Live review: Smells like [orchestral] spirit…

PSO presents Nirvana Reimagined



Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined
Perth Symphony Orchestra
His Majesty’s Theatre, 7 October


What’d you miss?

  • A reviewer’s dress code crisis
  • “Has anyone seen Kurt?”
  • Smashing violins (…literally)


Four hours before the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined performance was due to begin, I was alone in my bedroom having a major crisis. What does one wear to a Nirvana-inspired concert held at the beautifully fancy His Majesty’s Theatre? How do I reconcile ’90s grunge with ornate turn of the century architecture? I spent an obscene amount of time dithering around in my wardrobe before remembering that I was going to be attending a PSO concert. Who cares what I’ll be wearing when I’m in an intense, creative environment of smashing boundaries and breaking rules? I can defy all the dress codes!

When Nirvana performed for MTV Unplugged in 1993, Kurt Cobain wanted the stage decked out “like a funeral”, with lilies and lit candles. PSO’s reimagining honoured this idea, and the staging lent a sombre air to the ornate design of the theatre. But the atmosphere of the packed seating sections was anything but sombre. The excitement was palpable; Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined sold out well before October. I had witnessed people on Facebook trying to chase down second-hand tickets in the same hysterical spirit usually reserved for the concerts of Adele and Ed Sheeran – which is why the small number of empty seats I spied made me intensely curious. Why couldn’t these people honour their highly sought-after tickets? Were they stuck in traffic? Had they decided to stay home and watch House Hunters? Had they disappeared?

The show was very much true to its title, recreating Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance. The opening of the show was marked by people with headsets and clipboards running across the stage and shouting things like “two minutes until we’re on the air!”, and “has anyone seen Kurt?”. Musicians casually filed onto the stage, and the entrance of conductor Jessica Gethin was met with thunderous applause. It was hugely entertaining, and emphasised the fact that a PSO performance is rarely just a concert in the traditional sit-play-leave format. It also reminded me of my own actions two hours earlier, where I stood in the doorway of my boyfriend’s house bellowing: “‘WE HAVE TO GO! WHERE IS YOUR JUMPER?”.

And then the music began. Ash Gibson Greig’s arrangements of the original MTV Unplugged setlist (plus a few extra tracks) were the perfect blend between familiar recognition and refreshing originality. Greig truly rose to the challenge in translating the MTV Unplugged experience to an orchestral context. The instrumentation brought a variety of colours to successfully convey the messages of the songs, and I was particularly impressed with the woodwind writing. Who knew that Lake of Fire needed a bluesy bassoon solo? Or that the mournful oboe solo in Where Did You Sleep Last Night could make an already sad song even more heartbreaking?

The orchestra handled the music with competence and enthusiasm. Every section provided solid playing with enough flexibility to allow important vocal and instrumental lines to shine through. The string section was most prone to the odd moment of questionable intonation, but I found this was forgivable in the Unplugged context of intimacy and raw expression. The percussion was solid and impressive, if slightly overshadowed by the larger sections. The woodwind section expertly navigated their beautifully written interjections, and the brass took to their lines like the rock-stars most brass players believe they are. (That’s mean of me! I love brass players.) The trumpet solo in The Man Who Sold the World was the most well received instrumental solo of the night, and was rewarded with applause midway through the song.

Conductor Jessica Gethin guided the orchestra with an instinctive and natural command of the score, and with the presence of an actual rock star. You would think that someone waving their arms at other people on stage would be somewhat antithetical to the ideas of rock and grunge music, but Gethin’s conducting didn’t feel out of place at all. Rather, she channelled the essence of the music with conviction and spirit.

But the star of the night was vocalist, actor, and associate music director Justin Burford. Burford was an incredible Kurt Cobain, capturing the talent, poignancy and humour of the late icon perfectly. His interactions with Gethin and the audience between songs were full of humour and warmth, and his stage manner was open, vulnerable and almost shy. When Burford performed Pennyroyal Tea sitting cross legged on the stage floor, I wanted to climb onto the stage, give him a big hug and tell him, “Everything’s going to be ok!”. His singing was clear yet with the appropriate amount of grit and intensity to do Cobain justice; the famous vocal climax of Where Did You Sleep Last Night was beautifully heart-stopping, a testament to the talent of both Cobain and himself.

Though every song was wonderfully executed, I must give credit to Smells Like Teen Spirit for being absolutely show-stopping. There were cheerleaders, crazy lights, Jessica Gethin on the electric violin (I reiterate, an actual rock star), and it was so overwhelming I didn’t know where to look. But when one of the violinists came out and smashed a violin onto the stage floor, everyone’s attention was very much directed there. It was ridiculously fun, and a wonderful way to end the show. I left the show humming Smells Like Teen Spirit, feeling a little bit sad that Kurt Cobain had died so early, but ultimately buzzing from the wonderful performance by the Justin Burford and the PSO.

And for those of you who were just dying to know what I ended up wearing, which I know is all of you, I had a leather jacket (because I’m hardcore and it was only $30) and a flowery skirt because it’s spring. Groundbreaking, I know.


Images supplied. Credit: Richard Jefferson Photography.

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