Every half decade the WA Symphony Orchestra celebrates their relationship with guest conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a gala concert. And why not; it’s a partnership of deep mutual respect and Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is much-beloved by audiences.

Since becoming guest conductor in 1987 Verbitsky has conducted the jewels of Russian repertoire, introduced countless Russian soloists and witnessed many changes at WASO including the tenures of four chief conductors. There has also been a huge growth in musicianship. For the 25th anniversary celebrations in 2012 Verbitsky described the orchestra as a ‘really fantastic orchestra, professional on the world stage’. In a recent interview he went one step further and declared them to be ‘the best orchestra in Australia at the moment.’

For the 30th anniversary gala concert Verbitsky programmed two large-scale Russians works: Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Both programmatic works were inspired by 19th century poetry and quote the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead. The Bells also provided an opportunity to profile the WASO chorus who are currently in top form.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony depicts Byron’s tortured, guilt-stricken hero Manfred and is one of the great program symphonies of the 19th century. Verbitsky established a rugged foundation from the first appearance of Manfred’s restless wandering idée fixe. His immaculate precision as a conductor was balanced by idiosyncratic heart-on-sleeve entreaties; an imploring stare at the violins drew out raw intensity while a chopping gesture provoked an incisive attack from cellos and basses.

Tchaikovsky’s colourful caricature of the Witch and her waterfall in the second movement was reminiscent of The Nutcracker’s glittering magic. Verbitsky conducted without a baton and the woodwind players were receptive, responding to his relaxed contouring with bubbling, fluid sextuplets.

The expansive lyricism of the third movement built via a folk dance into a moment of throbbing passion and then the blistering aggression of the finale unfolded with the percussion section pounding a dark descent into the underworld.

The struggle of the individual versus the universe underpins much romantic ideology. Tchaikovsky doesn’t have the sarcasm of Mahler, the decadence of Wagner or the word painting of Berlioz; instead his Manfred Symphony has the gripping energy of a tempest with rare glimmers of light.

Rachmaninov dwells closer to the psyche of the hero; deep emotions pour from his pen. And this is where Verbitsky reached full stride, unleashing the humanity in the music. He extracted the essence of the sweetly naive The Silver Sleigh Bells, the troubled tranquility of The Mellow Wedding Bells and the terrifying energy of The Alarm Bells. The culmination was the deep lament of the final movement, lifted only at the very end by the hint of twinkling sleigh bells and a return to tonality with gentle clarinet arpeggios. And then the final testament where Verbitsky summed up the entire symphony in the last two bars, floating a lingering chord that swelled darkly and floated like an exhalation. A small contour from Verbitsky’s hands extracted a hint of brass chorale warmth, the last sound echoing through the hall.

The WASO Chorus sang with a dark, smoothly blended sonority. Credit to director Christopher van Tuinen and vocal coach Andrew Foote for the way the chorus navigated comfortably through the daring harmonies and tricky rhythms of The Alarm Bells. Paul O’Neill was a last minute replacement for Bradley Daley and his gleaming voice shone through as he navigated the tenor part. Antoinette Halloran captured the languorous soprano part and baritone Warwick Fyfe lamented The Mournful Iron Bells with impeccable Russian diction and utter conviction.

The concert was a revealing insight into the intuitive connection between the orchestra and Verbitsky, leaving a lingering impression of glittering, honeyed sound and impressive coherence.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine.