WA Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Cameron Brook is celebrating a personal milestone while also saluting 50 years of the Perth Concert Hall, which opened on January 26, 1973.
Brook clocks up 40 years with WASO in 2023 and so has seen most of the musical icon’s lifespan at close quarters, with the orchestra making its home at PCH over that time.
“It’s surreal,” he says. “I can still remember being one of the youngest members of the orchestra all those years ago and now I’m in the top handful.”
Changes in the orchestra in that time have been huge, beginning when Australian major city symphony orchestras were all part of the ABC.
“In those day we queued up at the end of each week to get a little yellow envelope that you tore the top off to get the cash out,” Brook says. “It seems easy today but it was a challenge to go to direct payroll deductions, and people wondered how’s that going to work?”
Transition from the traditional public service environment to a corporate setting also meant a gradual improvement in practice.
“On the whole it has been a good thing in terms of the orchestra’s connection with the community of Perth, in terms of business in sponsorship and that sort of stuff, and also making the orchestra accountable to the Perth community,” he says.
An orchestra of 65 musicians eventually expanded to nearly 100, outgrowing its original home.
“An orchestra of 65 or so could rehearse in the ABC (building), but even if we still had access to it we couldn’t use that facility with the current orchestra, and of course the ABC did the deal . . . to build new studios down at East Perth,” he says.
“At that point, while logistically challenging in terms of instrument storage, from a purely orchestral point of view it’s been great to be based there for rehearsals so we’re rehearsing and performing in the same acoustic, so it’s been much better for the artistic growth of the orchestra to be in a stable and excellent acoustic.”
Often praised for one of the finest auditoriums in the southern hemisphere, PCH was the first concert hall opened in Australia after World War II — nine months before the Sydney Opera House, which recently underwent refurbishment.
Designed by architects Jeffrey Howlett and Don Bailey, PCH in 2016 won the Institute of Architects’ Enduring Architecture Award for its “brutalist” mid-20th century architecture offset by plush red interior furnishings and carpet.
A refurbishment is under discussion with the State Government.
“The contrast between the quality of the onstage experience, and auditorium experience, from an audience perspective, once you’re in the seats it’s fantastic, but sometimes getting in and out of those seats, there’s a bit of congestion around the lift and the staircase and so forth,” Brook says.
“Artistically, what’s on stage is fantastic, but everything backstage is not.”
The artists assembly area — the Green Room — was once part of the carpark, and separate change facilities for men and women were limited.
“Likewise there was no loading dock,” Brook says. “It’s a fantastic building in many ways, there were certainly some issues which were not great, but having said that the magic part, which is the auditorium, is great and that of course is the heart and soul of the whole building.”
The anniversary is being marked by a history competition for the best anecdote of 50 years, which include the late Queen’s personalised toilet, now concealed behind the boardroom, and the curious case of the nude sunbather on the roof, who turned out to be Rosie the cleaner.
There are also guided tours for the public, exploring backstage where few visitors venture.
Celebrations continue in March with international and local guests, including chef Yotam Ottolenghi, Kronos Quartet, Musica Viva and WASO for Perth Festival, West Coast Philharmonic Orchestra, Dick and Angel, Pavement and the Proclaimers, followed by WASO’s 2023 season.
For all its history, PCH doesn’t have any ghosts or grisly memories to relate.
“It’s a benign environment, from a spiritual perspective,” Brook laughs. “The Opera House in Sydney has just had a massive, multi-million dollar refurbishment … apparently it’s great, but it’s a long time that orchestra has worked in a less-than-ideal acoustic. So we are very fortunate here.
“At the time that (PCH) was built, acoustics were almost regarded as a black art, not fully scientific and I’m delighted they got that most critical part of the building very good.”