by David Cusworth
for the West Australian
on the 13th August 2014
A sher Fisch wants Beethoven to make the WA Symphony Orchestra famous. “This is a very fine orchestra by any standard,” the WASO principal conductor says. “The only reason it’s not known in the world is that it’s in Perth, Australia. So I don’t think any challenge is too big for them.
“My vision, what I want to do with the orchestra, is to give it a certain profile and by playing in a short period all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies we can achieve that quicker.”
Beethoven, the subject of a WASO festival in his name this month, changed music forever, Fisch says.
“Wagner said that until Beethoven, actually, even with Beethoven, classical music was based on either marches or dances,” he says. “That was it. Beethoven in his lifetime, and in the later symphonies and sonatas and quartets, he changed that and created a language in which the vocabulary is much, much larger than what it was before, for example rhythmically speaking. And that speaks to us. It’s like what Shakespeare did in theatre and Rembrandt in painting.”
This explains why Beethoven is so enduring.
“The ability to create drama in music without the need for text or story speaks to us today,” Fisch says. “Because in modern music, when we’re left alone with a sound, without the background, the circumstances, the story, we lose track, and Beethoven gives us that — a drama without words.”
Fisch compares playing all nine symphonies in the Beethoven Festival to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
“Ring listeners never ask themselves, why play all four operas together, it’s just a given,” he says.
“If you really can follow the journey of Beethoven from the first symphony to the ninth symphony you’re a lucky person. Because when you hear them separately, just the second or the seventh, it’s great but it doesn’t tell the whole story because the whole story is going from one to the last bar of nine.
“There’s a development. I see music history in a nutshell, going from harmless, classical and very structured to world-embracing, humanistic, dramatic, all within the nine symphonies.
“One and two are a continuation, three is an entire revolution, four is ‘maybe did I go too far, I’m going back a little bit’, five is not as much a revolution but it’s new language, it’s totally daring.
“Six is the first non-abstract music anybody composed, it’s the first narrative, it’s the first tone poem in a symphony. Seven, eight and nine are three completely different worlds, so there is an arch but there are also breaks in the arch and there is a retreat also in four and eight, for some reason or other.”
WASO is building its subscription base when most orchestras are shrinking but is the audience ready for so much at once?
“Everybody is trying to tinker with the structure of the classical concert because obviously it’s run its course, for many reasons,” Fisch says.
“Lifestyles have changed so much, people want a different thing, and this is one of the reasons we are doing the Beethoven cycle, to enable people who just want to do that and not have to commit to an entire season.
“People definitely tend now towards festivals, special events, outdoor activities etc.”
WASO is supporting the festival with Beethoven’s Big Day Out — two 30-minute workshops for children aged two to five — and Jam on a Classic, a BYO instrument session for anyone aged six and older.
But the test will be performance, and Fisch has already bolstered the WASO sound, noticeably in June’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
“This orchestra has an incredible piano, it can play very soft and beautifully so,” he says.
“I want to stretch the envelope and I want the difference between the loud and the soft much bigger.
“The biggest danger is average, staying in the middle, and playing in a defence mode, you have to go for it and commit. And some of the great orchestras in the world, that’s what they do, they commit to every sound.”
‘The biggest danger is average, staying in the middle, and playing in a defence mode.’