Saturday, 23 September 2017

I need your help!

Hi everyone. I am getting a bit personal here because times are changing and music journalism is changing too. I have an exciting announcement:

I'm about to launch a new website!

I am in the process of designing a new website to meet the changing needs of arts journalism in Western Australia. I'd appreciate your thoughts on what this might look like. This is your chance to shape the face of music journalism in Perth!

A year ago I posted a blog on The Future of Journalism. Since then:

  •  The West Australian newspaper has taken over the Sunday Times, foreshadowing the changes in media ownership laws which were passed in the Senate just last week allowing greater monopoly in the Australian media industry. 
  • The arts pages in the West Australian have covered far less of the WA arts scene and often used non-specialist writers. Last month OperaBox's entire opera season of Manon passed without a review from any of the local press.
  • Other media organisations have stepped up their coverage of WA in small ways: the Australian Book Review and more notably Limelight magazine have been publishing more reviews from Perth.
  • The online Perth Arts Live has folded and a new arts site SeeSaw Magazine has launched.
  • The national Senate has launched an inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism. A hearing was held in May and findings will be passed down on 7th December.
I've had the opportunity to rethink the way I contribute to the arts scene. Perth has a thriving arts scene and I am more convinced than ever that I want to be part of the debate, to be known as someone who champions the WA arts scene. I've enjoyed new opportunities as a public speaker as well as expanding my writing to The Guardian, Limelight, ABR and The Australian newspaper. 

Despite this I've lost a lot of income and done more work for free than I would've liked. And I've been saddened to watch the media coverage of the arts continue to shrink. Which has led me to this exciting period of developing a new website. This is where I want to hear from you:

What do you look for in conversations about the arts? 
What would you be interested in hearing about? 
What format works for you: podcast, listicle, reviews, interviews?

One of the benefits of the huge media shakeup is there are now so many different ways to do journalism. What do you think are the best ways to do music journalism? The best ways to document, critique and champion classical music and its practitioners?

Please post comments below or contact me at rosalindappleby(at)

Your suggestions will be part of the new version of Noted, coming very soon!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Clarinotts - Ernst Ottensamer's life of music

This review of the Clarinotts album was originally published by Ozarts Review and has been republished here in honour of the great Viennese clarinettist Ernst Ottensamer who died in July 2017.


“We have totally freedom,” said Andreas Ottensamer, youngest member of The Clarinotts“We know what our partners will do a millisecond before they do it. It’s a luxury you’ll rarely have with any other ensemble”

This incredible cohesion  is what struck me on a ‘blind’ listen to the Clarinotts album; that and the uncannily similar sound quality of the three clarinettists. It made sense when I had a closer look at the performers and realised this was Ernst Ottensamer playing with his sons, the famous Viennese ‘Royal Family of the Clarinet’.

Daniel, Andreas  and Ernst Ottensamer from the Clarinotts

Ernst Ottensamer is being mourned around the world after dying tragically of a heart attack on 22nd July, aged 62. Ernst was principal clarinettist at the Wiener Phiharmonic from 1983 and founding member of the Wiener Blaserensemble and Wiener Virtuosen.

Ernst inspired a generation of clarinettists around the world, including his own children. His eldest son Daniel Ottensamer became co-principal clarinettist with the Vienna Philharmonic alongside his father, and his youngest son Andreas Ottensamer is principal clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Together the three of them formed the Clarinotts, releasing their first album appeared in 2009 and their second album in 2016. 

 The 2016 self-titled album opens with Mendelssohn’s sparkling Concert Piece for Clarinet, Basset Horn and Orchestra No 1. The brilliant duet was composed rather appropriately for the father-son duo of Heinrich and Carl Baermann. It is full of dazzling operatic writing and I was struck by the warm, full-bodied sound of the basset horn and clarinet and the driving energy in their playing.

The album’s repertoire traces Ernst’s career trajectory including his time in the pit of the Vienna State Opera with works like the trio Soave sia il vento from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and the Fantasy on themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto by Franz and Karl Doppler. Dance works also get a look in with Rossisni’s La danza quoting from the overture to William Tell and the sentimental French-style waltz of Cantilene from Francaix’s Petit Quatuor.

