Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Alexandre da Costa

Alexandre da Costa's debut at age nine on violin and piano brought him recognition as a musical prodigy. By eighteen he had a Masters degree in violin from Quebec Conservatory and he went on to study in Madrid with legendary violin teacher Zakhar Bron. His career as an international soloist includes recording 20 albums and in 2014 he was appointed associate professor of classical performance at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. This month Alexandre will perform with several ensembles from the academy and he took a break from rehearsals to update us on the string revival occurring at WAAPA.

What music gets your heart racing?

Good concerts! I love performing, it’s what excites me the most.

What calms you down?

Being with my son. He is a very important part of my life and gives me strength to fight the important battles.

What do you sing along to?

Mostly eighties pop music!

This weekend (September 2/3rd)you are directing Vienna to Berlin by Night with repertoire including the tone poems of Richard Strauss, Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss and works by Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig van Beethoven. How are you preparing students from the Indian Ocean Ensemble to explore these works?

It’s a very healthy preparation process, involving a pretty good amount of rehearsal time, and lots of fun! Indeed, when the IOE meets, it’s always done in a very professional way, but also in a relaxed environment that allows the elite students to relate to the music and their colleagues.

When you arrived in Perth your goal together with your WAAPA colleagues was to “build one of the strongest string programs in the Asia-Pacific region”. What was your strategy and how is your progress going?

It’s going great. We are definitely right on path for our goals and desires. The level of the students is rapidly increasing, and the philosophy of practice and training is changing fast. We are also working on very important international partnerships, such as the one that allowed us to send six of the best WAAPA students on tour with a young professional orchestra program in Canada.

Listen to Alexandre perform the first movement of St Saens' Violin Concerto no 3 with the Oviedo Symphon Orchestra here.  

A WAAPA degree is one small part of the shaping of a performer, alongside post-grad studies, mentoring, competitions etc. What is the most important aspect you want your WAAPA students to take from their degree?

I would like for them to feel confident enough to apply and be successful at getting a good job in the music field. Some will go work for professional orchestras, and the levels required are very high for those jobs, so I want to prepare them as best I can so that they win a position where they want.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

Let’s put it this way: without music, the human race would never be the same or be able to achieve such growth. Music calms the spirits, soothes them, creates passion, and gives us a different perspective on life in general.

You play a 1727 Di Barbaro Stradivarius violin. Does it have a distinct musical character?

It is an incredible opportunity to play on this instrument which is on loan from the Canimex company. It is an wonderful instrument, one of the most beautiful on the planet.

Watch Alexandre perform on his Stradivarius with the Vienna Symphony here.

You have a soft spot for violin concertos by Portugese composers, having recorded the premieres of violin concertos by Luis de Freitas Branco and Armando José Fernandes. What is the appeal of this repertoire?

My name, Da Costa, is of Portuguese decent. I wanted to make sure that I would explore all my roots through music.

You also have a love affair with the piano which you have played from early age alongside the violin, culminating in a bachelor degree in piano interpretation at University of Montreal. What made you ultimately choose violin as your focus?

I think it is very difficult to pursue a solo career in two different instruments. I loved the piano but in order to achieve my goal of being an international soloist, I had to make a difficult choice and go for the violin. But I still play a bit of piano for myself!

What is your favourite Australian composer?

At the moment I am working on a commission with Paul Sarcich, so he would be my favorite at the moment!

Martine Cardinal, violinst and
director of Laurentians Festival
You are director of the Laurentians Festival in Canada where you work alongside your wife and festival CEO Martine Cardinal. Am I correct in thinking you have welcomed a new addition to your family?

Yes. Martine and I are the proud parents of Mattenzo, my dear son. It has given us a new insight in life in general, and made us realize how precious life is.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

The restaurant Bread in Common in Fremantle and the beach at Cottesloe!

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music and the family?

There is always time for other things, but I must say that with all the travels, the concerts, the family responsibilities and the projects, there are very few hours left in the day to think about something else! But we try to enjoy our surroundings and explore new cultures.

Thank you Alexandre for making the time for Celebrity Soft Spot. Alexandre will be leading the Indian Ocean Ensemble on the 2nd/3rd September in Vienna to Berlin, a program of late romantic Viennese music. On September 8th he will lead the leading string students in Scintillating Strings. For more information on Alexandre visit his website http://www.alexandredacosta.com/

Monday, 22 August 2016

Oliver! works its magic

The musicals just keep rolling through Perth - this weekend ICW Productions opened their season of Oliver! It was the perfect opportunity to take my son Matthew to his first musical. We finished reading Oliver Twist recently and Dickens' story of dark dirty London and the little boy who wanted more has captured his imagination.

