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Asher Fisch promises WASO a 2014 season to remember

Asher Fisch

Charismatic conductor of Wagner and the Romantics sets the bar high for his first year in Perth.

By Clive Paget

“The basis of Romantic German playing is Beethovenian playing”, enthuses Ascher Fisch, the energetic incoming Principal Conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. “You cannot do a Mozart cycle – it will not get you anywhere. If you do all of Beethoven’s symphonies you can set a style very quickly – and I have to work quickly because I’m not here for enough weeks in the year to work on a huge repertory.”

The Israeli-born conductor is in Perth for the launch of his first season, a program that centres on a complete Beethoven cycle spread over two weekends in August 2014. “We’re doing a lot of events around it because if you want people to hear all nine symphonies you also want them to learn something about them. The most striking thing you learn is what a journey this man made from the First Symphony to the Ninth. There’s the revolution of the Third, then the revolution of the Fifth, and the Sixth, which for me is also revolutionary with the introduction of nature, and then the introduction of voices in the Ninth. You learn how a man changed the course of music and you’re enjoying yourself in the process.”

With his almost boyish shock of curls and a refreshing directness Fisch is a delight to interview. He knows what he likes – coffee and good conversation – and he knows what he doesn’t – cheap muzak. German Romanticism is probably top of the ‘likes’ list – it’s what Fisch is all about – and anyone who was lucky enough to catch his recent Wagner, Schumann and Brahms concerts will know that he has the chops to back it up. But his love affair with Australia didn’t begin last week – it goes all the way back to 1999 when he conducted the Verdi Requiem in Perth. Since then he’s been here five times, as well as managing to conduct an acclaimed Ring Cycle in Adelaide back in 2004.

For his season opener in March, though, Fisch has chosen three of the composers who are most important to him: Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss. And as a bonus, he’s appearing as soloist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto. “I never suggest that I play myself – I’m a little humble on this,” he admits. “I’m a conductor who plays the piano. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful way to establish a relationship with an orchestra. You can ‘cut air’ very efficiently but they always suspect that you don’t know what you’re doing. Until you sit down and play a phrase on an instrument they don’t really trust you. So it’s part for them and part for me to introduce myself to the audience. I’m not going to sing though!”

Wagner is also on that first concert menu – perhaps the composer closest to Fisch's heart. Paradoxically, born in Jerusalem in 1958, he had no real chance to listen to opera’s most revolutionary master as a boy. “My parents, because of the history, they left Germany early – they did not play – nobody played in my family. But I had an uncle who was the first Supreme Justice in Israel. He was a real German intellectual – a great, great personality and of course music had to be a big part of their lives. They had two pianos at home and they played symphonic music four hands. I inherited their library.”

Indeed his chance to study Wagner didn’t come until he moved to Berlin in 1991 as assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Deutsche Oper. It was a lucky break and a great story too. “Daniel came to Israel on the eve of the first Gulf War”, Fisch relates. “Siegfried Jerusalem was supposed to sing the tenor part in Das Lied von der Erde but he freaked out. He didn’t want to come to Israel if missiles were going to be flying in from Iraq. They called in a strange tenor called Louis Gentile and because he needed a rehearsal and I was the pianist at the opera, they asked me to come and play for Daniel. I played well and he liked it and then he said: ‘come to the rehearsals with the Israel Philharmonic’."

"So I sat there in rehearsals and one day he turned around and said, ‘Asher, I would like to hear the balance – can you please conduct a little bit?’ It was shocking, because I was not prepared. But I did it and then a few days later I got a phone call at 6pm: ‘Daniel Barenboim is sick and he says that the only person who can jump in for him is you’. Well, they said, ‘Asher cannot conduct Das Lied von der Erde – why don’t you do the New World Symphony or something?’ And I said, ‘No. If I do it, I do only Das Lied’. Anyway, Radu Lupu just happened to be in town so he jumped in to play Mozart’s A Major K488 and until today it’s not clear whether Daniel was really sick because the next day he was perfectly fine. So this is really how it started.”

At the time, Barenboim was negotiating with Berlin to go to the opera and he asked Fisch to come and be his assistant. “I said ‘yes’ and I moved to Berlin in 1992. So he started my career in a very clear way – no doubts there.” I ask him what he learned from Barenboim. “Everything I know”, he replies without hesitation.

