Joshua Weilerstein is a conductor on the rise; the American is artistic director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra with a flourishing career in Europe and he his debut with the WA Symphony Orchestra this week opened with a bang, literally. Weilerstein is committed to presenting a piece by a living composer in each of his programmes and the music of Anna Clyne Masquerade with its depiction of fireworks made an explosive opener.
The London-born composer began her career as an electronics composer but is now very much across orchestral repertoire, evident in her propulsive string writing and ear for colourful orchestration. Masquerade was written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and premiered under Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 and it drew on the proms carnival atmosphere. A crack from the percussion followed by the strings whirling upwards and cascading slowly back down depicted a firecracker. Snatches of a 17th century English drinking song swirled around a brass chorus, intercepted by moments like the sweet Irish-inflected piccolo solo or humorous percussion interjections. The orchestra gave an invigorating, joyful performance; it was like walking through a street carnival and getting tangled up in a line of dancers.
Pablo Ferrandez joined the orchestra for Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The 25 year old Spanish cellist was named after Pablo Casals and apparently by age three was a competent cellist. He was a more than competent soloist, driving fast, dance-like outer movements with his solo line dovetailing neatly with the orchestra in Dvorak’s interwoven passagework. In the central adagio delicately-spun lines of introspection flowed effortlessly from his 1696 Stradivarius cello. Associate concertmaster Lena Zeliszewska’s impassioned duet with Ferrandez in the final movement was a delight. Ferrandez dug deeply into Dvorak’s autobiographical writing in a candid performance which invited the audience to participate in the depth of the music. We could hear the composer yearning for his homeland and paying heartfelt tribute to his childhood love, expressed so eloquently through the cello.
After interval was Prokofiev’s contradictory Symphony No 5 with its mix of astringent lyricism and mocking military machinations. Impossible extremes of love and agony, merriment and bitterness, heat and ice sit side by side. Prokofiev’s dramatic trajectory was made even more compelling by Weilerstein’s restraint (unleashing full volume only at the pinnacles) and the orchestra’s glowing warmth (the trademark Asher Fisch sound). Is the Symphony No 5 a passionate cry of triumph for Russia or an ironic depiction of the wartime propaganda machine? Weilerstein and WASO seemed to argue both. The woodwind section brought a merry folk energy to what is often an icy motoric second movement. The third movement’s romantic love theme built to screams of agony in the violins, flutes and trumpets. There were some misplaced phrase endings in the final movement where Weilerstein was too hasty in his transitions but the drama never flagged and a rousing finale drew shouts of delight from the audience.
It was a night of thoughtful and emotionally rich music making, well worth braving the wintry weather.