Perth Symphony Orchestra: Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined

His Majesty’s Theatre

Review: Robert Housley

Perth Symphony Orchestra’s organisational mantra ‘Music for Everyone’ is admirable considering classical music is often associated with high-brow art practice. But if there one thing the modern world of diminishing arts funding and audiences fixated on digital media has done for the arts, it is to breed resilience.

Perth Symphony Orchestra epitomises this. It knows the arts equivalent of ‘build it and they will come’ is the exception not the rule. Audiences must be actively pursued and the best way to get them to come is to produce a quality show they want to see.

Among the best mitigation plans to boost attendance is to make that show appealing to as many people as possible, that is dare I say, music for the masses. What better way to achieve that than genre-hop from its classical repertoire in to the popular music style of grunge.

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Justin Burford and Perth Symphony Orchestra

Grunge the world over is synonymous with one band: Seattle-based trio Nirvana. The band’s albums Nevermind and In Utero produced a score of global hits. Its best-known live performance is the 1993 acoustic concert filmed for the MTV Unplugged in New York series.

Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined was PSO’s take on this. The concert was such a success last year that an encore was scheduled for 2018 and last night His Majesty’s Theatre was sold out once again. The full orchestra consumed much of the stage with black candles and a plethora of white lilies dotted among them and along the front. Fame-afflicted Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain asked for these solemn accoutrements in 1993. He wanted the set to look like there was a funeral. Tragically, his own suicide came just five months later.

Pulling off a concert of this ilk was always going to be heavily dependent upon who played the role of the enigmatic, introvert Cobain.  Former lead singer of Perth band End of Fashion and Helpmann Award nominee for Best Actor in a Musical (Rock of Ages) Justin Burford channelled the role and gravelly voice to near perfection.

His uncanny physical resemblance to the dishevelled Cobain, coupled with his superlative West Coast US accent, made it feel like the man himself was there. The cardie, chain smoking and nervous movements on a swivel chair took you right back to MTV Unplugged.

What set this concert aside was the casual interplay between him and lithe PSO chief conductor/artistic director Jessica Gethin. She said very little but was a potent and lively conduit between the grunge front man and the sea of black-bedecked players.

This triumvirate were as one throughout arranger Ash Gibson Greig’s beautifully realised versions of the MTV Unplugged song list including gems such as Come As You Are and All Apologies.

Hoots of recognition from the audience were met with off-the-cuff comments from Burford with the seamlessness of a consummate professional.

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Occasional projected snippets of biographical information about the band gave context to the songs and were a reminder of Cobain’s humanity. The orchestra beautifully conveyed the tragedy and melancholy inherent in the song Polly, which was inspired by the abduction and rape of a teenage girl.

But there was plenty of fun on the night, exemplified during the multi-tune encore of other Nirvana hits. When the curtain dropped, the audience were in full voice demanding the performers return with more. When they did return PSO had been ‘grunged’. It was jackets off and a whole new outfit for Gethin. Even Burford swapped his cardie for Cobain’s definitive checked shirt.

What song did they finish on? The biggest of all Nirvana chart toppers Smells Like Teen Spirit, accompanied by four teenage dancers with pom poms. But this wasn’t the end: smoke and moving lights gave the whole show a rock concert feel so why not smash a violin centre stage to sign off!

The masses approved with a raucous standing ovation.