Friday, 28 July 2017

August Gig Guide

Let's start this month's gig guide with Tura New Music, who are having a busy winter! In August Tura will support the workshop of Cat Hope's experimental opera Speechless in Adelaide plus tour to Warmun for a 3 week regional residency where Jon Rose will, in collaboration with the local community, turn a car wreck into a musical instrument. Tura is also producing the next Scale Variable concert featuring Intercurrent on August 29th. The 4-piece Intercurrent have an impressive program planned including a recent work by Hannah Lash and THREE premieres by Chris Tonkin, Julian Day and Alex Turley. Finally the organisation have been involved with a sound art, video and sculpture installation called Scarasson which will be presenting nightly performances at the State Buildings from August 1-6th.

Keep an eye out for string quartets this month: the Australian String Quartet kick off their national tour in Perth on August 2nd with a program including Dvorak Britten and Australian composer Paul Stanhope. I haven't yet heard the new lineup of players, so if you have let me know what you think. The popular Takacs Quartet is also in town on the 10th performing Haydn. Mozart and the world premiere of Carl Vine's 6th String Quartet Child's Play. This will be the launch of their national Musica Viva tour.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra will celebrate a 20 year association with conductor Simone Young on the 4/5th with a wide-ranging program from Haydn to Brahms and the world premiere of a work by Australian Andrew Schultz. Asher Fisch is in town on the 17-19th to conduct Schubert's great Symphony No 9 with Jayson Gillham joining him for Schumann's Piano Concerto. The following week Fisch will conduct Mahler's 6th Symphony and Karen Gomlo will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No 3.

On the 11th St George's Cathedral Consort will perform Bach, Bernstein and Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. The Perth Symphony Orchestra are performing their annual Baroque by Candlelight concert on the 23rd at St George's Cathedral. Jessica Gethin will conduct and Paul Wright is concert master: book now as this immersive concert always sells out!

Rochelle Durkin's fiery colloratura soprano will be on display in Baroque Beauties at the Government House Ballroom on the 20th, accompanied by the UWA string orchestra and vocal consort.

On the 12th the WA Academy of Performing Arts will host Geoffrey Lancaster and Stewart Smith playing keyboard works by Bach. Also at WAAPA Karin Schaupp and Claire Edwardes will give a concert on the 18th of all-Australian music for the mellow and sensuous medium of guitar and marimba. On the 24th winner of the 2016 Sydney international Piano Competition Audrey Gugnin will present a recital and on the 26th August WAAPA 3rd year music theatre students will  begin their season of Chicago under the direction of Crispin taylor.

Finally the Darlington Piano Quartet will perform Dohnanyi, Brahms and James Ledger's Three Escher Portraits on the 27th at the Darlington Hall. Enjoy!

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Women composers in The Guardian

My Opinion piece for The Guardian was published today.

I am really pleased to be able to document nationally the exciting energy in the industry at the moment around women composers. The article is already generating a storm of comments. Got to love a controversial topic! 

Australia's female composers are having a moment. We need to harness that energy.

“Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I been a boy. But never mind, I never paid much attention to it, I just marched in and there I was.”

These fighting words come from Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), arguably the most famous female composer in her time and one of the first Australian women to march into the male-dominated world of composition.

Back then, the costs were high: Glanville-Hicks’s colleague Margaret Sutherland was married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness, while many women had to lie about their gender in order to be published. The positions on the boards and in the institutions were held by men who also received the majority of the commissions.

Today women make up 26% of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising performers. It’s not close to gender parity but the figures do stack up well internationally – the only country to fare better is Estonia with 30%. Women make up about 20% of American and Polish composers but, for most countries, the average is a woeful 15%.

Women have also made a significant contribution to Australia’s music history, often punching above their male contemporaries. Sutherland almost single-handedly pioneered modernism in Australia music and, in 1938, Glanville-Hicks was the first person to represent Australia at the International Society of Contemporary Music. Anne Boyd smashed through the glass ceiling to become the first woman and first Australian to be appointed professor of music at the University of Sydney in 1991. Today Liza Lim, Mary Finsterer and Elena Kats-Chernin are likely to rank higher internationally than their male contemporaries.