Ponchielli’s Il Convegno had both sweetness and fire. Andreas and Daniel duetted with incredible precision, their virtuosic runs, flourishes and dramatic rubato perfectly synchronised.

As you would expect this is an album of great finesse and class, accompanied by none other than the Wiener Virtuosen – an ensemble made up of the section principals of the Vienna Philharmonic. They are certainly the best players for the romantic/early 20th century repertoire that dominates the first half of the album. I admit to presuming the album would remain in this romantic/early 20th century repertoire and was pleasantly surprised to find some 21st century works included at the end.

Bela Koreny’s Cinema I is based on the plot of Paul Verhoeven’s film Basic Instinct and you can feel the intrigues and the tension in Ernst’s spooky bass clarinet and the wails of Andreas and Daniel over the top, accompanied by the Wiener Virtuosen with Christoph Traxler on piano. The bossa nova tune Morning of the Carnival by Luiz bonfa was another contrast; slick and sultry.

A comment for clarinet nerds: check out the almost inaudible articulation from all three. It sounds like diaphragm articulation but it has the even attack of tonguing, generating sublimely clean playing.

The richness of this album is the synergy of three virtuosic clarinettists who really do seem to be of one mind – it sounds like one person multi-tracking!  But what makes it really gripping listening is the energy and emotion the Ottensamer family bring to their music making – they really pull out all the stops in Olivier Truan’s unaccompanied trio The Chase and it’s an exhilarating conclusion to the album. Turns out it is also a fitting final bow from Ernst Ottensamer; a testimony to a life spent sharing music with excellence and passion.

Mercury Classics/Deutsche Grammophon                                                          
released 2016                                                                                                                  
0289 481 1917 2

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Great Gatsby ballet captures superficial beauty of the Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic coming of age novel The Great Gatsby portrays the Jazz Age in vignettes rich with imagery. The story has since been re-imagined by film makers and in 2013 by Northern Ballet director David Nixon. The lavish parties and iconic music of 1920’s America makes it an appealing genre to set to ballet and Nixon’s production captures the decadence and superficiality to perfection. The ballet was given its Australian premiere last night by the West Australian Ballet as part of artistic director Aurélien Scannella’s plan to expand the company’s conservative story ballet repertoire.

Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, Oliver Edwardson, Matthew Lehmann
and Chihiro Nomura. Photos Sergey Pevnev

There were feathers and sequins galore in Dixon’s beautiful costumes: dancers floated haughtily across the stage and men in tail coats oozed good manners. Jerome Kaplan’s fluid set used sliding screens to create rooms with white curtains and large windows evoking grandeur. Tim Mitchell’s moody lighting was particularly stunning in creating a creamy opulent glow for Daisy and Jordan to lounge in feminine elegance.

But it is a tall task to distil the imagery and irony of language into a wordless ballet. There was a lot of mime and stock gestures used to establish character and narrate the story of a man relentless in his pursuit of a beautiful dream. Nixon used flashbacks to recount Gatsby’s early relationship with the young Daisy (costumed with the virginal sweetness of Little Bo Peep) and his links to the gangster underworld.

Oliver Edwardson, Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui

Richard Rodney Bennett’s music helped wonderfully. The score was a neoclassical medley of jazz numbers, orchestral music and excerpts from his film scores (Murder on the Orient Express, Nicholas and Alexandra) linked surprisingly seamlessly by orchestrator John Longstaff. The breathless energy of downtown New York was depicted in the swirling string phrases of Billion Dollar Brain, lush quotations from Partita for Orchestra set the tone for the reunion between Daisy and Gatsby and the Percussion Concerto was a nerve-rattling accompaniment to the Act II scene at Wilson’s Garage. Conductor Myron Romanul guided the WA Symphony Orchestra (and supplementary rhythm section) adeptly through the different styles with some magical solo moments from clarinet, horn, accordion and saxophone to name just a few. Pianist Graeme Gilling was the lynchpin, turning out ragtime numbers and atonal passagework with rock steady assurance.

