Once again the West Australian Symphony Orchestra showed its mettle in a classical context, with a modernist filling. The title is a little misleading, since it comprised two items by Beethoven and one by John Adams. Since everyone is doing Beethoven this year, it is obviously good to have a point of difference. In any case, the orchestra was on top form under French guest conductor Ludovic Morlot, who has a distinguished international career, and brought out the best of the orchestra on this occasion.

Ludovic Morlot
© Brandon Patoc

Beginning with the Coriolan overture is an obvious choice and crowd-pleaser. Written for a play – not the Shakespearean portrayal of the Roman general, but that of Austrian playwright Heinrich Joseph von Collin – it provides moments of military splendour and some intimate moments. An incisive opening followed by more lyrical playing showed good discipline and balance.

Absolute Jest by John Adams was, despite its many Beethovian allusions, a clear contrast to its surrounding works. It is written for string quartet, in a sort of concerto role, and a full orchestra with woods, brass and percussion. In this instance, the Australian String Quartet joined the WASO, and it got off to a rollicking start with a drum-roll leading into cow bells, then strings, with many subsequent odd turns and aural vignettes with the wide range of instruments deployed. Written as a single movement, the main thing holding it all together is the Beethovian themes, especially from his string quartets. While there is considerable movement, shifting colours and driving passages, it is never clear exactly where it is going, and the overall shape is elusive. It was played with considerable energy and excitement by all involved, ending with a charming ripple of cow bells, celesta and harp.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major is perhaps played less often than Nos. 3, 6, 5 and 9, but the second movement is a great favourite on its own, particularly as background music for a range of dramatic works for screen. Wagner much praised the symphony, calling it the “Apotheosis of the dance”. 

After a somewhat subdued opening but a lyrical lead-in to the Vivace, the orchestra moved into a full-on romp with overflowing enthusiasm, with pastoral tones added by flute and piccolo. The famous Allegretto enjoyed a hushed beginning, followed by suitably modulated strings, then horns and piccolos softening the edges, leading to a strong resolution, at all times bringing out the nuances inherent in the score. The Presto-Trio third movement can be somewhat repetitive, but was carried off by insouciant playing; the final Allegro con brio had lots of that too, with varied solo instruments making their mark. The rousing finish sparked great applause.