Sadly, however, the majority of women still struggle with visibility. According to musicologist Sally Macarthur, women’s music represented only 11% of the works performed at new music concerts in 2013. In the concert halls where the more conservative orchestras reside, it is far rarer to hear a work by a female composer – dead or alive.

But a new surge of energy is bringing female composers into the spotlight. In August, hundreds of women, including myself, will gather at the Women in the Creative Arts conference in Canberra as part of a wave of industry activism – hopefully, they say, for the last time.

Read more here.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Serenade - a performance for someone you love

A Serenade is a performance for someone you love. It comes from the Latin word serenus and the music is typically calm and light. Or bubbly and beautiful, or even sumptuous, in the case of the Perth Symphony Orchestra's Serenades concert this weekend. The morning concert includes champagne and brunch in the elegant surrounds of Government House Ballroom, which is being decorated as a 1920's Parisian cafe. What's not to love?!

I have the inside goss on this concert because I have been asked to host it and I am super excited! Bourby Webster, Paul Wright, Jessica Gethin and team have put together a stunning sensory experience which will include dancers and painters responding to work by Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Margaret Sutherland.

So pop on your best floral frock or Matisse tie and come join us on Sunday morning for a concert of lush string orchestral music with dancers, art, divine refreshments and wonderful company. This is a performance for you: the people we love. Book now, as it is likely to sell out!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Night out of the year at WA Opera's effervescent The Merry Widow

The diplomat Danilo’s motto is “Love quite a lot, promise rarely, marry never”. But it’s a hard standard to live up to when the whole of Pontevedro is vying for the attention of the love of his life, wealthy widow Hanna. Someone has to keep the immense fortune (and the person attached to it) in the country.

Yes it’s Lehar’s The Merry Widow, bubbling over with opulence and mirth in a new production by Graham Murphy. The Opera Conference production premiered in Perth on 15th July as part of WA Opera’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Taryn Fiebig made her long-overdue company debut as Hanna under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, WA Opera’s first female conductor.

Taryn Fiebig as Hanna in The Merry Widow. Photos by James Rogers

If there was a lot of champagne overflowing at the interval celebrations there was just as much on stage. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish Art Deco set, Justin Fleming’s new streamlined English translation and Jennifer Irwin’s dazzling costumes were the backdrop for a dance-infused show where every act was a party fizzing with romance and comedy.

Immense bronze latticework set the scene for the Embassy Ball, with sequined dresses and the gilded braiding of 1920’s Parisian high society shimmering under Damien Cooper’s creamy lights. The breathtaking Monet garden setting for Act Two’s Pontevedrian party drew spontaneous applause as the curtain lifted on a waterlilies backdrop, pastel frocks and dreamy lighting. Lehar’s ‘Love Unspoken’ wafted through this setting like an evening breeze and Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Danilo delivered a heart melting waltz. But it was not enough to break Danilo’s scruples about money and Hanna becomes embroiled in the fledgling affair between the Baron’s wife Valencienne and a young Frenchman Camille. It was not until the Act 3 nightclub party where she joined the ‘Grisette’ girls that this high-kicking heroine revealed the details of her inheritance and steals back Danilo’s heart.

Fiebig and Lewis as Hanna and Danilo

Lehar’s score is infused with folk dances, waltzes and marches and Murphy drew on his vast background in choreography and his intimate knowledge of The Merry Widow (he danced in The Australian Ballet’s famous 1975 production) to produce an operetta brimming with movement. In fact the production was so busy there were moments where it only just held together. Fortunately the cast and creative team were well-picked to deliver the complex theatrics.

