PERTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – SWEET DREAMING
3 DECEMBER 2020
Having started the Reimagined journey back in 2017 with the music of grunge giants, Nirvana, Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) have since tripped through the wires of The Doors, David Bowie and, most recently, on Thursday 3 December, Annie Lennox and The Eurythmics. Given the success of these shows in audience terms — people turn up in numbers and enjoy themselves, sometimes even visibly, which is extraordinary for Perth — and the accelerating pace at which PSO are staging these shows — last Thursday’s was the second this year — this review really should write itself.
It was the perfect ending to what had been a pretty much perfect evening of entertainment where highbrow met the hoi polloi and everyone came out richer for the experience.
It goes something like this:
On Thursday 3 December, Perth Symphony Orchestra set up camp at HBF Stadium and played a career spanning set of songs from Annie Lennox and The Eurythmics. Fronted by three fabulous singers, Freddie Mai, Sabrina Davies and Ali Bodycoat, PSO pumped out hit after hit, much to the delight of the (mostly middle aged) audience. At some points during the performance dancing broke out in the Stadium’s aisles and even in the bleechers, a move encouraged at the start of the performance and, surprisingly for Perth, not instantly quashed by overzealous security staff.
An exceedingly good time was had by all.
There, job done. Except not, because, while last Thursday was incredibly enjoyable, achieving and exceeding the universal aim of pleasing the audience, if the excited chatter and beaming smiles as patrons left the stadium were anything to go by, to leave it at that would be a vast underselling of the feat PSO pulled off with this show.
The formula for the Reimagined series is simple. Find a band or artist who has a substantial body of work that is enduringly popular, get an orchestra to play a selection of their best known songs, front the whole thing with a vocalist or vocalists who can make the songs their own without departing too far from the originals and, bish bosh bash, you’re onto a winner. Simple, really, don’t know why more orchestras aren’t doing it.
The reason being, of course, that what PSO make look so effortless on performance night, is a massive undertaking.
The joy and the danger of a symphony orchestra are in its moving parts. Contemporary musicians talk about bands being ‘tight’, that musical nirvana where the band plays as one: they’re loud and soft together, the solos are all in the right key and tempo, as well as displaying virtuosic skills; everything just sits in the pocket. The standard line up for a band includes four people and most bands, even those that play in venues for paying audiences, never consistently achieve much more than a modicum of tightness. So, imagine, if you will, a symphony orchestra, comprising 50 musicians, give or take, and a plethora of instruments, some too exotic to even name. How do you get tightness out of that? The answer lies in rehearsal, the skill of the musicians, the conductor — who on this night was Maestra Jen Winley, making her debut with PSO — and the obligatory magic. Yes, you read correctly, magic. You see, you can have all of the former, but not every bunch of musos inculcates the kind of magic that PSO does. The disembodied voice at the beginning of tonight’s performance, telling the audience that, “Dancing in your row or singing is strongly encouraged,” was none other than PSO’s Chief Executive Officer, Bourby Webster. As well as the brains and drive behind PSO’s creative and commercial directions, Webster also is the one who strongly encourages performance with panache and audience immersion.
No stuffy penguin suits here, then. This evening’s performance saw the orchestra’s members don wings, haloes, and masques, among other song-related attire, and play with wild abandon. The musicians were obviously enjoying themselves, giving it their all. In fact, as far as immersion goes, they were free diving in the ocean of music they created. And all without missing a single note, cue, key change, beat…everything was flawless.
The music felt cinematic. In places it reminded me of the twinkling visuals of the of old-school animated films that had me wide eyed and gawping at matinees as a child. There was so much detail, and the pictures it created transcended the bounds of the cavernous stadium in which the event took place. The music created warmth, light and an effortless flow that carried the audience along with it. You couldn’t fail to be drawn in. It didn’t hurt, of course, that every song PSO played that night was an instantly recognisable Annie Lennox or Eurythmics hit, but what PSO did with the songs made them, for the duration of the performance at least, more than the originals. The songs were familiar, but not the same. This was a triumph of interpreting and writing music for an orchestra.
The emphasis for these performances is reimagining and, based on the shows that I’ve seen, PSO keep getting better and better at this the more they do it.
Then there were the singers.
The show opened with all three taking the stage for a rendition of ‘Love Is A Stranger’, three blonde wigs, a tribute to Annie Lennox, belying the range of vocals and performance that was to come.
Freddie Mai then took up the baton for the first leg proper, giving fierce expression and new life to a five-song set that included ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), ‘Right By Your Side’, ‘Who’s That Girl’ and ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’. Mai closed her set duetting with Sabrina Davies on ‘There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)’, before Davies took centre stage for the next leg.
Of the three vocalists on the night, Davies perhaps gave the most faithful rendition of Annie Lennox’s vocals and delivery as she powered through ‘Would I Lie To You?’, ‘It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back)’, ‘Thorn In My Side’, which featured Freddie Mai, ‘The Miracle Of Love’ and ‘When Tomorrow Comes’. Davies’ other night job is as a Pink impersonator and the craft required to emulate a well-known artist really shone through in her performance this evening.
Davies’ set included the obligatory intermission. Twenty minutes of thumb twiddling and wondering whether you really need to go for a pee, when really all you want is for the show to go on. I know there must be good reason for it (there is, isn’t there?), but for contemporary music audiences, stopping while the performance is in full flow can be a real buzz kill. I dunno, maybe as a critic, I’m desperately reaching for something about which to be critical?
Ali Bodycoat finished up the evening with ‘Little Bird’, ‘Why’, ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ and ‘Into The West’, taking us through some of Lennox’s forays into the art of the diva and writing for films. The gears changed for this set, with Bodycoat drawing on her experience as a jazz singer to bring yet another inflection to Lennox’s canon.
The obligatory encore brought all three vocalists back to the stage for thumping renditions of ‘Missionary Man’ and ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ (of course!). It was the perfect ending to what had been a pretty much perfect evening of entertainment where highbrow met the hoi polloi and everyone came out richer for the experience.
PSO’s selection of vocalists for this evening was an important line in the sand during these times when opportunity has been thin of the ground for West Australian performers. Choosing to work with and showcase WA talent from a range of genres and backgrounds was not only a massive success, but an exhortation to ‘buy local’ that should not be ignored by other local arts organisations with similar, or greater, heft and cultural cachet to PSO. The state will be watching.