Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Musica Viva champions music for today

Last night's concert ticked so many musical boxes I'm not sure where to start!

Eighth Blackbird

The premiere of a work by a young woman composer was always going to grab the attention of the author of a book on Australian women composers. Holly Harrison's Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup was premiered by Eighth Blackbird, America's rockstars of classical music. Clarinetist Michael Maccaferri from the sextet described the work as extremely difficult, (even for them!) but it exploded off the page with a quirky energy that had the audience in raptures. Harrison drew inspiration from the nonsensical writing of Lewis Carol and her music captured the whimsy and madness incredibly well in a mash of extended techniques, experimental rock and blues.

with Holly Harrison shortly before her world premiere

Harrison's work sat alongside works written in the past four years by American composers Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, Timo Andres and Ted Hearnes. These are composers born in the 70's and 80's and young enough to be freer than previous generations of the style-police of modernist ideology - free in other words to be the composers they want to be. Yes there were plenty of modernist extended techniques and nods to minimalist composers but there were also hip hop vibes and musical conversations about contemporary art and politics.

Eighth Blackbird played with professionalism and high octane energy. As an ensemble they were tightly coordinated but also able to relax into a groove.

There was a sense of an international family, drawn together under the umbrella of the organisation Musica Viva, (with support from the Perth Festival). American performers rocking out to music by an Australian composer, with program notes by UK critic Jessica Duchen and an audience of very enthusiastic new music appreciators.

Setting up for Pre-concert talk

I admit to being pleasantly surprised at the full chairs for my pre-concert talk and the large concert hall crowd. There was an atmosphere of enthusiasm and curiosity. The questions in the post show Meet the Artist interview came from mostly elderly audience members (exploding my sterotypes!) who were keen to clarify and learn more.  Musica Viva has educated and grown an audience who do not fear the unknown.

This concert was a gift: music written today, for us, for our time.  Thank you Musica Viva for being one of the few Australian organisations brave enough to champion this repertoire.

Monday, 20 February 2017

ASQ and Arcadia a perfect match - Review

Festivals are the perfect opportunity for matchmaking and Musica Viva and the Perth International Arts Festival got it right when they paired Arcadia Winds with the Australian String Quartet. Arcadia Winds are part of Musica Viva’s new Future Makers artist development program and although they are a relatively young ensemble the collaboration felt like a meeting of equals.

ASQ and Arcadia at Winthrop Hall (© Appleby)

Their second of two concerts held at the University of WA attracted a good-sized audience who listened in rapt silence for a hefty 100 minutes (without interval). The program featured contemporary repertoire often considered challenging for audience members. Mozart’s Flute Quartet was the only work on the program written more than 40 years ago and made a delightful concert opener with flautist Kiran Phatak working in deft, graceful unity with the string trio. Phatak’s richly varied tonal hues in the Adagio over the delicate pizzicato accompaniment created an especially serene intimacy.

Roger Smalley is well-known to Perth audiences but his Toccata - composed at the end of his career in 2008 - was new. Written for flute, oboe and quartet, the short work opened with a quaver pattern of descending thirds followed by a long note. The motive developed into a climax and then recurred in different configurations, including as a canon and in an energetic syncopated pattern. It was a snapshot of Smalley’s taut, precise craftsmanship performed by an ensemble well-versed in modernist rhetoric.

German composer Jörg Widmann drew on Schubert’s Octet as the central reference point for his Oktett, which formed the centrepiece of the concert. The performers (string quartet plus clarinet, horn, bassoon and string bass) gave an insightful introduction to harmonics, glissandi and other extended techniques before demonstrating musically the command they have over this repertoire with a seamless blend of Schubertian romanticism with a 21st century sound world. The opening unison chords (referencing Schubert’s unison opening) were restated with increasing dissonance growing in volume to distortion before subsiding.  The ensemble captured Widmann’s mighty orchestral swells with the clarinet or violin riding high above. The horn calls, wails and snap pizzicato of the Menuetto were delivered with almost Mahlerian parody while the haunting microtones of Lied ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) were passed note by note between horn, violin and clarinet like molten wax.