The corps de ballet filled out the party scenes, moving through tangos, Charlestons (danced en pointe!) and a congo line, even singing along loudly to a recording of When the Midnight Choo Choo in a stand out scene in Myrtle’s apartment.

Pre-recorded music was used again in the finale but felt more contrived; Gatsby’s dream of waltzing with Daisy into a pink sunset was accompanied by I Never Went Away sung by Bennett. The transition to recorded music was clunky but it was also the most moving pas de deux of the night, as Matsui and Nomura let down their emotional reserve.

Matthew Lehmann and Melissa Boniface. 

On Thursday night Oliver Edwardson was a youthful and observant Nick Carraway, bewitched by the disdainful coolness of Jordan (Brooke Widdison-Jacobs with her impossibly long, elegant legs). Matthew Lehmann was a swaggering, possessive Tom and Melissa Boniface was larger-than-life as his lover Myrtle. Her husband Wilson, the garage owner, was danced with angular conviction by Liam Green, who gave a particularly moving grief scene accompanied by a low brass chorale. Chihiro Nomura was a delicate Daisy, flitting constantly and tossed breathtakingly between the men but unable to be pinned down by Gatsby. Gakuro Matsui was Gatsby: clinical, aloof and ruthless in the pursuit of his dream.

None of the characters were unreservedly lovable; like Fitzgerald’s novel Nixon encouraged his audience to critique the flawed characters while still creating a work of enthralling beauty. An impressive accomplishment for Nixon and the team at WA Ballet.

The Great Gatsby continues until September 30th.

This review first published Limelight Magazine 2017.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The highs and lows of Operabox's Manon

My enduring memory of Operabox’s production of Massenet’s Manon will be Jenna Robertson radiant in orange brocaded silk and exuding charisma. Her Manon was a heroine full of ambiguities and I couldn’t steal my eyes from her remarkably expressive face.

Jenna Robertson as Manon

Since founding Operabox in 2011 Robertson has made a significant contribution to supporting emerging singers and broadening the operatic repertoire for WA audiences. Operabox’s most recent production was a sensational fully staged  Ariadne auf Naxos complete with orchestra and chorus and I had high expectations of their similarly ambitious Manon which opened on Friday night.

Director Joseph Restubog and his design team (Laura Heffernan set, Stephanie Cullingford costumes, Beth Ewell lighting) set the opera in the egalitarian Paris of the roaring twenties where Manon is bewitched by glamorous flappers and exotic nightclubs. A projection of mottled blue paint formed the backdrop to a nuts and bolts set and assorted (mostly) period costumes (oh how some government funding could make a difference here!).

We met Manon bubbling with schoolgirl sweetness and on her way to the convent; “That’s the story of Manon” she explained to des Grieux. Robertson captured every nuance of Manon’s duplicity with her superficial glamour,  cruel manipulations, a sobbing Adieu notre petite table and finally her heartfelt penitence. She sung with impeccable French and bright top notes although her coloratura soprano didn’t quite have the lyrical fullness required for the role.

Bonfante singing En fermant les yeux 

Gaetano Bonfante as Le Chevalier des Grieux similarly struggled to find a warm centre to his sound, but his entrancing Act Two ‘Dream Song’ En fermant les yeux with its gently rocking orchestral accompaniment was a golden moment in the opera (despite an out of tune horn accompaniment).

The bustling Act Three marketplace was given a vigorous orchestral introduction by conductor Christopher Dragon and his small but responsive pit orchestra but fell flat from there. A few racks of scarves and books made a lacklustre set, Manon’s costume was underwhelming and uncertain direction (Manon’s Obéissons quand leur voix appelle was a confusing mix of comedy and seriousness), meant the drama struggled to connect with the audience.

Things began to gel in the Saint-Sulpice scene set up by a hushed orchestral chorale and a lush Magnificat from the six-piece chorus. Manon - in the breathtaking orange brocaded silk and fasinator - entreated des Grieux to give up his priesthood with both earnestness and petulance and there was a visceral connection between the lovers.

The twists of Act Five can be wearisome as the two lovers debate on whether to stay or leave together and Restubog added another twist with Manon finding inner peace rather than expiring in the final moments.

