Tuesday, 27 June 2017

When the kids joined in

“Would you like to join the orchestra?” Stan and Mabel asked the rabbit.

“Yes!!!!” cried a voice from the front row.

The enraptured child was one of 6355 audience members (young and old) who attended performances and events last week as part of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s Education Week.

The Beat of Your Feet on Sunday was one of 15 concerts WASO performed during the week. It featured the enthusiastic educator and composer Paul Rissmann who introduced the orchestral instruments, taught the audience some songs and then narrated Jason Chapman’s book Stan and Mabel, a story of two animals who travel to Italy to audition for the orchestra. The illustrations were projected on screens, vocalist Libby Hammer helped with the songs  and Benjamin Northey conducted the 50 plus orchestra.

The child in the front row wasn’t the only person getting swept up with the excitement. Children and adults were singing, doing actions, delighting in the instrumental solos and completely enthralled. There’s something so decadent about having literature, art and music brought to life by such talented professionals!

The day before we attended a Cushion Concert where the story of The Lion of Loved was brought to life in a similar manner by Rissmann and the11-piece EChO ensemble.

Paul Rissmann and the EChO musicians

This smaller scale concert was held in the more intimate Wardle Room of the concert hall. Even in the back row we were close enough to feel the reverberations in our chests from Andrew Sinclair’s marvelous double bass evocation of an elephant. Again Rissmann’s warm welcome and lively interaction with the music had the children captivated. The advantage of the back row was that my four year old daughter could dance her heart out. Or snuggle up when things got a bit tense as the jungle animals tried to rescue Leo the lion from the raging river.

Libby Hammer’s bubbly personality and warm vocals were an asset to both shows. And the "have-a-go" on the instruments at the end is always popular. But the real success lay in Rissmann’s compositions, which captured the zesty energy of the picture books and also the moments of sweet pathos while featuring specific instruments and some very singable tunes.

A few nights later my children randomly began singing “We’re going to Italy to audition in a competition”.

It was a busy week for the orchestra who performed The Lion Who Loved and The Beat of Your Feet during the week to school children, along with Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants. There was also a conducting masterclass, the Rusty Orchestra concert, Harmony Music performances for children with special needs, the Hospital Orchestra Project at PMH and the Composition Project Final Showing.

 WASO's next children’s concerts is November 5th when ABC favourites Lah-Lah and Buzz join the orchestra.

Monday, 26 June 2017

July Gig Guide

The month kicks off with French/Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the WA Symphony Orchestra on June 30/July 1st. Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 is also on the program.

The following weekend WASO will celebrate their 30th Anniversary with conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a grand Russian concert. The concert will include Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony and Rachmaninov’s massive Edgar Allan Poe-inspired choral symphony The Bells.

WASO will end the month with a tribute on the 28/29th to the greatest film composer of all time: John Williams. The music will include soundtracks from Star Wars, ET, Superman and many others  WASO concertmaster Lawrence Jackson will step out from his orchestral activity on July 3rd for a concert with St George’s Cathedral organist Joseph Nolan as part of the Cathedral Music Series.

On the 9th July the Perth Symphonic Chorus, directed by Margaret Pride, will perform music to make you swoon, featuring a jazz trio and drawing on traditional and contemporary repertoire from Allegri to Ellington.

Musica Viva will bring the Sitkovetsky Trio to Perth on the 11th to perform piano trios by Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, PLUS a world premiere by Perth’s Lachlan Skipworth AND a preconcert talk by Rosalind Appleby. What a combination!

The WA Opera’s season of The Merry Widow opens on the 15th, set in 1920's Paris with a sizzling young cast including ex-Perth singers Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Hanna and Danilo, young Perth soprano Emma Pettemerides as Valencienne and Opera Australia’s John Longmuir as Camille. Come dressed in the style of the 1920's for this brand new Opera Conference production directed by Graeme Murphy.

On the 16th the Robert Zielinski Trio will breeze through some traditional Irish Scottish reels as part of the Darlington Chamber Music Series and on the same night WAAPA’s week long International Art Song Academy will culminate in a gala concert with singers from around Australia accompanied by acclaimed English pianist, Dr Graham Johnson.

The Fremantle Chamber Orchestra will accompany Emily Leung in Bruch’s Violin Concerto on the 22/23 plus perform Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3.

Freeze Frame Opera will dabble in some more creative opera with a concert on the 29th at Brans Antiques, Mosman Park. Proceeds will go towards the production of their next opera.