 By now it was apparent that the silky-toned Arcadia could make even the most avant-garde sounds enticing. Both ensembles eased in and out of phrases with precision and impeccable intonation – particularly impressive given the extreme summer weather and the extended techniques involved.

The premiere of Perth composer Lachlan Skipworth’s wind quintet Echoes and Lines was much anticipated by locals. Skipworth (recently awarded the Paul Lowin prize) studied with both Smalley and Widmann, creating a serendipitous link between the repertoire. Echoes and Lines presented musical ideas in nine short miniatures which was something of a departure for Skipworth who tends to work with long lines. Each miniature explored a different technique including a canon, cross-rhythms, fast unison staccatos, repetition and echoes.

Despite of perhaps because of the simplicity of the ideas, the musical result was often intense; each miniature was minutely crafted for maximum flavour. Skipworth’s carefully placed phrase endings – either pointed and brief or wound down to niente - created a sense of pause and breathing room. The silence between each movement became a work of art itself, the last note echoing through the hall, then the decay of sound, followed by an absorbed silence while the memory of the idea lingered like a fragrance.

The ASQ returned to the stage with the addition of string bass player Stephen Newton for Françaix’s Dixtuor (Dectet). Folksy string playing and effervescent winds were offset by a vigorous bass line from Newton. The gentle dovetailing of phrases in the Andante was followed by a spirited finale bringing the concert to a close.

After nearly two hours of music making of great refinement and camaraderie it was clear that this was a youthful supergroup of unfettered imagination and immense control; a perfect match.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine Feb 2017.

The Perth Festival continues for two more weeks. Eighth Blackbird bring their fire to an extraordinary contemporary music program tonight at the Perth Concert Hall. Come early for the Preconcert Talk and stay afterwards for the Meet the Artists interview presented by yours truly!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Brodsky/Calder Octete-a-Tete review

Perth Festival's Chamber Music Series kicked off last night with a collaboration between the Brodsky (UK) and Calder (US) Quartets. Both quartets have a deservedly high profile in the festival: the Brodsky will perform all 15 string quartets by Shostakovich and the Calder will profile contemporary repertoire alongside Beethoven classics.

Calder and Brodsky Quartets in Octet form  (photo Tony Wilkinson)

I had a hunch the octet collaboration would be the highlight of the chamber music concerts: a meeting of two legendary ensembles; a profound dialogue between eight magnificent artists; the frisson of friendly rivalry.

Well I guess the good thing about a blog is that you can be frank: I was underwhelmed.

The light repertoire (perhaps an antidote to the intensity of the concerts to come) and the breezy approach of the artists meant the concert felt like an afterthought, a social outing before the real thing.

The program featured Mendelssohn's Octet supplemented by Shostakovich's intense but brief Two Piece's for String Octet plus arrangements (described candidly by violinist Daniel Rowland as encore arrangements) of  three orchestral classics. The entire concert including interval was over in under 90 minutes and the meatiest part was the program note by Gordon Kerry, who can make meaningful connections between even the most unrelated of pieces.

The Brodsky and Calder quartets. (photo Appleby)
Government House Ballroom was almost full with audience members spreading to the balconies. The room's resonant acoustic suited the octet, lending a brightness and immediacy to the string sound. In the first half of the program the four violinists shared the leadership of the ensemble which indicated a convivial partnership between the artists. But there were also pitch issues and a lack of cohesion which pointed to a lack of rehearsal.

The octet arrangements were by the multi-talented Paul Cassidy, the viola player from the Brodsky Quartet. The frenzied outbursts and sardonic humour of  Shostakovich's Two Pieces were well-conveyed, while Khachaturian's Sabre Dance highlighted individual players and their unswerving musical commitment. Barber's Adagio was less successful; the work's intensity is built from the density of sound and in octet form it felt vacuous in parts.