Michael Heap’s resonant baritone made a commanding Comte des Grieux. Simon Wood as Guillot was a natural theatric whose character began to darken as his ill-fated flirtations took their toll.  Sitiveni Talei was a slimy de Bretigny and the resplendent Kristin Bowtell was a lascivious Lescaut. The trio of alluring flappers was sung by the spirited Christina Thé, Esther Counsel and Belinda Cox.

This was a gutsy attempt at ambitious repertoire. There were moments where it fell short and moments where it soared. But as the heroine would say, that’s the story of Manon.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine September 2017.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Jenna Robertson

Last year Scottish-Australian Jenna Robertson ditched her engineering job to take the plunge as a full time soprano. She had already clocked up ten major repertoire roles, won the Australian concerto and vocal competition and had been running her own company Operabox for six years. The last 18 months have been spent following her heart. And taking a crash-course in French for her debut this week in the title role of Manon.

photo Marnya Rothe

What music gets your heart racing?

Any good opera where there is that magical combination of singing, orchestra, acting, design, surtitles! Amazing! William Kentridge’s production of Berg’s Lulu at the Met got my heart racing like crazy – it was a totally unique and thrilling combination of music with theatre. Of course at the moment, it’s also Massenet.

What calms you down?

Anything that holds my attention for extended time. Film is one of my favourite ways to relax and I love subtle films like those made by director Sofia Coppola. 

What do you sing along to?

Verdi, Donizetti, Katie Noonan, Jessie J…so many things!

How are you preparing for your title role in Operabox’s production of Manon?

I’ve been preparing for Manon for most of this year and the biggest challenge for me was the language as I’ve never studied French.  I was very fortunate to have the help of Opera Australia Language Coach, Nicole Dorigo, who taught me the French. Of course there is also the musical, technical and dramatic preparation that I’ve worked on also.

 A sneak peek from the general rehearsal of Manon, which opens on Friday.

You are doing much more than singing the role; you are also producing and promoting the season plus running the company! Where did you learn the skills to run your own opera company?

I worked internationally in oil and gas for 10 years as an engineer and project manager and had world-class leadership and project management training and experience during that time. That was a warm up for leading an opera company, which is actually harder, as there is never enough money. I’m always trying to learn new skills too. I’ve recently completed a part-time course at NIDA in Directing and training with Creative Partnerships Australia.  I also soak up information from wonderful mentors.

Operabox is one of several relatively new grassroots opera companies making a refreshing and vital contribution to WA’s operatic landscape. Why did you decide to launch your own company?

Operabox started with a team of 6 in the beginning in 2011. We are now producing our 7th production and have grown to an association with 170 members with 80-90 people involved in each production.  Now our focus is on both creating exciting meaty opportunities for arts professionals and providing interesting repertoire for WA audiences. We try to produce operas that meet both those criteria.
Robertson as Zerbinetta in Operabox's sensational Ariadne auf Naxos,
which I reviewed here.

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

I think it has different roles for different people, and can help people in so many ways by healing, inspiring and uniting. In opera, I guess the role of the music is to help tell stories and deliver important messages and the music heightens story telling in a way that in my opinion is unmatched in any other art form.

You have a soft spot for opera. You studied Engineering (with a singing scholarship on the side) at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and worked for Chevron in WA before make the career switch to opera in 2016. What is the appeal of opera?

A soft spot is a bit of an understatement! Somehow I didn’t see an opera till my early twenties when I was already working as an engineer (it was Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera).  I was blown away by the electrifying combination of theatre and music.  I’ve been working on moving in that direction ever since. Opera provides me with an unlimited challenge, which I love. There’s always more to learn.

How do you choose the repertoire for Operabox? Why Manon?

We take such care over choosing our pieces. We look at what would be interesting to both our artists, orchestra and our audience, and relevant to today’s society. We also strive for diversity in our offerings. Manon is our first French opera and has never been performed in WA with orchestra.
Gaetano Bonfante (Des Grieux) and Robertson (Manon)

You have a pretty stellar cast joining you including Opera Australia tenor Gaetano Bonfante and baritone Sitiveni Talei as Des Grieux and Brétigny, with Kristin Bowtell as Lescaut. Christopher Dragon is taking a break as  Associate Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to conduct the season and Sydney opera director Joseph Restubog is bringing a twist to the traditional ending (spoiler alert!). What can the audience expect?