The month closes with the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s decadent Serenades in the City at Government House Ballroom including a champagne brunch, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Margaret Sutherland’s Concerto for Strings and stories from well-known author and journalist Rosalind Appleby. I suspect this will be more like a treat than a concert!

I hope to see you at some concerts soon!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Eisteddfod's messy lives are deeply loveable

The Eisteddfod was the work that really kicked off the career of Melbourne-based playwright Lally Katz over a decade ago and its Perth debut by the Black Swan State Theatre Company directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler is well overdue. Katz’s opera The Rabbits premiered in Perth a few years ago so it was good to see Katz in her home territory.

The Eisteddfod is a multi-layered work that depicts the claustrophobic lives of two orphaned children trapped in their memories and fears of the outside world. Or as Katz puts it in an authorial voice over that accompanies the work, it shows ‘their happy lives alone and afraid of the world together.”

Natalie Holmwood, Brendan Ewing. Photos by Daniel James Grant.

Katz’s script is loaded with this kind of sardonic melancholy, a humour that having no time for pathos cuts straight to the quick. She is OK with scenes twisting uncomfortably in and out of humour and pain as the siblings Abalone and Gerture play out their memories and longings through various fantasies.

Tyler Hill’s set was a large grimy room with a bunk bed, some wardrobes and a filthy toilet. Boxes litter the room packed with items of nostalgia and bringing a sense of temporary stasis, arrested development. Lucy Birkinshaw’s flouro lighting was overwhelming artificial, with no sense of daylight or fresh air. Brett Smith’s unobtrusive sound design included retro pop songs and a sweetly naive piano melody.

The plot revolved around Abalone’s desire to compete in an Eisteddfod together playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespearean soliloquies were rehearsed in thick Scottish accents, including a hilarious scene where Lady Macbeth invites Macbeth to dance and a small disco ball appears from under a box, accompanied by an eighties love song.

Brendan Ewing was a lanky, fragile Abalone. His large twitching hands and flexibly expressive face reminded me simultaneously of Johnny Depp, and also Garry McDonald in his moments of pathetic Mother and Son self interest. The ‘History of the Eisteddfod’ scene was delightful, Ewing revealing more through his body language about the characters than the competition.

Natalie Holmwood as Gerture was diminutive in every sense of the word, pining for her masochistic lover Ian, desperately seeking refuge in mediocrity and weary with frustration. Her warped understanding of life and love (“How can you not love someone after all the times you’ve touched arms in the ad breaks?”) begins to make sense as the fantasies are played out. “Be Ian”, she begs her brother, a little while later taking on the role of “Mum” for her brother in a world where hovering memories continue to break in, pinning and trapping them.

The performance in the Eisteddfod wasn’t the moment of dramatic triumph Abalone was hoping for, neither does it return his sister to him as he had planned. A quote from Macbeth “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’” foreshadows the sad end.

It sounds grim, but it wasn’t. Katz has a Winton-esque ability to create characters whose messy lives are deeply loveable. Ewing and Holmwood give gripping, multi-hued portrayals for 70 minutes of deeply enthralling theatre.

The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz will run at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA until 9th July.

This review first published Limelight Magazine, June 2017.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Steampunk Mozart full of creativity

The Midland Railway Workshops stretch for a kilometre in the heart of Midland’s old industrial area. The enormous warehouses now house among other things the WA Police Operations Centre and medical centre as part of the Midland redevelopment. On Wednesday night one end of a vast still-vacant warehouse was cordoned off to become a venue for Perth Symphony Orchestra’s Steampunk Mozart.

Perth Symphony Orchestra in the Midland Railway Workshops. Photo Richard Jefferson

The smell of Viennese schnitzel, a life size steampunk dalek and remnants of machinery set the scene. Beneath the hum of voices could be heard thuds, blips and the rush of steam; a sound installation evoking the industrial sounds of days gone by.

The mission of PSO Director Bourby Webster and her creative team is to bring classical music into unexpected settings and to people in all walks of life. In this instance the pairing of Mozart with the sci-fi fashion genre of steampunk was marketing genius. The sold out audience of loyal fans, Midland locals and art lovers (many decked out in neo-Victorian hoop skirts, boots and top hats) wandered the space in delight, taking in the industrial history, the coloured spot lighting, the Mozart-inspired Viennese food and, of course, the music.