ICW Productions (founded by Ian Westrip) aims to provide work for WAAPA graduates and bring high quality productions to the community. Oliver opened on Saturday night  at the performing arts centre at St Hilda's Anglican School for Girls and will run until the 27th August.

We couldn't make the matinee show so I braved a late night with my five year old and went on opening night. The thrill of being dressed up and out late, the sparkling foyer lights of the beautiful theatre, the folding chairs and the chocolate at interval were all part of the experience. And of course the music and dance worked their magic.

Westrip's daughter Charlotte made her directorial debut and her love for Oliver! was tangible. The story unfolded clearly and she allowed the personalities of her cast to flourish.

Lukas Steinwandel (Oliver) 

On Saturday night Oliver was sung by the sweet-voiced Lukas Steinwandel (star of The Snowman with Perth Symphony Orchestra last year). The Artful Dodger was sung by Jacob Miles who seems a confident stage animal and was well cast his wide grin and mischievous energy. The two boys were supported by a motley gang of orphans/street urchins who moved and sung with strong-voiced enthusiasm.

Phoebe Jackson (Nancy) and Jacob Miles (Dodger)

The adult cast included WAAPA graduate Phoebe Jackson who played a fiery, big-hearted Nancy with a well-rounded voice. Her rollicking rendition of Oom Pah Pah (wittily choreographed by by Lauchlan Edward Bain) was Matthew's laugh-out-loud moment. Her nasty boyfriend Bill Sikes was sung by an impressively menacing Tim Campbell who epitomised evil so effectively that his eventual demise was the talking point of the show for Matthew.

Fagin was sung with gentle humour by Jay Walsh, although the liberties he took with Reviewing the Situation threw the pit orchestra (conducted by Ian Westrip) into occasional disarray.  Mr Brownlow was performed by Ron Macqueen with the stateliness of Ian McKellen (Gandalf). Dean Misdale was a larger than life and slightly camp (not sure why?) Mr Bumble.

The sound operation (Alex Taubaland) and lighting (Chris Hastie) were the weakest link on opening night, but the glitches will iron out as the production team settles in the venue.

I'm grateful we have semi-professional companies like ICW to provide a platform for our talent and magical memories for a mum and her son.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Plant goes viral in Little Shop of Horrors

Perth is the final leg of the national tour for Little Shop of Horrors and the Luckiest/Tinderbox Production’s show is as slick, well-cast and entertaining as we had been promised. Director Dean Bryant dishes up the mix of creepy comedy for which this Ashman/Menken musical is renowned.

Three raunchy chorus girls (Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel, Angelique Cassimatis) introduce us to Skid Row. They dance and twitch with a desperate energy that pervades the show thanks to Andrew Hallsworth’s tightly wound choreography.
Seymour and Audrey II

The drab Mushnik’s Florist is the centrepiece of the set and its manipulative owner Mr Mushnik is Tyler Coppin in fine comic form (although his Czech accent occasionally slips). The shop’s fortunes are turned around when the belittled assistant Seymour discovers an unknown plant species and becomes an overnight media celebrity. Brent Hill’s Seymour is earnest and bumbling but capable of belting out a rocking Grow For Me and melting duets with love interest Audrey. Hill also speaks/sings the booming voice of his plant (named Audrey II) in an act of impressive ventriloquism that also hints at a Freudian subconscious connection between the two.

Esther Hannaford’s petite frame and timidity makes her the perfect Audrey. With her husky French accent and droll timing she is the most winsome comic in the cast, singing with soulful power in numbers like Suddenly Seymour. Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin is played with goofy cruelty by Scott Johnson.

Audrey and Seymour
Owen Phillips’ florist set is initially greyscale but transforms in Act Two into a riot of red. The chorus girls wear tropical frocks with floral hairpieces and tendril jewellery as Audrey II’s influence grows. The centrepiece of the set is the carnivorous plant and its Feed Me demands require Seymour to go to increasingly desperate measures to keep it alive. This is where puppet makers Erth work their gruesome magic. What starts as a pot plant soon grows into a monstrous mouth with fleshy cabbage ears and veined bulbous tentacles, filling the set and requiring the entire cast (behind the scenes) to operate it.

