If ever Asher Fisch decides to put down the baton and pick up a pen, he has his first novel ready to go. It would be a high stakes thriller, the story of a celebrated international conductor attempting to travel between engagements during a global pandemic, traversing Europe amid closed borders and travel restrictions. And, like any good debut novel, it would be drawn from real life.
“I had a friend who lives on the Austrian/Italian border, in the mountains,” Fisch says, “and when I couldn’t get back [into Austria] I called him and said, ‘Can I drive from Italy, get up to a mountain path, then you come with a Jeep from the other side and pass me into Austria?’ And he was very happy to do that. That would have been a story! Like The Sound of Music!“
Thankfully it didn’t come to that. In fact Fisch has probably been one of the busiest musicians in the world in the last 18 months. “I must say that I am really grateful that I could work solidly from last October. Unlike many of my colleagues I was constantly working … I have travelled twice to the United States, three times now to Australia, and a lot inside Europe, down to Italy, and back to Germany – and every time with difficulties with tests, with papers I had to have. But it worked! Not in Australia, but in Europe, if you knew one border was very strict, you took another road.”
Even the combination of Australia limiting international arrivals and Western Australia limiting, well, everybody, Fisch – Principal Conductor of West Australian Symphony Orchestra – has made it to Perth to launch WASO’s 2022 season.
It is a season shaped by circumstance and timing. There are concerts and international guests held over from 2020, with this the first opportunity – touch wood – they have had to come to Perth since COVID. Even with Western Australia’s isolationist escape from the pandemic, getting people into the country remains a challenge, and so for the most part those overseas guests haven’t been booked until the second half of the year.
“You make some assumptions,” says Evan Kennea, WASO’s Executive Manager of Artistic Planning, “And then you work around those assumptions. There are lots of unknowns, particularly about things like international borders, so we made the assumption that the international border will be difficult until the second half of the year. And we planned around that, because you can’t plan around the unknown unknowns.”
“So you make a series of assumptions of what will work, what the audience appetite is, what the state borders will be like, and then once you know those assumptions you plan accordingly.”
Timing is also a big influence on Fisch’s choices of repertoire, but on a longer scale. There are works featuring in this upcoming season which he would not have dared program before now, simply because the orchestra wasn’t ready.
“The journey I am making with the orchestra has been more confined over the first six, seven years,” says Fisch, “And now I am expanding and doing things like Elgar’s second symphony, and I am going back to Tchaikovsky. I am doing things that are not what I used to do with the orchestra because we have simply reached the level where I wanted us to be, to create a unique orchestral sound for us – and now we take it on to various directions.”
One of the pieces that Fisch can program now is The Rite of Spring, which was scheduled in 2020 but wasn’t able to be performed. The orchestra was ready to tackle it then, and “now we are two years further on!” says Fisch with glee, clearly relishing the thought of finally getting to perform it.
Another item on Fisch’s bucket list is Britten’s War Requiem, which he will conduct for the first time in his career in August.
“I was hoping to do it in 2018,” says Fisch, “Which would have been 100 years since the end of the First World War … I played it many times for rehearsals, and I love and know the piece, but I have never conducted it. And it is one of the Britten that I sorely miss, because I want to do everything Britten.”
It is another of those works that the orchestra needed to work its way up to – not just because of WASO’s sound, but the relative infrequency with which large choral works are performed in Australia. Fisch has been on a mission to change that, the recent high point of which was the Missa Solemnis for Beethoven’s anniversary year in 2020.
“I think in Perth – but generally in Australia – I find that there are less big vocal oratorio works being performed than I am used to in Europe and in America,” says Fisch. “But we are talking Mendelssohn, and Berlioz, and Britten – we are talking the best composers, so why not bring as much as we can into the repertoire? Of course it is more costly because of the forces involved, but it pays off. Missa Solemnis was important for me, and now is the War Requiem.”
Although Perth audiences won’t see any international guests until June, when German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott will perform Elgar’s beloved Cello Concerto, the local talent on offer in the first six months is no consolation prize. Conductor Jessica Cottis will take the reins for Dvořák’ ‘New World’ Symphony in April, and in the same month cellist-turned-conductor Umberto Clerici leads the orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, a composer Clerici is making his speciality. In March, Fisch finally gets to do The Rite of Spring, coupled with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and Ibert’s Flute Concerto, with WASO’s Principal Flute Andrew Nicholson as soloist.
And the local talent isn’t limited to the performers, either. In 2022, WASO will give the world premieres of works by three of Australia’s finest composers, newly commissioned by the orchestra: Elliot Gyger’s Concerto for Orchestra, a trumpet concerto by Nigel Westlake, and Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ave Maria, featuring singers Fiona Campbell and Sara Macliver.
“It is really important that we bring a cross-section of what is being written across the country,” says Kennea. “That we don’t just sit in one style, or one composer, but we show people the breadth of what’s happening … And all of them, of course, are really different musical styles.”
After that, hopefully, the borders will open and Kennea can make good on some promises made a long time.
“Some of the guest conductors are those who were supposed to be with us in 2020 but of course couldn’t make it,” Kennea says, “So this is the first opportunity to honour their invitations. People like Fabien Gabel and Vasily Petrenko, this is the first chance they get to actually come and do the concerts that they were promised two years ago.”