And the music is where PSO unfailingly gets it right; with clever programming and world class playing this concert moved well beyond gimmicky ideas. The program opened with a classical flourish with a movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet led with boisterous energy by Paul Wright on violin, followed by the immense calm of the Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Hugely popular yet never sounding tired, the Adagio was played (despite the odd memory slip) with poised serenity by clarinettist Catherine Cahill. A Mozart duet for violin and viola was less memorable – a lack of clear pulse made the dialogue between the two instruments difficult to follow.

Jessica Gethin leading a chamber version of the Perth Symphony Orchestra

The program moved into eerie territory with Schnittke’s Moz-Art รก la Haydn, conducted by Jessica Gethin with Wright and Lucas O’Brien as soloists. Schnittke’s montage of Haydn and Mozart quotes mashed with discordant harmonies was the perfect soundscape for the building. The swaying gothic skirts of the orchestral players, the dim lighting and the chords echoing beyond the spotlights into the long warehouse added to the slightly macabre edge.

Two movements from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 (arrranged for string orchestra) followed on beautifully. Gethin drew out an intensely melancholic Largo and the Allegro molto movement had a visceral energy. The program took another twist to include Albinoni/Giazotto’s Adagio for Strings. Again a well-known work sounded fresh with a relentless pizzicato bass line and lyrical melody generating heart-tugging climaxes.

Jessica Gethin and the PSO. Photo Richard Jefferson

The final surprise on the program was three percussionists who literally played the building, starting in the scaffolding and working their way to the front of the stage for a train inspired adaption of Argenziano’s Stinkin’ Garbage. Industrial noise mingled with whistles and shouts to reconstruct the sounds of the venue in its workshop days. The evening closed with Mozart’s Divertimento in D, directed with finesse by Wright. The sparse phrases of the slow movement in particular can be so unforgiving but they were immaculately contoured - the epitome of elegance and the sign of a tight ensemble.

It was an impressive night, full of creativity and multiple opportunities to connect. Another indication that if you dig below the surface in Perth’s classical music scene to the small-medium arts sector you will discover the future of classical music is in very good hands.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine 2017.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Voyces concert a window into fabulous Aussie music

Voyces is a group of 30-or-so young things directed by Dr Robert Braham and dedicated to high quality choral music. Five years in and Voyces has the hallmarks of a well-established group with a loyal following – their Saturday night concert at Government House Ballroom sold out! What really sets them apart is their emphasis on music by Australian composers and their concert was a window into the fabulous music currently being written for choral groups.

Vocyes. photo Nik Babic

The concert opened with a lively version of Waltzing Matilda by Ruth McCall, of Song Company fame. A chant in Aboriginal dialect set up a rhythmic dance feel which contrasted with spooky harmonies for “And his ghost can be heard...”. The choir sang with energy and proved themselves adept at harmonic overtone singing, a vocal technique requiring the singer to manipulate their vocal cavity to produce multiple sounds from the harmonic series. It gave an otherworldly feel and was part of the melting pot of ideas McCall drew on in this quirky piece.

The concert covered a wide variety of poetry including Henry Lawson’s On the Night Train, set by Joseph Twist who also wrote an haunting Lament using Latin text from Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte and underpinned by a rhapsodic cello solo performed by Anna Sarcich.

Poetry by Perth’s Kevin Gillam was the inspiration for Iain Grandage’s Wheatbelt, a depiction of the troubled beauty of a rural landscape. The use of percussion and onomatopoeia to depict insects, wind and birds created an evocative sound world offset by the denseness of close harmonies. Printing Gillam’s lyrics in the program notes would’ve deepened the experience even further. Hush had similarly clever use of vocal percussion with Grandage’s characteristic fast rhythmic text settings bursting into soaring lyrical melodies.

As the program continued it became clear that the choir have a penchant for strong, enveloping soundscapes. Dan Walker’s Vast Sea. Sleeping Mother had a rocking string quartet accompaniment amplified by percussion, piano and long unsion vocal lines to create the vast rolling of the sea. Walker’s Hooves of Fate was the group’s first commission in 2015 and Walker’s bold nine-part choral writing and the pounding of hooves conveyed by the percussion packed a hefty dramatic punch. Until now the choir had been singing with a clean, contained quality but after interval the repertoire demanded more and Braham drew a broader, more symphonic choral sound from the group.