In the second half Daniel Rowland, principal violin of the Brodsky quartet, led the ensemble in Mendelssohn's Octet and although I admired his clear musical intent when the group were here in 2009, this time his charisma felt over the top and noisy. Despite this I found myself marvelling again at both the delicacy and vociferousness of Mendelssohn's precocious writing.

Of course music appreciation is a subjective game and while I felt disappointed many in the audience gave a standing ovation. Thankfully there is much more to come over the weekend.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Yarmila Alfonzetti

Yarmila Alfonzetti is the new classical music programmer for the Perth International Arts Festival. Yarmila worked for many years as head of classical musical at the Sydney Opera House, but perhaps her best credential is her decades of obsessive concert attending! She splits her time between Perth and Sydney where she is CEO of the Sydney Youth Orchestra. Yarmila shares below her first impressions of Perth and her enthusiasm for chamber music, opera, leider, symphonic repertoire... well all things musical! 

What music gets your heart racing?

There is nothing like a big symphonic work; I defy anyone to not be jolted out of their everyday existence when listening to the Rite of Spring, or Pictures at an Exhibition, or Shostakovich Symphony no. 5, or Symphonie Fantastique… I could go on. These big works, full of power and complexity, when played by great orchestras (ideally live in a concert hall), are really the stuff of my dreams. Oh, and let’s not forget all the big requiems – Verdi, Faure, Berlioz! Oh, and the great operatic repertoire… there’s too much.

What calms you down?

Not much actually (I find it hard to relax). Because of what I do, music isn’t often in the background for me, so I don’t listen to relax. I find myself needing to concentrate too much. I do practice a lot of yoga, and this is my way of meditating.

What do you sing along to?

Nothing – I am a terrible singer! I leave it to the experts.

You joined the PIAF team in November when the Classical Music Program was ready to launch; what is your role now heading into the Festival?

Actually I have spent quite a bit of time in the second half of 2016 with the PIAF team, and it has been really wonderful. My role is really to support the Artistic Director Wendy Martin to realise the dreams and aspirations that she has for the festival, as well as shape the classical program and bring my expertise about artists and repertoire. I have programmed a lot of concerts, so I know what a good classical music concert is. Heading into the festival, my role now shifts slightly away from supporting the AD, to supporting the artists and the audience. I truly believe that the best thing I can do is be the conduit between these two elements; I will be hosting each concert, making introductions, talking to people before and after, and I am hoping to make classical music lovers in Perth feel like they can get as close as possible to this music.

I noticed the recent addition to the program of the Classic Flow Yoga. Was this your idea?

Classic Flow was originally the brilliant brainchild of a fellow yogi Ramona Curmi and the most inspiring yoga practitioner and teacher Lara Zilibowitz who have recorded some podcasts for ABC Classic FM. To bring this beautiful combination of yoga and live classical music to an outdoor setting in Winthrop Gardens seemed like the most natural thing in the world (the lengths a girl has to go to in order to get her weekend yoga fix)! Lara is really someone quite special; for her there is no end to the movement in each yoga pose, and this continual stretching, adjustment and reaching is made seamless when in consort with classical music.

The Brodsky Quartet

The program is dominated by chamber music, in particular lots of string quartets (Calder Quartet, Brodsky Quartet, Australian String Quartet! Why is this genre the focus?

Well, the repertoire is THE BEST! I also like diving deep into something; if we are going to do it, let’s get into it! In the chamber music program, audiences can really get to know something, they can walk away knowing a lot more about the genre, the composer, the period of music. Goethe said that listening to a great string quartet is like eavesdropping on a conversation between four brilliant minds; I am so excited to have a long weekend of this in Perth.

The Chamber Music Series builds on the success of the inaugural chamber festival last year. The program includes the Brodsky Quartet performing the complete string quartets by Shostakovich. Listening to 15 string quartets over 3 days is a marathon task. What can audience members expect?

