MOZART BY CANDLELIGHT @ Perth Concert Hall gets 7/10

Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart by Candlelight @ Perth Concert Hall
Friday, October 30, 2020


Perth Symphony Orchestra claim to be the “orchestra that breaks the rules,” and with Mozart by Candlelight, their first performance at Perth Concert Hall in their nine-year history, they hoped to tear down the rigid conventions of classical music and widen its appeal. Prior to this, few concerts have appropriately fused traditional and contemporary approaches to classical music, and unfortunately, Mozart by Candlelight slightly missed the mark as well.

Created by PSO Founder and Executive Director Bourby Webster, with Jonty Coy (music) and Kate Milligan (words), and led by Concertmaster Paul Wright, Mozart by Candlelight interspersed works by contemporary composers, such as Caroline Shaw, Michael Nyman, and Nico Muhly, with compositions by Mozart. The candles provided an illusion of intimacy, in spite of the mandatory social distancing in the large concert hall.

Each piece was accompanied by a verbal introduction consisting of two sections; either a reading of an excerpt of Mozart’s letters, or an extract from Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle (the text on which this program was based, read by Bourby Webster), and an anecdote of the piece’s personal significance from a senior member in the accompanying ensemble. Unfortunately, the readings from Mozart’s letters were so overacted that one could feel the audience’s reaction to the second-hand embarrassment. Rather than transporting them to Mannheim in 1763, they were left waiting impatiently waiting for the performances to come.

Overall, this device, intended to “transport the audience into a different context” was used excessively. Too much content was presented prior to each piece, for too long. The order and selection of pieces (especially the contemporary works) thus seemed disconnected from the originally intentioned “flowing narrative” of the performance, feeling more like choices of convenience rather than compositions that were deliberately hand-picked for the creation of a bottom-up narrative. Nevertheless, the introductory speeches from Paul Wright and Stephanie Nicholls were very enjoyable, and they each followed up their anecdotes with elements of the composition to appreciate.

Standout performers on the night included Julian Leslie and Doree Dixon in Mozart’s Horn Concerto in D, and Stephanie Nicholls and Susannah Williams in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F. The latter piece was a favourite performance of the night, embodying a lightness and joyfulness that provided a well-needed break from our current reality. The musical chemistry between Paul Wright and Shaun Lee-Chen in their rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat was astounding. Whilst it was unmistakable that Shaun Lee-Chen was a last-minute stand-in (he uncharacteristically missed a few notes), there was something inexplicably magical about their dynamic.

Paul Wright on violin and viola in subsequent performances was additionally a sight to behold. His seamless transition between the two instruments, and the moods embodied in two acts of the final piece, left one bewildered at his musical prowess. The overall synchronicity of the symphony was also impressive. As Concertmaster, Paul Wright led his orchestra flawlessly, with each member following his changes in direction and no orchestral member playing to overpower the other.

Whilst Mozart by Candlelight was an interesting experiment in the fusion of contemporary and traditional classical music, the performance definitely had its flaws. For instance, the contemporary pieces did not do justice to the technical or interpretative skills of the musicians. In spite of the other unconventional elements of the concert (e.g. clapping after every piece and the introductory readings), many of the works felt sterile and mediocre in juxtaposition to the performances of Mozart. This was especially obvious in the second piece, Muhly’s Etude No. 3, performed by soloist Katie McKay, which acted as a crossover between a study and a performance work.

Whilst it was obvious that McKay was an excellent player, her performance was greatly overpowered by the electronic accompaniment to the work. The background lighting subsequently shifted to a warm brown, giving the piece a brooding, experimental effect, which definitely fit the sentiment of the work. However, midway through, the electronic backing became louder than McKay, almost relying on the novelty of this fusion to keep the audience engaged rather than showcasing McKay’s skill. Given that the performance was meant to be set at The Rechabite, a venue that normally hosts raves, the intention of including such an unorthodox piece at this volume makes sense. Nevertheless, the duration of this piece felt more like an interactive exhibition at a museum rather than a live performance, traditional or contemporary.

Whilst Coy and Milligan’s efforts to demystify classical music and create a conceptually relatable narrative to illustrate Mozart’s multifaceted nature as an individual and as a musical influence should be applauded, more theoretical work will be needed to link the classic and contemporary in future performances. The performances of the more traditional pieces were greatly enjoyable, but the selection and order of works, alongside the excessive verbalisation, was disjointed, feeling as though it was reaching for a relevant connection. In theory, Mozart by Candlelight could have been a great educational tool for old and young, but in practice, the performance offered a mishmash of semi-relevant elements, puzzling even the classically educated audience members.