Ben Van Tienen’s accessible harmonic language in Across the Dark matched the direct whimsy of Leunig’s poetry. A tongue in cheek tango about the dangerous animal known as Australian politics (excellent piano accompaniment by Ann Clarke) had the audience chuckling while the thick homophonic sound of Lonely Mother Earth made a powerful lament. Van Tienen’s I Carry Your Heart With Me and Matthew Orlovich’s effervescent Butterflies Dance (which suffered occasional pitch issues) were gentle interludes. The concert concluded with the choir at full throttle for Orlovich’s dense setting of Judith Wright’s poem Night. A didgeridoo solo by Steve Richter established a weighty pulse and the piece unfolded with the ponderous density of Wright’s ‘great tree’ as four percussionists added their layers to the choir, creating a stunning orchestral density.

Voyces debut album Hush 

It’s clear Voyces like their concerts to be a vivid aural experience and the good news is now you can take it home with you; the concert marked the launch of their debut album Hush, featuring the all-Australian repertoire we heard at the concert in a crisp, warm recording.

The Hush album is available from www.voyces.com.au, iTunes, Spotify and Google Play.
Voyces next concert is Tundra on September 16th. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Robert Braham and Voyces

Robert Braham has been conducting Perth choirs for decades with the kind of magic that can extract joyful, enthusiastic singing even from teenage school boys. His new ensemble Voyces is attracting attention for its clean, fresh sound. They have performed at the opening of the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival,  collaborated with artists the calibre of Emma Matthews and Sara Macliver and built a reputation for commissioning Australian composers. Voyces' debut album will be launched this week at a concert called Hush.

Robert Braham. Photos Nic Babic Photography

What music gets your heart racing?

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto springs to mind but virtuosic jazz playing is just as good. Wycliffe Gordon on trombone is a current favourite but I always come back to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra where everyone is a virtuoso player.

What calms you down?

There are some wonderful current composers of choral music and vocal solos. Henryk Gorecki’s  Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (No. 3, Op. 36) for soprano and orchestra is just the ticket but on the a cappella choral side the works of Ola Gjeilo, Paul Mealor and others are both rich and calming at the same time. These and other modern choral composers know how to write so expressively for choir. Voyces will do some Ola Gjeila in their September concert.

What do you sing along to?

Symphonies mainly. I think this comes from my time as a horn player, especially the Romantic repertoire. Of course I cannot help but sing along with the symphonic choir repertoire; Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the works of Vaughan Williams. The list would be long. It is what I conducted for 14 years with the Perth Oratorio Choir.

What was your original vision behind the creation of Voyces choir?

The original vision behind Voyces was a youth aged choir who would sing a lot of contemporary classical music and especially Australian composers. After the WA Youth Music Association choir finished up a group of ex Trinity College boys who were members of the WAYMA Chorale wanted to start a new choir. It was based in St Joseph’s Church in Subiaco for a while and so was called the St Joseph’s Chamber Choir. Now we are based at Trinity College but still have our annual Christmas concert at St Joseph’s. The age of the choir has also expanded.

The choir membership has always been based on selecting highly trained musicians who get what it is to sing quality choral contemporary music. They don’t all have to be highly trained singers but they do need to have good musical skills and be quick learners. We love presenting quality modern choral works that our audience will enjoy. Sometimes that involves breaking down the traditional choir model of stand and sing. At our Spin concert, last year, we had several pieces where the choir moved around the stage while singing with images projected onto a screen and one piece where we started in the auditorium with a dramatized political narrative and ended on stage with some very intense singing. You can pretty well guarantee that the audience will hear works they have never heard before at a Voyces concert. Always interesting but also accessible. With our June 10 concert the program will be all Australian works including works for choir, percussion and strings. Every piece is novel and musically wonderful.

Voyces sing Night by Matthew Orlovich, 2016.

How are you preparing for the Hush concert on June 10th at the Government House Ballroom?

The preparation for the concert is tied in with the preparation for the recordings. The choir is doing such detailed work for the recording that it is ideal for concert preparation. The difference is we mainly sing concerts from memory but record with the scores so we have yet to test how the memorization is going. I am sure with all the recording time the memory work will almost take care of itself. Fingers crossed.

Voyces will also release an album as part of this concert – why did you decide to make an album?

Our public has been asking about a CD recording for quite a while now. It is time I think to put some of the repertoire down that we think defines who we are as a choir. We were also very keen to record ‘Hooves of Fate’, a work we commissioned from Australian composer Dan Walker as well as other pieces that we either premiered, or, were versions of compositions that have not been recorded.

Voyces has commissioned and performed a significant amount of new choral music in the five years since its inception. Why is it important to be singing music by contemporary Australian composers?