The can expect to be moved, to be taken on a journey, to feel like they are part of a private moment in time between the composer and the life he has tried to capture in notes. It is a commitment, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the rewards are great.

The Dark Mirror takes Schubert’s iconic Winterreise into new directions with tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by the WA Symphony Orchestra, video imagery and a wintry landscape setting. It sounds absolutely fabulous, although I wonder if it could offend purists. Is reimagining masterworks in a contemporary framework the way of the future if classical music is to build a new audience?

I must admit that I personally am someone who requires nothing more than a bare stage and a brilliant musician to enjoy a performance. I don’t need any bells and whistles. But what I really want people to understand about this performance, and in fact all varied performances of Winterreise (and I have seen and heard many), is that it will enhance and layer your interpretation. True lovers of this work, and people like me who adore lieder in general, will be so excited to have an opportunity to add to their understanding of this piece; to be tutored in a deeper understanding of Winterreise by the master himself – Ian Bostridge – is an absolute privilege. I do hope that WA residents realise how exceptional this opportunity is…the rest of the classical music community in Australia is gasping that Ian is only coming to Perth! I don’t think we need to re-imagine classical music to make it appealing, what we have is the world’s best artists here in Perth presenting the very best repertoire, and it is this commitment to quality across every show in every artform which will appeal.

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

Hmm, I don’t think that music has to be the same thing for all people, but essentially I do tend to agree with Mark. The best music is interesting, and it is also complex. The music I think people are drawn to is often appealing and simple on the surface, but beautifully intricate and complex underneath (the same thing can be said for great folk music, jazz, and even pop music; the best pop music often has a couple of unusual chords, or a twist in the standard structure). Works by the greats - Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - no matter how melodic and simple in structure - have attracted the minds of hundreds, if not thousands, of musicologists throughout history who dedicate lifetimes to unpicking the complexity that is required to create this beauty. So, interesting is good, underlying complexity is better.

You have a soft spot for attending concerts. What is the attraction of listening to live music?

Life is busy, and messy and fraught with emails and devices and meetings. A concert is one of the best ways to find solace, to think, to allow your mind a moment of deep thought. And it’s hard to be interrupted – you have bought a ticket and are ensconced in a concert hall. If you are just at home reading a book, well expect the kids to disturb you at any minute!

When did you first begin to be an advocate for classical music?

I have wonderful parents and a family who all believe that art is the most important thing in the world. My parents let me learn every instrument I wanted, took me to concerts, and had a house littered with books and paintings and sculptures. So this allowed me to know that art is important, and it enriches everything in life. It changes your perspective and makes you think.

In my day job now as the CEO of Sydney Youth Orchestras I talk to hundreds of parents all the time, and I remind them about what music teaches young people – hard work, dedication, listening. The list goes on. And for so many young people, some of them troubled teenagers, if you have an artform (music, painting, whatever), you always have it. It’s yours. Friends might come and go, school life gets complicated, but your music is your own retreat.

Where did you learn the skills to curate concerts?

I just go to a lot of concerts, and I appreciate the skill of good musicians. When I was at the Conservatorium High School in Sydney, I used to head down to Sydney Opera House most nights of the week and sneak into an empty seat after interval. In my many years as Head of Classical Music at Sydney Opera House, I was in a venue almost every night. It’s not really about making a perfect concert, but more about sharing great repertoire, and providing another interpretation of the music, and allowing people an opportunity to hear something anew. The best concerts for me are the ones where musicians truly interpret the music.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

I don’t know Perth well enough yet to have my own secret favourite place, but Boucla is the best café (and I live in Darlinghurst in Sydney so that’s saying A LOT), the City of Perth Library is amazing, I love the boab tree in Kings Park.