Yes, we have an amazing team of people and I am continually blown away by the team we are able to pull together for each opera. The audience can expect to see our cast who are a mixture of Perth and Sydney-based singers, a small chorus and an orchestra of 25 in the pit conducted by Chris. It’s a fully staged production set in the 1920s, which director Joseph Restubog chose because the story really suits that period. That said, this story is so human its themes are timeless. As there have been a few 1920s shows in Perth this year already, our design team focused on trying to do something different. I’m particularly amazed at the work that costume designer Stephanie Cullingford has done with the historical accuracy of our costumes.

So far your singing career has taken you to Austria to study at the AIMS opera studio in Graz, Berlin for coaching, NIDA to complete studies in opera directing and you are currently based in Sydney soaking up the teaching of legends like Tony Legge, Arax Mansourian and Nicole Dorigo.… Where to next?

I’m heading back over east after Manon.  I have some more concerts this year in NSW, then heading to Europe again in November-December for more coaching and auditions, and then have an exciting role in 2018 in a new Australian opera called Mimma, which will be premiered in Perth at the Regal Theatre. The producers saw one of my performances of Anna Bolena in 2016 and offered me this role.

As Violetta in La Traviata, Opera New England, NSW

What is your favourite place in Perth?

I don’t think it’s a specific place, but after living in Sydney this year, I just love the lack of traffic and ease of getting around! I love the colour of the blue sky that seems to be unique to Perth.

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

I love good food, wine, and have a passion for film and photography. In fact my recent studies in directing at NIDA in Sydney have changed how I see everything.

Big thanks to Jenna for taking time out of production week to chat with us. Manon runs 1st-7th September at Newman College and 3rd September at Darlington Hall. More details and tickets here but be quick because tickets are selling fast. For more info on Jenna you can stalk her on Facebook and her website and follow Operabox here.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Intercurrent intrigues with shadows and echoes

Simulacra by definition refers to a representation or likeness – an intriguing theme for the third concert in Tura's Scale Variable series where Intercurrent ensemble explored musical doubles, echoes and shadows. Intercurrent formed in 2016 and their vitality, unique instrumentation and enthusiastic commissioning of composers has already set them apart in Australian chamber music practice. The group comprises Lachlan Skipworth co-founder and artistic director, Louise Devenish percussion, Ashley Smith clarinets and Emily Green-Armytage piano.

Ashley Smith, Emily Green-Armytage, Lachlan Skipworth, Louise Devenish. Photos Bohdan Warchomij

Green-Armytage and Devenish opened the program with a breathtaking performance of American composer Hannah Lash’s C.  Two repetitive melodies duelled on piano and vibraphone with patterns of notes grouped in threes, fours or fives hammered up against each other in parallel motion. For a few brief bars in the centre of the work the parts aligned before the phase shifted again in a strange dance of tugging unity. It was an astounding display of fierce independence married with precise synchronisation.

This was followed by an equally impressive bass clarinet solo as Smith relished the challenge laid down by WA composer Chris Tonkin. Entr’acte explored extremes of pitch, dynamics and speed and Smith delivered the full spectrum of bass clarinet sounds and effects with intensity and suppleness. Rapid soft passages were interrupted with explosive outbursts, followed by quirky micro tunings, folksy pitch sliding, slap tonguing and more. The work was anchored by its conclusion, a section of soft, hymn-like multiphonics where the simulacra theme was clearly apparent; each note was shadowed by notes in the harmonic series reverberating simultaneously in a musical and technical masterstroke.

The ensemble members came together for the first time for the world premiere of Alex Turley’s Blue Heat. In a nod to American minimalism Turley’s work was built around repeated semiquaver patterns gently rising and falling in layered waves of sound. The blend of marimba, piano and clarinet created a woody warmth from which sprung soloistic sections for piano and clarinet plus an interlude of piano and marimba droplets sounding just like a music box. Blue Heat was a mix of extreme softness, transparent textures and simmering energy, released finally in a frantic race to the end.