Petrenko will visit in July for a program showcasing the full range of his mastery, from his signature Shostakovich (Symphony No 11 The Year 1905) to Mozart’s fourth violin concerto, featuring Limelight Artist of the Year nominee Emily Sun as soloist; Fabien Gabel arrives in July for Brahms’ third symphony – absolutely part of WASO’s core repertoire since Fisch took over – and Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending with another rising Australian violinist, Grace Clifford. Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen arrives in October for Sibelius’ second symphony.
Two other guests finally able to sample the delights of WA are Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov and Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. Skride was to have performed Korngold’s violin concerto in 2020 and now finally gets her chance, while Abduraimov was supposed to star in the centrepiece of the Beethoven anniversary celebrations by performing all five piano concertos. Sadly that was not to be, but hearing him perform the third in September will be a satisfying taste of what might have been.
Another highlight will be Fisch doing double duty as both conductor and pianist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24. Notorious as perhaps Mozart’s most difficult piano concerto, many would shy away from it. But in the end, it was the talent and musicality of WASO’s woodwinds that forced his hands.
“I want to play the second movement with my woodwind ensemble,” says Fisch. “It is the best thing ever written for piano and winds. And to have this kind of conversation with them, on stage, will be fantastic. And without a conductor in the way, just us.”
It’s interesting to hear a conductor say that conductors get in the way. What is the difference between conductor Fisch and pianist Fisch?
“I always say that when I conduct I want to conduct more like a pianist,” Fisch says. “Which means I want to have 100 people be able to do the kind of rubato, and take the kinds of freedoms that you take – without even questioning it – when you are sitting alone at the piano. When we approach a Brahms piece, we take liberties that we would never dare take with the orchestra. That’s when I am conducting.”
“When I play the piano, I try to be the conductor who plays the piano, and I try to bring much more structure, and length of phrases, as orchestras do in a very natural way because that’s how they always perform, and pianists often lack. For me, a lot of pianists – who are all much better than me as a pianist, I’m not comparing qualities here – a lot of instrumentalists in general will shape their interpretation based off technical things. So if the left hand has to play a low note that is very far from the middle of the piano, they will just take the time, and play it later.”
“And for me, that is not a reason to make it rubato. Because if you are in the orchestra then the basses are there waiting for the pizzicato, and will play it exactly on time. So that is what I do. I try to play as a conductor and conduct as a pianist.”
Fisch has been Principal Conductor of WASO since January 2014, but their association stretches back to 1999, when he first guest-conducted the orchestra. And there can be no doubt that Fisch feels a sense of belonging and ownership: over the orchestra, certainly, but over music in WA in general.
A case in point is his deep investment in the Associate Conductor program, and how important he feels it is to get that right, and continue to advance a WA conductor’s career. But it is also apparent when talking about Olivia Davies, newly announced as the orchestra’s Composer in Residence. Fisch conducted the world premiere of Stratus, her first big orchestral piece, in their 2021 season opening concert.
“I really enjoyed her work and working with her,” Fisch says. “It was clear that she was learning through the process, and we changed a few things. She is very unique, and she is not giving in to pressures of the trend of the times – she stays her own route, and I think that she will go very far. It’s great that we can give her a platform where she can hear her works performed.”
“She was in our composition project, studying with James Ledger,” adds Kennea. “We’ve got a bit of a tradition and history at WASO of finding the next West Australian composer and then supporting them through a composer in residence scheme, so she is the next on that list.”
The depth of Fisch’s relationship with the orchestra, and with Perth audiences, has also taught him new things. Chief among them is a newfound appreciation of a composer he had never had much time for.
“My discovery of Elgar, I credit completely to my musicians, and the audience, and Evan, and people here who love Elgar,” he says. “I have learned to really admire the works, and after doing the violin concerto and the Enigma I am doing the second symphony in 2022, and I am planning on the Dream of Gerontius whenever that happens.”
What is it that he found in Elgar that allowed him to finally make a connection?
“I actually found the connection to Brahms’ music much stronger than I [had before]”, he enthuses. “It is so well-crafted music. And to think that he wrote this at the turn of the century. He takes from every composer, but you hear four bars of Elgar and you know it is Elgar, that is the wonderful thing about his music. And The Dream of Gerontius for me is one of the best works of the 20th century, for voice, no doubt.”
“And for me the big discovery for me was when we did the violin concerto with Nikolaj Znaider. I had never done it before, and it is now at the top of my list for violin concertos.”
One final bit of discovery awaits in 2022, with the orchestra performing Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony with Joseph Nolan, Organist and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral, Perth and indisputably one of the finest organ players in the world.
“I think it is number two or three in the best 100 in Australia, which blows my mind,” says Fisch, sounding somewhat bemused. “And I have not done it ever, so I have to do it.”
I explain to him that Australia’s love for that particular piece all comes back to a certain small pig that everyone fell in love with nearly 30 years ago, and that unforgettable scene of Farmer Hoggett singing and leaping around the barn.
“Ah, thanks for the tip”, says Fisch. “Nobody warned me. I will have to watch it.”
It seems Fisch and the Australian people have a lot more discoveries to make together along an ever-deepening relationship.
Full details of WASO’s 2022 season can be found on their website.