WA Youth Orchestra presents Rite of Spring at Perth Concert Hall

David CusworthThe West Australian
John Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall.
Camera IconJohn Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Andrew J Clarke

WA Youth Orchestra brought pagan energy and abundant promise to the Perth Concert Hall for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on Saturday, with radical choreography to refresh a classical staple.

A languid opening belied the explosion to follow, channelling the revolutionary impact of the original Paris season in 1913.

Then as now, art imitated a disrupted social and spiritual world, and the prime movers in both would be youth.

Six trampolines on the apron stage lent energy and elevation to six ballerinas whose gawky, angular movement mirrored the music, reflecting the impact of Stravinsky’s era in Da Da-like discord incisively honoured in dance, booming offbeats and harsh melodic lines.

Scott Elstermann.
Camera IconScott Elstermann. Credit: Stefan Gosatti

Choreographer Scott Elstermann combined with conductor John Tooby and the corps be ballet — Briannah Davis, Giorgia Schijf, Ella Watson-Heath, Ellie Matzer, Meg Scheffers and Jo Omodei — in an interdisciplinary initiative WAYO dubs Merge; giving dance an all-too-rare outing in the Concert Hall.

Exhilaration and mystery played out in equal parts against a massive orchestral palette; nine horns, six trumpets, five each of flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, plus a full deck of strings and percussion describing the arc from eros to thanatos in a clinical portrayal of chaos.

The concept has since been defined in mathematics, but in Stravinsky’s day only art could give it expression.

An orchestra can set its own tempo, with or without a conductor, yet the co-ordination between the front and back of the stage was disciplined, overriding even the buffeting of the trampolines.

John Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall.
Camera IconJohn Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Andrew J Clarke

As the music cooled for the second act — The Sacrifice — dancers lay supine, struggling into life with more conventional balletic movement, the disc of the trampolines now ritualised and transformed into an ordeal as if by fire, with the “Chosen Virgin” emerging from the melee in a poignant, solemn moment.

Perhaps the nearest contemporary myth would be Lord of the Flies, with its fateful trajectory from brittle order to destructive distemper, echoed by the music in a remarkably modern idiom; melodrama enacted high in the choir stalls drawing a huge ovation to close out the night.

Dance had made its debut before the interval in an Australian premiere of WA composer Rebecca Erin Smith’s Foreigner or Foreigner, written as a master’s thesis at the Manhattan School of Music and for the first time conceived as ballet.

A carpet bag centre-stage acted as a memento mori — a symbol of fate — as blue light and a flurry of graceful bodies down the aisles broke the fourth wall .

Rebecca Erin Smith.
Camera IconRebecca Erin Smith. Credit: R. E. Smith

As if to mirror Stravinsky, an outsider was drawn from the corps, buffeted from pillar to post as broad, programmatic phrases summoned distance and wonder; the traveller by turns aided and hindered, walking as if on air over dreamlike tones from the orchestra.

Again concord was fragile, as jagged percussion and woodwind figures, augmented by brass, seemed to follow the conflicted narrative of the dance, even though the music was the prime mover.

Smith later acknowledged this phenomenal fusion with Elstermann’s art as: “Two bodies, one mind.”

Earlier, the young ensemble launched into Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture with mystery and majesty in a woodwind chorus, swelling through bass, cello, horns and violin, then morphing to mellow meditation.

There was an assurance in the rise and fall of dynamics under Tooby’s baton, breaking seamlessly into the drama of Montagues and Capulets with a crisp edge to the clash of swords in brass and percussion; trumpet, trombone and tuba a close combination.

Another tight transition to the love theme put flute and horn in tender duet before switching back to conflict, the twin themes of love and death neatly interleaved by musicians barely older than the original star-crossed lovers.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to the Song of Hiawatha completed the program, delicious harp and strings leading-in a dreamy soundscape broken by horn calls as if from distant fields.

Drama in low brass and percussion heralded melodious cello with a hint of native folklore in the rise and fall across the ensemble, deft dynamics pleasing in whole and parts.

Stentorian brass over forceful percussion summoned martial spirits, yet as in the Tchaikovsky they were balanced by soulful strains in strings and woodwind; another intertwining of love and death.

John Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall.
Camera IconJohn Tooby and WA Youth Orchestra bring the drama of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Perth Concert Hall. Credit: Andrew J Clarke

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