Andrew Worboys directs a powerhouse band in the pit with surging electric guitar solos and throbbing bass providing a ferocious heavy rock accompaniment as Audrey II devours her victims.

It’s the small touches that set this show apart from the clever use of projections to augment the storytelling to the use of SBS broadcaster Lee Lin Chin as narrator. And then there is Audrey II’s psychedelic rock dance party that kicks in after the final bows, prompting an iPhone filming frenzy from audience members. It’s just the #worlddomination kind of reception that Audrey II would’ve been hoping for.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at His Majesty's Theatre until August 14th. Tickets from Ticketek.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Beath Beath's YouTube gift

The enterprising Australian composer Betty Beath has created a YouTube channel where you can access free recordings of her music. There are now almost twenty recordings of her work available with original graphic illustrations by her partner, the illustrator David Cox.

Betty Beath

The latest addition is a solo piano piece called A Little Love Music, taken from the album The Music of Betty Beath on the Wirrapang label. There are three songs, the first "A Loving Embrace" opens with a jazz-inflected spread chord. The harmony continues to wander unsettled with glimpses of Betty's familiar gamelan sounds imbedded in what is a wistful, unhurried song. "Let's Dance" is more chromatic and didactic while "Dance... very slowly" returns to the meandering feel of the opening. Despite the sentimental title there is nothing saccharine about these carefully crafted little snapshots, with harmonic twists and turns that are equally surprising and delightful.

David Cox's idiomatic sketches (he has done some fabulous children's books) are emboldened by strong colours and the video includes photographs of the two artists.

I wanted to share this gift as it is another lovely opportunity to access the music of this much-recorded and highly regarded composer, who is well into her eighties and continues to compose and work with community ensembles in Brisbane where she lives.

For more information on Betty Beath and her music you can find her in my book Women of Note, and on the Australian Music Centre website.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Women of Note at UWA

It's time to take a fresh look at Australian history!

On Tuesday August 9th a the University of Western Australia I will be sharing some startling discoveries about the contribution of women to Australian classical music. My presentation will draw on research from my book Women of Note to piece together the missing pieces of history, sharing stories and music from women composers spanning the twentieth century to today.

The presentation is part of UWA's  Research Seminar series and will be held 5pm at the Tunley Lecture Theatre in the School of Music. Entry is free. I am looking forward to sharing my work with music lovers and colleagues in the music industry. Hope to see you there!

Friday, 29 July 2016

August Gig Guide

It's all about singing this month with musicals and choral performances popping up everywhere. And no I'm not talking about the much-anticipated The Sound of Music production that is still 6 weeks away!

The two musicals hitting town in August are Little Shop of Horrors, opening at His Majesty's Theatre on 4th August, and Black Swan Theatre's Clinton the Musical on the 27th. This very topical production was scripted and composed by Aussie brothers Michael and Paul Hodge and is just the antidote we need to survive the US election.

There are also two large-scale choral concerts this month. The WA Academy of Performing Arts will team up with school choirs from John Septimus Roe and All Saints at St Mary's Cathedral on on the 4th to perform Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, accompanied on organ by Stewart Smith. The St George's Cathedral choir will perform Durufle's Requiem and Rutter's Gloria on the 12th accompanied by WASO brass and percussion.

The vocal fireworks continue with Opera Australia soprano Taryn Fiebig returns to her almer mater Churchlands Senior High School for a benefit concert From School to Opera Australia on the 19th.

Also on the 19th the Grigoryan Brothers are visiting WAAPA for a guitar concert. The Academy's elite Indian Ocean Ensemble led by Alexandre da Costa will perform Strauss, Schoenberg and Beethoven on the 25/26th. Meanwhile over at the University of WA Ensemble Vagabond will perform the iconic wind quintets by Mozart and Beethoven on the 21st.

WASO will be working with Simone Young in a flamboyant concert of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Holst's Planets on 5/6th. Asher Fisch is back in town in the lead up to the tour of China in October. His first concert on 19th/20th will feature principal horn David Evans is soloist in Mozart's popular Horn Concerto alongside Schubert 4 and Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. On the 26th/27th Latvian violinist Baiba Skride will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No.4 and Brahms Piano Quartet No.1 with the orchestra.

