down a century of conflict and loss.

He held the massed forces of WA Symphony Orchestra in the palm of his hand on Friday, the calm before the storm giving life to the old adage: good bands play loud, great bands play quietly.

The bill opened in lighter mood with Nielsen’s Maskarade, a humorous romp that Petrenko mirrored in sprightly demeanour; holding strings in abeyance for comic woodwind flourishes before unleashing full orchestral effects.

 Emily Sun and WA Symphony Orchestra play Mozart Violin Concerto No.4 at Perth Concert Hall.
Camera Icon Emily Sun and WA Symphony Orchestra play Mozart Violin Concerto No.4 at Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Linda Dunjey

Crisp and energetic from go to whoa, it formed a lively amuse bouche to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4 and Australian virtuoso Emily Sun.

Sun swayed to the strains of a pared-back ensemble, drifting in precisely to the upper register with a lightness of touch that resonated through the entire hall, waxing vigorously in the lower reaches before a flawless cadenza drew every nuance from every note.

Soft wind and strings rolled gently into the Andante second movement, Sun channelling the cantabile quality of the music redolent of Mozart’s operatic arias. A duet with oboe made an easy segue into the tantalising lines of the cadenza before dissolving to syrupy cascades, fading to silence.

Leading out the Rondeau finale, Sun morphed to prima ballerina, launching virtuosic flurries with the assurance of an artist at the top of her game before switching to more bucolic fare; droning and cavorting then regaining her more stately gait before reprising the virtuoso frenzy.

Vasily Petrenko and WA Symphony Orchestra play Nielsen, Mozart and Shostakovich at Perth Concert Hall.
Camera IconVasily Petrenko and WA Symphony Orchestra play Nielsen, Mozart and Shostakovich at Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Linda Dunjey

After the interval, Shostakovich’s fateful shimmer turned to a menacing rumble in timpani and trumpet as the slightest gestures ushered in history on a wave of sound like a quickening breeze.

Distant horn led to mystery in fifths, relieved by folkloric flute then returning to strings, redoubled in ever-present trumpet and timpani.

Shostakovich wrote about a peaceful revolution answered by a massacre, each movement an episode in the drama; the first “Palace Square” rolling inexorably into “Ninth of January” — the tragic day announced without fanfare then erupting in chaos; jagged chords and drumbeat summoning violence and slaughter.

Rumbling across brass and low strings hinted at unseen darkness while violin and viola spoke of urgent hope, as if pleading against doom and destruction.

Revolutionary songs to represent the dead would have more idiomatic force to a Russian audience, yet the sense of outrage spoke volumes over decades; reflected in Petrenko’s own boycott of his homeland during the current conflict.

Harsh fifths across woodwind answered by trumpets triggered renewed attack in strings and brass, booming percussion, gong and clashing cymbals.

Vasily Petrenko and WA Symphony Orchestra play Nielsen, Mozart and Shostakovich at Perth Concert Hall.
Camera IconVasily Petrenko and WA Symphony Orchestra play Nielsen, Mozart and Shostakovich at Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Linda Dunjey

Just as suddenly, harp and celeste restored the opening theme punctuated by muted trumpet, soulful flute, horns and trombone; fading to a halting pizzicato in transition to “Eternal Memory”.

Mellow, mournful violas traced dark undertones picked up in low brass and woodwind, devolving in a note of finality to strings before building to anthemic intensity across the ensemble, then settling on bassoon and a gentle exit.

Angular attack in the finale, “The Tocsin”, sounded the alarm in brass and percussion as Petrenko modelled sound and sentiment with every beat and gesture; grand themes and challenging harmonies offset by majestic octaves in strings, subsiding to the timeless soundscape of the Palace Square and a hauntingly plaintive cor anglais.

Finally, fate tolled out in timpani and drum as horns rejoined the fray over frenzied woodwind, and trumpet summoned the ensemble for one last heroic climax.

Wild cheers and applause said it all, with the final ovation saved for violas.

WASO returns to Perth Concert with Britten’s War Requiem on August 19 and 20.

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