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

Haha – it is really all about music. I have backed myself into a corner, and I’m not sure I want to work in anything that isn’t all about music. I made a decision years ago to surround myself with music and musicians, and that is what I search for in everything I do. However, I do also love gardening and dream about having my own huge garden to tend one day, and I do have a tiny soft spot for my husband (who is old and wise)!

Thank you Yarmila Alfonzetti for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. The full classical music program for PIAF is here and there is an interview with her on the PIAf blog. Yarmila will be hosting concerts and giving talks throughout the festival so be sure to bail her up and add your voice to the classical music dialogue in Perth!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

February Gig Guide

Welcome to festival season folks! Fringe World is underway and the Perth International Arts Festival is about to launch. Here's my overview of the classical feast about to erupt!

On Saturday 4th February (tonight!) WA Opera celebrates its 50th anniversary with a gala Opera in the Park,  8pm Langley Park.

Also that night the Fringe World lieder recital Dream of Childhood's End featuring Eva-Marie Middleton and a whole pile of soft toys which I reviewed on Thursday night.

The opening night of PIAF is Friday 10th February which is the first night of the intriguing The Dark Mirror, a re-imagining of Schubert's Winterreise with tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by the WA Symphony Orchestra, video imagery and a wintry stage setting.

On Saturday 11th Soft Soft Loud returns to the Fremantle Arts Centre this time featuring US electro-acoustic composer William Brittelle and songsmith countryman Aaron Roche collaborating with WA instrumentalists in a brand new composition.

The Brodsky and Calder Quartets combine in a program of octets on the 16th, which will be a stunning preview to the chamber music weekend. The chamber music weekend is an incredible line up of talent, dominated by string quartets and in particular the Brodsky Quartet performing Shostakovich's complete string quartets (yes that's 15 quartets across 3 days!). The LA-based Calder Quartet perform three different programs based around the theme Beethoven and Beyond. The Australian String Quartet teams up with new kids on the block Arcadia Winds for two programs of rare music for wind and strings, including the world premiere of a new work by Lachlan Skipworth.

The weekend also includes some free concerts including a recital by Tamara-Ann Cislowska of the piano works of Peter Sculthorpe, plus a duo session with Elena Kats-Chernin performing Kats-Chernin's stunning compositions from their award-winning album Butterflying. And just to mix it up there are two Classic Flow Yoga sessions to ease people into the morning with 90 minutes of yoga accompanied by live music.

Musica Viva jumps on the PIAF band wagon on Feb 20th with American super-group Eighth Blackbird performing an entire concert of contemporary classical music - hooray! (This makes up for the dearth of contemporary repertoire last year.) One of the six composers featured is a woman, which isn't great statistically but it is the Aussie Holly Harrison which almost makes up for it.

To celebrate festival time PIAf is selling $36 tickets from Monday 6th February so keep an eye on their website.

I'm also going to make mention of the Perth Writer's Festival from Feb 23-26 including the kid friendly Family Day on Sunday 26th.

So there it is, dive into February and enjoy!

Friday, 3 February 2017

Dream of Childhood's End - FRINGE WORLD REVIEW

Hello again! It's been awhile between gigs but I've had a great summer break and am now looking forward to the festival season. Last night was my first show for the year and it was a great launch back into the arts world. I hope you enjoy my review below.

"Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if nothing terrible had happened in the night
...A little star went out in my world."

Eva-Marie Middleton sang these words by Friedrich Ruckert as she padded through the audience in slippers, gently greeting soft toys as she came upon them scattered around the room. It was a powerful opening to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, songs lamenting the death of children.

Dream of Childhood's End comes in at the weightier end of the Fringe World program and takes place at the intimate Muse venue, a pop-up bar in the upstairs foyer of His Majesty's Theatre. Mezzo soprano Middleton pairs Kindertotenlieder with Wagner's Wesendock Lieder in a program that explores childhood and loss.