Fisch’s first task was to prepare Parsifal. “I’d never heard Parsifal, or any Wagner opera, because in Israel we don’t have Wagner”, he admits. “I was again in total shock. I started running the rehearsals for Parsifal when I’d never heard it before, but I was very, very lucky because Harry Kupfer was directing, Waltraud Meier was Kundry, John Tomlinson was Gurnemaz (the first time he sang it), Poul Elming was Parsifal, so I was with the best, and they helped me and this was how I started. I worked with Daniel the whole time, watching his rehearsals, and conducting maybe 50% of the time when he just wanted to sit out. So it was perfect and for three years that’s what I did.”

From there, Fisch’s love affair with Wagner has taken him all over the world. Adelaide adored his Ring (a work he also studied under Barenboim) in 2004. He conducted Parsifal at the Met with Jonas Kaufmann earlier this year and he’s just returned from Seattle where his Ring Cycle was again widely praised. He will bring all that Wagner experience to Perth as part of that opening concert in an extended suite from Die Meistersingers.

The other concerts that will see Fisch at the WASO helm include a Tchaikovsky Four coupled with Elgar, Brahms and more Richard Strauss a week after the opener in March. That will be followed a week later by the Rossini Stabat Mater and then a Mahler Nine in June. The Rossini will be the closest Fisch gets to conducting an opera and represents his dual passion for the Italian repertoire. More opera though is clearly something he would love to do in future seasons. “It’s the cost”, he says. There may be ways around it – he cites Walküre Act I as a ‘cheaper’ option. But clearly Tristan is uppermost in his mind. He’d even be happy to tape the offstage chorus if it would help make it less expensive. His roster of operatic ‘mates’ include some pretty impressive names and he’d be more than happy to see the likes of Stuart Skelton making the trip to Perth.

His last concert of the year will comprise Schubert’s Unfinished and Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, a week before the Beethoven extravaganza in August. It’s through intensive work on this core Romantic repertoire that Fisch hopes to transform his Perth-based orchestra into a world-class band, fit to take their place in international concert halls. “Here’s an opportunity for me, once and for all, to put into practice everything I’ve learned from great orchestras, great conductors and from my own experience over the years,” he says. “I want to see if I can shape an orchestra to be my ideal sound”. Indeed, he’s confidant in their ability already. “They can play anything,” he says “They want to know my style and technically it’s all there. There were some rough corners over the years, but happily they’re now ironed out”.

With all those Romantic blockbusters on his own hit list, Fisch is more than happy to let other conductors take care of other parts of the program. And it’s a fine list that he’s drawn up with the help of Evan Kennea, WASO’s authoritative Executive Manager of Artistic Planning.

Simone Young will make a welcome return to conduct Bruckner Four and Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt. “Simone can come whenever she wants and conduct whatever she wants”, enthuses Fisch. “We’ve known each other in Europe for many years now. She and I think the same way and make music the same way.”

Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann will make his Perth debut conducting pianist Stephen Hough in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and a program that includes Debussy and Ravel. A contemporary music specialist and Artistic Director of Norway’s crack contemporary music ensemble BIT20, Brönniman has also been asked to curate the ground-breaking Latitude New Music Festival, now in its third year. West Australians should expect the unexpected as local and international artists push boundaries and explore the shock of the new.

Hough and Gerhardt are part of an impressive roster of international soloists, a line up that includes Piers Lane playing Liszt, Maxim Rysanov playing Harold in Italy, Michael Collins in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (a program which incidentally includes the much anticipated world premiere of Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra) and Alina Ibragimova playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

A special bonus feature of Fisch’s program will be an as yet undetermined concerto to be played by the winner of the Rubinstein Competition, of which he is a judge. “I’m hoping it’s going to be as good as last time, with Trifonov,” he laughs. “And it’s a way to get a young, exciting talent without much cost. It’s a huge prize for them and makes the Rubinstein more prestigious by offering real concerts with a great orchestra.”

And the maestro’s choice? Which concert is Asher Fisch most looking forward too? In a rare moment of indecision one can see all these works about which he is so passionate pass across his face. After a brief moment of agony he says: “I’m very excited about the first concert. Opening with The Magic Flute and then the Meistersingers Suite – it’s not done very often and it includes the most beautiful music that Wagner ever wrote – the opening of Act III. But then I’m excited about the Rossini because it’s such a fantastic piece.” So which is it to be then – is it the opener or is it the Rossini? “No, it’s the first one,” he says with a grin. “The mix of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner – this is me.”