The Midland Railway Workshops stretch for a kilometre in the heart of Midland’s old industrial area. The enormous warehouses now house among other things the WA Police Operations Centre and medical centre as part of the Midland redevelopment. On Wednesday night one end of a vast still-vacant warehouse was cordoned off to become a venue for Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Steampunk Mozart.

Perth Symphony Orchestra in the Midland Railway Workshops. Photo Richard Jefferson

The smell of Viennese schnitzel, a life size steampunk dalek and remnants of machinery set the scene. Beneath the hum of voices could be heard thuds, blips and the rush of steam; a sound installation evoking the industrial sounds of days gone by.

The mission of PSO Director Bourby Webster and her creative team is to bring classical music into unexpected settings and to people in all walks of life. In this instance the pairing of Mozart with the sci-fi fashion genre of steampunk was marketing genius. The sold out audience of loyal fans, Midland locals and art lovers (many decked out in neo-Victorian hoop skirts, boots and top hats) wandered the space in delight, taking in the industrial history, the coloured spot lighting, the Mozart-inspired Viennese food and, of course, the music.

And the music is where PSO unfailingly gets it right; with clever programming and world class playing this concert moved well beyond gimmicky ideas. The program opened with a classical flourish with a movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet led with boisterous energy by Paul Wright on violin, followed by the immense calm of the Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Hugely popular yet never sounding tired, the Adagio was played (despite the odd memory slip) with poised serenity by clarinettist Catherine Cahill. A Mozart duet for violin and viola was less memorable – a lack of clear pulse made the dialogue between the two instruments difficult to follow.

Jessica Gethin leading a chamber version of the Perth Symphony Orchestra

The program moved into eerie territory with Schnittke’s Moz-Art á la Haydn, conducted by Jessica Gethin with Wright and Lucas O’Brien as soloists. Schnittke’s montage of Haydn and Mozart quotes mashed with discordant harmonies was the perfect soundscape for the building. The swaying gothic skirts of the orchestral players, the dim lighting and the chords echoing beyond the spotlights into the long warehouse added to the slightly macabre edge.

Two movements from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 (arrranged for string orchestra) followed on beautifully. Gethin drew out an intensely melancholic Largo and the Allegro molto movement had a visceral energy. The program took another twist to include Albinoni/Giazotto’s Adagio for Strings. Again a well-known work sounded fresh with a relentless pizzicato bass line and lyrical melody generating heart-tugging climaxes.

Jessica Gethin and the PSO. Photo Richard Jefferson

The final surprise on the program was three percussionists who literally played the building, starting in the scaffolding and working their way to the front of the stage for a train inspired adaption of Argenziano’s Stinkin’ Garbage. Industrial noise mingled with whistles and shouts to reconstruct the sounds of the venue in its workshop days. The evening closed with Mozart’s Divertimento in D, directed with finesse by Wright. The sparse phrases of the slow movement in particular can be so unforgiving but they were immaculately contoured – the epitome of elegance and the sign of a tight ensemble.

It was an impressive night, full of creativity and multiple opportunities to connect. Another indication that if you dig below the surface in Perth’s classical music scene to the small-medium arts sector you will discover the future of classical music is in very good hands.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine 2017.