The use of electronics in Julian Day’s Father offered a fresh soundworld. Ghosts of melodies were revealed within electronic pitches that wavered and stretched over a long slow descent. The performers emerged from dark corners of the stage to join the melancholic hymn, adding long smooth phrases built around the repetition of tiny two-note rhythms. The delicate execution by the performers meant the ear became aware of minute changes to rhythm and volume in this work of shadows and fading memories.

Finally, Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion, the archetypal work of simulacra (or at least similar patterning) and the only work on the program written before 2011, making it quite old-fashioned! The ensemble repeated Glass’s five quaver melody in various irregular lengths with metronomic precision, creating relentless static ripples. The addition of an electronic track gave extra haze to the layers as the work progressed. It is an iconic work and coming in at just less than twenty minutes is a challenge to the stamina of the audience and the performers. Frankly alongside the more contemporary (and far more interesting) explorations of layering and echoes it felt a little tame. Which is a good thing, because it means the contemporary music scene is alive, evolving and thriving, thanks to groups like Intercurrent.

This review first published by Limelight magazine in August 2017.

Monday, 28 August 2017

September Gig Guide

This month kicks off with a much anticipated season from Operabox. Their production of Massenet's Manon will run September 1-7th directed by Opera Australia's Gaetano Bonfante, conducted by Christopher Dragon with Jenna Robertson in the title role.

On the 2nd master piano technician Paul Tunzi will celebrate 30 years in the industry with Keys in the City. The ingenuous interactive installation at the city of Perth library will allow tour groups to watch demonstrations on 30 of Australia's rarest pianos including the 'First Fleet piano'. Also on the 2nd Rob Buckland and Matt Styles will perform a rare double saxophone concerto with WAAPA's Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

Cat Hope is back in Perth and on the 3rd her ensemble Decibel will perform a series of works 'composed' by visual artists as part of an art exhibition called Sounding Art at PS Art Space.

The WA Symphony Orchestra will begin their Wagner series on the 6th with a concert  making connections between Liszt, Schumann and Wagner including extracts from the epic four-opera Ring Cycle. On the 9th the series continues with excerpts from Tristan und Isolde, bass baritone Shane Lowrencev singing arias from Die Walküre and Die Meistersinger and music by those who followed after including Bruckner and Strauss. On the 24th the WASO Chorus will be in the spotlight singing  Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, Bach and the world premiere of a work by Lachlan Skipworth.

Choral music is prominent this month with the Giovanni Consort's Donne on the 8th featuring music for female voices, the Music on the Terrace Series featuring the Churchlands SHS choir in Rising Stars on the 10th and Voyces' teaming up with Rachelle Durkin for Tundra on the 16th.

Adam Pinto will feature with the University of WA orchestra on the 13th performing Smalley's Piano Concerto, and that week WAAPA's Defying Gravity percussion ensemble will celebrate its 30th birthday with concerts on the 14-16th.

On the 17th Dominic Perissinotti will give a recital on the organ at St Patrick's Basilica and on the 23rd St George's Cathedral will host the Perth Symphony Orchestra for the popular Baroque by Candlelight. Also on the 23rd the Perth Symphonic Chorus will perform Brahms' German Requiem at the Perth Concert Hall with soprano Sara Macliver.

A strange phenomenon known as The Legend of Zelda starts a national tour Perth on the 24th with Jessica Gethin and the Perth Symphony Orchestra providing the music. The concert involves a performance of the symphonic soundtrack from the Nintendo game, accompanied by a digital collage of scenes from the game.

On the 30th Musica Viva will return to town with cellist Nicolas Alstaedt, pianist Aleksandar Madzar and preconcert talk by yours truly!

And for those of us with kids, a few ideas for the school holidays:

Spare Parts puppet theatre will give the world premiere of Rules of Summer, a show based on Shuan Tan's book. The season opens on the 23rd and runs for the school holidays and is recommended for ages 5+.  WASO will run the interactive kids concerts Jump Jam and Jiggle! from 28th-30th featuring music from The Planets.