Lewis and Fiebig were youthful, full of life and constantly tripping over their love for each other. Their background in music theatre meant their dancing was as alluring as their singing. Lewis cut a rakish character from his drunken arrival looking for a desk so he could sleep (“Beds are for making love, desks are for sleeping; I only have to look at a desk and I’m out like a light.”) to his elegant dancing and delightful  light lyric tenor. Fiebig was entrancing with her clear-as-a-bell top notes offset by a growling cabaret showgirl routine all the while navigating four incredibly lavish gowns.

Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis Act 3
Emma Pettemerides was big-eyed and sweet-voiced as the flirtatious Valencienne and John Longmuir sung the besotted Camille with a honey smooth gleam. Actor Michael Loney proved he could also sing and dance in a showstealing camp rendition of ‘Quite Parisian’ Baritone Andrew Foote’s comic excellence was put to good use as the foolish Baron Zeta while Sam Roberts-Smith and Jonathon Brain were quite ridiculous in their rivalry for Hanna’s fortune.

A 12-strong dance corps added feathered Grisette routines and Slavic folk dances. Murphy also put the WA Opera chorus through their paces with detailed choreography. “Women” became a Broadway-style male ensemble number complete with tuxedos, white gloves and slapstick moments such as a larrikin Mexican wave.  Throughout all the activity the chorus sound was warm hued and clean.

Fiebig and the male chorus.
There was great synergy between stage and pit. Scammell, who has built her career on stage shows, coordinated the masses with finely honed intuition. The WA Symphony Orchestra added spice to Lehar’s folk melodies, hazy romanticism to the instrumental solos and effortless lift to the dance numbers.

We rarely get operettas at WA Opera and the audience (younger than a usual opening night crowd) were captivated by the young, versatile cast and effervescent, truly beautiful production. Notwithstanding a few opening night jitters, this was an impressive launch for Murphy’s The Merry Widow. There’s still so much more to describe but instead go buy a ticket for your night out of the year; it doesn’t get much more fun than this!

Dancers during the Act 3 party

WA Opera’s The Merry Widow continues in Perth until 22nd July with an Opera Melbourne season in November and Opera Australia in December.

This review first published Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Harriet O'Shannessy

Harriet O'Shannessy is calm, unflappable,and the owner of a deliciously creamy soprano voice which you will hear in WA Opera's The Merry Widow this weekend. These days she has an irrepressible sparkle in her eyes and bubbling energy; her company Freeze Frame Opera is succeeding beyond her wildest dreams.

What music gets your heart racing?

Cavalleria Rusticana – the fight scene between Santuzza and Turridu: “No, no Turridu”  either watching it or singing it! It was the first opera I was in at WA Opera and it has a special place in my heart. I watched from the wings every night to see Dennis O’Neill and Nicole Youl singing this.

What music calms you down?

I listen to 101.7FM Capital Community Radio. Best station for golden oldies. I love it. I keep saying to anyone that’ll listen that it is not just a station for “the senior citizens of Perth”!

What do you sing along to?

I love singing along to Romeo and Juliet, (Dire Straits of course!)

Singing in the WA Opera chorus for Carmen
How are you preparing for your role as Sylviane in WA Opera's The Merry Widow which opens on July 15th?

We have had a wonderful rehearsal process with Graeme Murphy creating this show before our eyes. It is great to be involved in this original production. Sylviane is a little bit quirky and also quite naughty, so it is a lot of fun. I am a privileged Pontevedrian. I get to wear three amazing and glamorous costumes that have been designed by Jennifer Irwin. So much detail and thought has gone into every aspect of this show. This opera is going to look and sound amazing.

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

I absolutely agree. Interesting, and it must affect my emotions. I like watching a show when I’m so involved emotionally that I want the inevitable sad to ending to change, or when I get goosebumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, or when something makes me cry. Music should move emotions.

You have a soft spot for opera. What is the appeal of the art form for you?   

Opera has such power and passion.  It has the ability to speak straight to the soul, through the power of the human voice.  It is also just so impressive hearing a singer in full flight. It’s something primal and electric, and electrifying. I believe that the power to capture human emotion is the reason that opera can appeal to anyone. And, when you put that with a full orchestra…! Sensational.