Tura New Music's Scale Variable series continues at Studio Underground with a concert on the 27th of experimental music solos performed by Louise Devenish (percussion) & James Hullick (piano). And on the topic of new music, a fascinating discussion on Australian women composers will be led on the 9th by yours truly as part of UWA's Music Research Seminars. More details to follow soon!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Jessica Gethin

Last year Jessica Gethin scooped the Brain Stacey emerging conductor award and was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia's "Top 100 Women of Influence". This year the chief conductor of the Perth Symphony Orchestra is one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera's Institute of Women Conductors. It seems that it's not just the locals who think Jessica's straight-talking musical enthusiasm and her wide warm smile are a winning combination.

What music gets your heart racing?

There are many moments symphonically, particularly in large scale romantic symphonic works that physically get my pulse up on the podium; full bodied brass, resounding percussion and the build of wind and driving strings can be completely thrilling in the actual moment. However, I’d have to say how I connect with certain key pieces probably has just as much effect; conducting a work like Mahler Adagietto (from Symphony No 5) where the tension is all in the silence, the ebb and flow and the slight delay in each cadence has just as powerful an effect.

What calms you down?

Listening to the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites; much complexity yet beauty in its simplicity. I remember my mum used to play Bach most nights as she cooked dinner when I was younger, and I used to play it to my kids at bedtime when they were babies. I also grew up listening to the jazz greats, so that has always been a good escape at the end of a long day. Otherwise going for a run along the beach or reading on my deck always seems to give me some clarity.

What do you sing along to?

Whatever score is currently open on my desk! I tend to do a lot of score study late in the evenings so often go to bed and wake with a jumble of lines in my head from my current scores. Not always ideal, as was the case late last year when learning excerpts from Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Dead Man Walking’… the March to the Execution Chambers isn’t the most ideal libretto to sing around the house! I’m not actually that aware of it but apparently I have a reputation of singing to the orchestra a lot, I suppose I find it the most efficient way to communicate a particular sound or phrase direction.

You are about to head back to America to continue your studies as one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera’s Institute of Women Conductors. I understand the course is about intense immersion which must also require intense preparation! What are you working on this semester? 

This semester we are focusing some modern English and American repertoire, I’m currently learning The Crucible (Ward) and The Turn of the Screw (Britten) however we will also be conducting excerpts from Mozart and Handel. In December we covered 18 operas, everything from Puccini, Handel, Adamo, Verdi, Ravel, Menotti and Donizetti so it’s very diverse in genre selection.

[Check out this fabulous footage of Jessica conducting the Dallas Opera Orchestra .]

Statistics in the US reveal that in the top 15 opera houses only 5% of performances during the 2015/16 season were conducted by women. How is the Dallas Opera course upskilling you to overcome the challenges inherent in your industry?

The IWC is unique in that aside from the intense conducting masterclasses, we also take part in a number of seminars addressing key issues and challenges in surviving the industry. From media training to working with directors and sponsors, how to pick the right management and also negotiating interviews for us with top agents across the US, they provide us with five years continued support to create better visibility on the podium and increase our opportunities for career longevity.

Where to after the course has finished? 

My previous work has all been symphonic, so the IWC Fellowship in Dallas was really my first introduction to the opera world, something I am keen to explore further with their support over the coming years. I really enjoy my work here in Perth, aside from my current role as Chief Conductor of the Perth Symphony I also work with Perth Chamber Orchestra, Opera Box, WA Opera, lecture at WAAPA, adjudicate festivals and such. However it’s definitely time for me to broaden my opportunities outside of Perth so I’m currently working closely with my agent in Singapore on developing contacts in the US and Asia this year. It’s a pretty exciting time, hopefully the next five years will see some more opportunities overseas in both the symphonic and operatic fields.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

I believe music has an extraordinary power to connect. It transcends race, age, demographic, time, language and culture. The elderly draw on it for nostalgia, the youth throw themselves into it for refuge and escape! I’m an ambassador for a brilliant international movement ‘Playing for Change’ who use music as a tool for peace, they do some great work in this area on a global scale. I think it goes even further than that though; it’s such a raw, authentic, innate form of expression of the human nature. I find it all very fascinating!

You started your career as a violinist, graduating from the WA Academy of Performing Arts with a music degree in 2002. In August you return to WAAPA as guest conductor for their 25th Anniversary Gala Concert at the Perth Concert Hall. It sounds like it will be a musical extravaganza…!

Yes, I’m really looking forward to working with the Faith Court Orchestra for this very special concert. We will be collaborating with the choir and also some special guest artists, it’s a great program and the audience are in for a real celebration of all things WAAPA!

