David Cusworth | The West Australian
Fri, 1 January 2021 3:12PM
Perth Concert Hall marked the New Year as few venues could in 2020 — with a full orchestra and a live audience.  And the Vienna Pops Orchestra’s 33rd New Year’s Eve Gala, sponsored by Perth Rotary, put a COVID-19 survivor front and centre.  
Soprano Rachelle Durkin escaped New York in October, but not before catching the virus herself and losing a conductor to COVID complications.  To celebrate salvation she made her entrance festooned in Aussie flags holding an inflatable kangaroo, to render Johann Strauss II’s Czardas as a patriotic patter song with a slapstick gloss and vocal gymnastics to die for. Well, maybe not just yet.
The bill opened with Strauss’s Thunder & Lightning Polka, the up tempo crash-bash enhanced by camera flashes from the choir stalls making it impossible not to smile.  Conductor Mark Coughlan was also clearly having fun with the pyrotechnics and lavish dynamics.  Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers followed, soothing horn and harp a sharp contrast.  Williams Nichols’ crystalline solo harp earned a well-deserved ovation, throwing to effortless strings, woodwind flourishes, and treacly horns.
Durkin’s entrance was followed by Perth Rotary president Jill Dawson’s reflection on a fraught year. “How lucky are we to be here today?” she asked, a thought echoed around the hall.
Flautist Andrew Nicholson next fronted the band with Danny Boy, delicately lilting over mellifluous strings and harp; yearning in the high climax and languor in the cadence.  WA Ballet’s Claire Voss then brought to life Saint-Saens’ “Dying Swan” from Carnival of the Animals.  Fluttering gestures across a narrow strip of stage were a pin-drop moment as the spotlight briefly framed Voss and cellist Eve Silver in one shot, their art an achingly beautiful combination.  Strauss returned with Sperl Galopp, channelling the crash-bash excitement of the opening, before rising star Devon Lake took the microphone for his Concert Hall debut.
Per Te, by Josh Groban, introduced a hauntingly mellow baritone, rich in timbre and relaxed in delivery.
Tico Tico (Zequinha Abreu) next featured the Three Stooges of the percussion section, Rohan Zakharia, Joel Bass and Thomas Robertson, with comedy and rhythm in equal parts; precise yet playful with every Brazilian beat.
Durkin returned for the Titanic hit My Heart Will Go One — lush and tender, she caressed the syllables even in the most intense moments.  She then teamed with Lake for Lloyd Webber’s Loves Changes Everything, their balanced, steady gain in volume and engagement reaching every nook of the auditorium.
Finally, Viennese classic The Blue Danube provided the orchestral highlight.  Horns hit the sweet spot in the snow-melt of the introduction, then swelled the theme majestically.The ensemble lifted to produce sublime phrases and transitions, seamless and fluid right to the rousing conclusion.
As an encore, Johann Strauss Sr’s rumbustious Radetzky March brought perhaps the longest standing ovation of the year — and it has been a very long year.