The 19th century poet Ruckert wrote 428 poems about the death of his two children. Mahler set five of them for vocal soloist and orchestra (performed here by pianist Ryan Davies, Sarah Brien horn and Niamh Dell on oboe) and they range from anguished outbursts to peaceful solace. Middleton's dark, rich voice captures the dramatic range of the work, navigating the long winding phrases with steady breath control and enthralling emotional intensity, although some clarity of diction is lost in the expansiveness of her sound. The accompanying trio plays with both delicacy and density and the contrast in the fifth song between storminess and repose was particularly beautiful.

Sarah Brien, Ryan Davies, Eva-Marie Middleton, Niamh Dell

Director Sarah Mackellar generates a forward momentum by the movement of packing boxes, toys and even the instrumentalists around the stage. In a novel touch Mackellar inserts voice-over recordings between songs, containing snippets of candid interviews with adults about their memories of childhood. "I miss my mother putting her hand on my forehead" sobs one interviewee, before Middleton launches into a visceral interpretation of 'Stehe stille" (Be Still) from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, tossing boxes in fury.

More could have been made of the intimacy of the small venue; the lieder lends itself to whisper-soft moments and Middleton rarely dropped below mezzo forte. However her dramatic intent was convincing and the theatrical overlay helped connect performers and audience deeply to music composed a century earlier. Middleton and her team are in good company; renowned tenor Ian Bostridge will perform a fully stage reinterpretation of Schubert's Die Winterriese at PIAF next weekend. Dreams of Childhood's End makes a perfect complement although there are only two shows remaining so be quick.

Dreams of Childhood's End continues tonight and tomorrow 9:15pm at Muse Bar.

For other gigs at Muse, His Majesty's Theatre dress circle bar go here.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Best of 2016

If you were to pick your favourite gig for the year what would it be?

It's been a privilege to attend so many concerts this year - often as a critic - where I've been delighted (and sometimes surprised!) by the quality of the shows. What a fabulous job I have! It's often a huge effort to extract small children from my legs and get out the door, but I have not yet been disappointed. Perhaps it is because I choose the best concerts! Or perhaps it is because Perth is producing increasingly high quality gigs.

Ileana Rinaldi, Emma Pettermerides, Emma Pearson, Harriet O'Shannessy,
Simon Morrison-Baldwin and Jun Zhang. Photo Eva Fernandez

The launch of Freeze Frame Opera in November was one of the surprises. I knew the cast would be excellent but I didn't expect the effort that had gone into the production; the lighting, choreography, props (a combi van!), the narration all communicated powerfully with the audience. It was an edgy and exciting combination of venue, performers and music. Due to popular demand a sequel is being planned for February 2017!

Another surprise was a venture into theatre reviewing for Limelight Magazine which introduced me to the satirical genius of Moliere's Tartuffe. I will long remember the glossy white set and fabulously comic performances from this Black Swan Theatre show.

Simon Tedeschi demonstrated the ultimate piano recital at the WA Academy of Performing Arts with his candid audience interactions and soulful performances of Gershwin.

There was a very enthusiastic audience response to a program of  Australian contemporary composers at a concert by Katie Noonan and the Brodsky Quartet. The many layers of artistic richness - Judith Wright's poems reinterpreted through composition and then shaped by the artistry of the musicians - resulted in an intensely beautiful concert.

The gong this year goes collectively to Perth's blossoming opera companies.  Brad Cohen's magic potion at work at WA Opera resulted in a hilarious Elixir of Love and a gripping production of Tim Winton's The Riders. Perth's operatic renaissance is also thanks to the grassroots company Opera Box who blew me away with an ambitious and very funny Ariadne auf Naxos, and my favourite this year: Lost & Found's Don Procopio with a bombshell cast and more layers of meaning than you would find in an onion.

That's my overview for 2016, but I didn't make it to everything so let me know what I might have missed and what your favourites were.

Cheers to all  involved in creating, producing and enjoying live music in Perth. THANK YOU for a fabulous year and toi toi toi for 2017