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PERTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: BOURBY WEBSTER The X-Press Interview

The Perth Symphony Orchestra has been wowing audiences with its delivery of a broad spectrum of music, both classical and contemporary, in an eclectic range of locations since its foundation in 2011. Signed, Sealed, Delivered sees the PSO team up with the WAAPA Gospel Choir in a celebration of the life and works of two great artists, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. For two nights (May 30 and 31) The Astor Theatre will resound with the songs of the Queen of Soul, and the child prodigy turned superstar in his own right. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Perth Symphony Orchestra Founder and Executive Director Bourby Webster, about the music of these two greats, and what it’s like for a classically trained orchestra to play Soul and R&B.

What is in store for audience in Signed, Sealed, Delivered?

Every show we ever do starts from the same starting question, “what is great music?” What music can we share in a great way, because clearly we are bringing orchestral sound. Who are the greatest artists that people want to hear in a new light? So after doing George Michael in the show Faith and Freedom at the Astor, we literally had the entire string section and the entire gospel choir ask “when are we going to do Stevie and Aretha?” It was blatantly obvious we were going to have to do them together. We brought together one of the greatest songwriters in contemporary music with one of the greatest singers of contemporary music.

The way PSO approaches it, is we take away the band. You are not hearing original instruments. The only thing we’ve kept is the horn section, you need that energy. Other than that, we have a string orchestra reworking it. The lushness, the texture, the emotions that strings bring, actually adds a whole new attack to the sound.

Was there much of an adaptation needed to go from Soul and R&B to a more orchestral arrangement?

Look, we’ve got three WA composer-arrangers working on this show. Yes there is a “re-imagining” required. You have to get to the essence of what the lyrics are saying – it is a phrase we use a lot in our concerts. You have to maintain these songs’ authenticity and character, but add to that. This is our way of saying “look what an orchestra can do… look what these instruments can bring!”

And it’s an important year for Aretha as well…

Well she’s got this new album coming out and Steve Wonder has produced it. Who else would you get to produce what could be your last album other than someone you’ve spent your entire life holding hands with… It was a great time for the PSO to look at this.

Of course, as you do at the PSO, you’re not just exploring the songs themselves, you’re looking at the life of the artists?

Hands down we’re an Arts company, not an entertainment company. Our job is not just to go out there and play all the hits. We could do that… and it would be great… their songs are that bloody good! But what is it that needs to be said, what can we use these songs to demonstrate, and I’m very much a fan of histories and stories and people. Music has always been about connecting people to who they are – and a time and place. I could play you a song from university – and instantly you’re back there. It’s about that kind of approach. And these are two of the biggest artists, but who are they? The research has thrown out the most amazing stories about these two. I don’t think either of them had a childhood as they were absolutely sucked into music.

Is there one song you are looking forward to seeing the audience’s reaction to?

Agh don’t do that!

OK, two songs. One a Stevie song, one an Aretha song. For very different reasons. This is almost a theatrical presentation of the lives of two people in the presentation of their songs. Very few people know Pastime Paradise became Gangsters Paradise – which is such a profound song on so many levels about racism, about conflict, about survival. All of which Stevie and Aretha would know extremely well. People don’t know that is a Stevie song, which is fascinating.

Obviously family is fascinating for Aretha, who in so many ways she experienced so much love and so much loss. So I discovered this story of her singing at an International Family Day event where she stepped in for Pavarotti. Pavarotti had been booked to sing Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) which is a brilliant song for anyone that has been a mother, as they know absolutely for an entire year of their life. It’s one of the most challenging arias in a tenor’s repertoire. It’s a blokey operatic anthem, well at least that’s how it’s become known. And here we have a bluesy gospel singer stepping into the shoes of the world’s greatest trained tenor. Different genre, different range, different gender… but holy crap… I recommend everyone Google this. Not only does she sing this song as something unrecognisable, but absolutely pulling on the heartstrings as much as the original, but she Aretha-tises it (can that be a word?). It is goosebump worthy. So we are going to be putting Sophie (Foster) into Aretha’s shoes singing one of the best known tenor arias in the world. If she nails it, and she will, it’ll be the moment of the night.

You’ve said that PSO is still finding its way, how have things changed since 2011?

We’ve had to evolve and find relevance, for what is essentially an 18th century band in the 21st century. We need to play music people know, and reach out to them with an orchestra to show them how intense and magical it could be. How they can do justice to Nivarna, and George Michael, and still have classical music at our core?

Do you think those walls that people had previously placed between classical and contemporary music are beginning to drop now?

Absolutely, absolutely. Every time we ask a contemporary musician to collaborate with us they say yes. We can stretch the parameters of what we can express emotionally. Which is something an orchestra can do. We don’t just have four instruments, we have 80. The tambours and the shade and ranges of those instruments are so great.

Good music is good music. If we stick ourselves in silos we’re limiting our set and the music.

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