Willoughby Symphony Orchestra | Gala
February 14, 2021 Chatswood
What better way to open a gala celebration of Valentine’s day than with a classic waltz. The electric opening chords of Johann Strauss II’s, Frühlingsstimmen op. 410 (commonly known as the Voices of Spring waltz) made me want to jump out of my seat and swirl around the room in joyful disregard of covid restrictions. Guy Noble (stepping into the conductor’s role for Dr Nicholas Milton who is currently in Europe) was clearly having a ball and after the waltz he gave a brief and, in his usual style, very humorous introduction. The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, host to some of the country’s most exciting emerging artists and composers, was then joined by singers of the Pacific Opera Company and together they delivered up a veritable bouquet of romantic melodies.
A gala seems like a perfect program for packing in all our favourite tunes within a covid limited timeframe and this concert certainly met expectations in that respect. What a glorious opportunity to showcase the many talents of this community-based but surprisingly polished orchestra, plus some of their successful collaborations with young artists and composers.
Each member of Pacific Opera had their chance to shine in a floral-themed solo or duet. They were placed suitably distanced in the choir stalls behind the orchestra which required them to project over a wall of orchestral sound but they managed admirably – skilfully aided by Noble’s deft conducting, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the voices throughout the program. These rising stars of Australian opera performed classic works from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Bizet’s Carmen and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier as well as Gilbert and Sullivan staples and traditional folk tunes such as Benjamin Britten’s brooding arrangement of O Waly Waly, orchestrated by Julie Simonds. Chosen from over 100 applicants these 10 singers (Hannah Greenshields, Elora Ledger, Gavin Brown, Kirralee Hillier, Rebecca O’Hanlon, Daniel Verschuer, Nicole Mealey, Tessa Hayward, Nicholas Geddes and Matthew Avery) will spend a year in the company’s development program which includes events such as this one where they can reveal their talents to a large audience. All of them proved to be accomplished performers with very fine voices, often sending tingles up the spine (oh what joy to hear live vocals once again) and they added a wonderful sense of drama as they acted out the love stories unfolding within the music.
In recent interviews Pacific Opera’s Artistic Director Peter Coleman-Wright AO has acknowledged the impact of Covid-19 on the company but maintains that it is important to give each young artist at Pacific Opera performance opportunities that suit his or her age and vocal development. During 2021 they will return to the Concourse at Chatswood to perform short ‘Pocket Operas’ accompanied by WSO. I am looking forward to seeing how these young singers progress under the company’s development program. Look out for The Marriage of Figaro on March 27.
While competently supporting the singers, the players of Willoughby Symphony did however have many opportunities to let loose and display their full capabilities, not least at the centre of the program, when we were treated to a world premiere by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Alice Chance. Her work A Small Cutting changed the mood somewhat. Chance’s response to 2020 events featured relentless, punchy and, in Chance’s own words ‘unapologetic’ accented strings creating a sense of perpetual movement alongside a hammering yet melodic xylophone line held skilfully by Josh Hill. The work evoked a cactus flower that, while relentlessly battered by harsh conditions, still retains a beauty completely worthy of its place in this floral bouquet.
The grand finale from the orchestra had us waltzing in our seats once more with Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker with a sublime introduction from Emily Granger on harp, it was a light-hearted and gleeful performance which finished the program spectacularly.
This musical excursion through a world of flowers evoked a time, not so long ago, when dancing and singing were embraced with joyous abandon, something we all look forward to doing once again very soon!
Thank you WSO for keeping the music alive and Happy Valentine’s Day.