There are wonderful young and established Australian composers writing choral music. There are also a multitude of good choirs in Australia these days. They should be championing Australian music. I  love building the relationship between a choir and a composer. It is a very personal thing having music written for your choir. It also comes with great challenges and ultimately  (even with an open conversation between the composer and yourself) the end result can still be full of wonderful musical surprises. I have never been disappointed with a commissioned work. You have to trust but also be prepared to take a risk. 

At Trinity College we commissioned Paul Jarman to write a work for the Senior Chorale for our USA tour. Paul warned me that it was not what our original intentions had been but thought I and more importantly the boys would love it. He even left a section open to workshop with the boys over a weekend. By the end of the weekend the boys owned and knew the piece. It was a great hit. If anyone has a youth male choir try it. It is called ‘Let Go of My Hand’.

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

That is the million-dollar question. Music is tied up with life, with the evolution of humans since before language. It is a part of every culture. It represents the extremes of emotion, it lifts us and it calms us. It is a great discipline to be involved with for there are so many skills in the art of music making. It lights up more of the brain than most other human activities so it has to be mentally healthy as well. It is something we all should have in our lives at some level. I think it was the great conductor Zubin Mehta commenting on an orchestral concert in the middle east who said something like: while the audience is absorbed in the music they at least have peace in their lives. It is a nice thought.

Voyces with Sara Macliver at St Joseph's Church Subiaco

You have a soft spot for choral music – why the voice?

Choirs were not my first choice of music making. I sang at school but mainly played orchestral music through university. Eight years in the orchestral pit with the Western Australian Arts Orchestra playing for opera in particular was a great education watching conductors and singers interact. My first real conducting work was in music theatre. From there I took on the Perth Oratorio Choir and discovered a whole world of large-scale choral music. So getting into choral work happened slowly at first and was paralleled by conducting opportunities. 

Your day job is director of music at Trinity College. The only time most Aussies practice communal singing (!) is at the footy – how do you go about teaching school boys to sing?

There is a great culture of singing at Trinity established over many years. Boys need to be given the chance to sing with other boys and the more the merrier. If you can get them through the vocal transition successfully they progress from loving their treble voices to loving their mature voices. They love bold sounds, they love rich harmonies and they love rhythmic interest. And if they love it they bring their mates. If you can build a culture where the whole senior school sings then developing expressive choral singing in teenage boys is just a refinement. It is always hard work but once they are hooked with quality repertoire there is no turning back. We also make sure the younger boys get the opportunity to hear the older boys. Aspiration means a lot in a boys’ school and a bit of competition never hurts.

Voyces perform Tanguendo by Oscar Escalada with 
dancers Geoff Hendrikse and Jelena Martinovic, 2016.

The choir will be heading to Choralfest later this month. What will your role be there?

Voyces is a guest choir at Choralfest. It is our second venture to the Australian National Choral Association festival. We will sing two separate programs of Australian music from our CD along with other fine Australian choirs. It is a great chance to network for the choristers and conductors and there will be wonderful international people there to work with and learn from. It is not often that choirs of this level actually get together and sing to a choral community so it is a real buzz. Always a bit of pressure but that will sharpen the performance.

Where did you learn the skills to direct a choir?

On the job would have to be the best answer to this question. Attending master classes and symposiums, observing and discussing conducting with other conductors and then implementing changes to what you do over many years. It is an ongoing process. Recently I attended the Vancouver Chamber Choir conductors’ symposium working with Jon Washburn. It was an intense week working with a professional choir but it was highly motivating.

Can you describe the unique sound of Voyces?

It is the sound of young, switched on musicians who love what they do. It is fresh, clean and always exciting.

Robert Braham

What is your favourite place in Perth?

I love our back garden. It is such a calming place to sit and enjoy. I have always loved the view of the city from Kings Park. It must be one of the best city views in Australia. I also love the combination of the old and new in some of Perth’s architecture – like St Mary’s Cathedral and of course the Mt Lawley strip for Saturday morning shopping.

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

I love art especially pastels and used to do quite a bit of drawing. Maybe it is something I will get back to when life is not so hectic. The gym has become quite addictive in recent years. I am also a sucker for good Nordic Noir and BBC dramas. Of course there is always the cricket.

Thank you to Robert Braham for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. Voyces will launch their debut CD at the Hush concert on June 10th. For more information about upcoming concerts go to the Voyces website or check them out on Facebook.