Jessica and the Perth Symphony Orchestra

You have a soft spot for Margaret River Wines... can you recommend a good bottle for a chilly Perth winter evening?

I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several Leeuwin Estate Winery Concerts so feel pretty qualified to say their Art Series Chardonnay or Cab Sav are exquisite! I also love the Cape Mentelle Cab or Voyager Estate Tom Price SSB. As I’ve got older I’ve enjoyed learning more about wine and started following the journey of Perth Chamber Orchestra’s wine sponsor, Barton Jones. Getting to know the owner, Jackie and the whole story of nurturing each wine in the developing stages has been fascinating. I always stop by her cellar door in Donnybrook to say hello and stock up. Try their Red Rhapsody chilled in summer!

You have a distinctive dynamic energy on the podium. What sort of preparation is involved to present at a rehearsal with such interpretive confidence and abounding enthusiasm? 

It all comes down to study and really knowing the score, and more to the point what you want to do with the music. There is no faking confidence in front of an orchestra, they smell it a mile away. They need to trust and have confidence in your ability for you to get the best sound out of the orchestra. As a conductor I spend far more time in a score than on the actual podium to achieve that, it’s actually quite a lonely process in that respect and one that I have had to work hard on over the past decade. I guess the enthusiasm comes partly from my nature, and partly from my sincere commitment to communicate and define each sound and idea. I have a lot of energy in whatever I do and always try to be authentic on the podium so hopefully this carries across. Over the last few years I’ve realised the importance of being vulnerable at times too, sometimes this is when the best work is created. I always tell my conducting students they need to have the confidence to lead and the courage to yield, knowing when to do which is the tricky bit!

I’ve heard you tell a story about an orchestral player who said “You're the best female conductor I've ever played under”. Your reply was something along the lines of “It would be lovely to hear that phrase again one day, just without the female part.”
What is it going to take for women conductors to be considered ‘normal’ on the podium by performers and audiences?

It’s interesting that my conducting lectures usually have an equal 50% division of gender, as do many of the school orchestras I adjudicate at festivals. It’s only at the very top that these numbers dramatically diminish. I think it will continue to improve over time, especially with programs such as the IWC with Dallas Opera encouraging more females to pursue the field. In many ways I try to look past it these days as I would much rather be recognised for my musical input than a gender statistic, although I also realise the importance of bringing awareness to the issue for future developing conductors.

Jessica, Pat and their two children

You and husband Pat are parents to two children aged three and seven. I think one of the toughest parts of parenting is the guilt that comes whether you choose to work or stay at home. How do you reconcile your career and your motherhood so that you can delight in both?

Well, some days are certainly more successful than others! I’m lucky to have a very supportive family and two amazing kids but the balance isn’t always right. It is something I am very mindful of, yet try not to be too hard on myself as I don’t think it helps anyone to be driven by guilt. I simply choose the work that fits with the family, and turn down opportunities if it just doesn’t feel right at the time. On reflection I think having kids has taught me a lot about myself; my strengths and weaknesses, my priorities, the value of time and a reminder to laugh often! They have both grown up learning to crawl across a stage so I guess it’s quite normal for them. I’m very aware of being present with the kids when we are together, and I talk to them about what I do so they understand what it’s like to have a career path that you really love.

What is your favourite place in Perth? 

Easy…. our beautiful coastline. We live only a few minutes from Watermans Beach in Perth. It is the place I recharge, meditate, jog, swim and play with the kids or watch the sunset with the family.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music and the family?

I think it’s really important to be as rounded a person as you can be… certainly for me, life balance has been key to keeping me motivated to experience new things, which I hope, in turn, makes me a better conductor. My secret escape would have to be my art; splashing paint on a canvas with Ella Fitzgerald blaring is pretty cathartic. I love to read, cook with the kids, I’m mad about photography and love travelling. Keeping fit is also pretty important as I’m always on the go and need a fair amount of stamina and focus to get through the week, so running and yoga helps.

Watch excerpts of Jessica conducting in an interview here:

A big thanks to Jessica Gethin for chatting to us at the Celebrity Soft Spot. You can catch Jessica conducting the Perth Symphony Orchestra at their  'Bach by Candelight' concert on August 31st and at the WAAPA 25th Anniversary Gala Concert on August 12th. For more information go to www.jessicagethin.com.