How did Freeze Frame Opera come about?

I was inspired to start FFO to provide more opportunities for top quality Perth based singers to perform, and to increase opera audiences by making operas in a shortened format (like 20/20 is to test cricket, we are to grand opera), in a more intimate venue and in a more relaxed atmosphere. Camelot Theatre, where we performed La Boheme in May 2017, is perfect for that. The quality of the acting is as important as the singing.  Audiences have responded to that. Also, they can take their wine into the show, and come in their ugg boots if they like.  Always a good selling point.

Many would say you are mad starting FFO when opera companies around the world are going bankrupt. It is often an expensive and elite art form. What gives you hope?  

It is true - you have to be a bit mad! It consumes my waking (and sleeping) thoughts! Where there’s a will there’s a way I guess. I get lots of nice, encouraging feedback. And I get kids stopping me on the hockey field to ask “How I kept my eyes open?” when Mimi died  … so there’s hope there that the youngsters are getting interested!

O'Shannessy singing Mimi in La Boheme with Paul O'Neill as Rodolfo

Your debut opera La Boheme in May generated overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the Perth public. What is it that creates such a resonance with your audience, many of whom are opera virgins?  

I think they liked our 90’s grunge Boheme because the cast were so immersed in their roles, and so well suited to their roles, it wasn’t too long – (90 mins including interval), and it is such a good opera! I love it that people new to opera are coming and willing to give opera a go. I think they connected to Boheme with Rachel McDonald’s modern setting and surtitles. We hope we’ll get them hooked.

Where did you learn the skills to manage an opera company?

Definitely learning on the job! I’ve had great sounding boards in Bourby Webster (PSO), Rachel McDonald (director La Boheme) and my husband, Greg. I have collaborated with the some of the best in the business (Robbie Harrold, designer and Geoff Glencross, lighting). All have worked so hard. The singers are very much a part of the collaborative process at FFO. They even change the sets! Having produced Boheme, I feel more equipped to know what will or might come up next time.
What is the most important quality required for running a business in the arts sector?

The passion has to be there. Nothing would happen without that.

How do you go about putting together an opera such as Pagliacci from scratch? It is scheduled for mid next year and I know you have already started working toward it.   

I’ve locked down the dates at Camelot Theatre, the availability of the cast, and the director, musical director, designer and lighting designer. I will focus on obtaining funding, selling tickets and learning my role.  Boheme was pretty successful, and we all want to make sure our next show is even better!

Creative Partnerships Australia, through MATCH LAB 2017, will match up to $10,000 in donations that we receive between now and the end of September 2017.  Donations to FFO are tax deductible and details about how to donate can be found on our website: All donations are used towards furthering our aims of spreading the love of opera, and giving opportunities to talented singers

Rachel (director) and Robbie (designer) are already busy working on their vision for the show. FFO is very much a collaborative effort. And, being, FFO, there will be some unexpected things happening in this show…. All will soon be revealed!  

Children’s opera isn’t something we see a lot of in Perth but I know you have plans to change that. Is  opera an art form for kids?   

Yes! Thinking about this question made me think about my first experience of opera. I was in Year 7 and our wonderful, unforgettable music teacher, Miss Stevens, adapted Mozart’s The Magic Flute for us. I played Papagena. I would like to introduce more kids to the magic of opera. This December, we are planning to launch an opera designed to tour to primary schools. The opera we are working on is a shortened version of Dvorak's Rusalka (based on the Hans Christian Andersen) fairy tale. The launch will be at Camelot Theatre in Mosman Park and we'd love people to bring along their kids and grandkids, in the Christmas pantomime tradition. From 2018, we would love to offer the show as an incursion for primary school children in metropolitan and regional schools in WA.

At the opening night of La Boheme I met your greatest fan; your husband Greg is a very proud groupie! Is running Freeze Frame a whole family affair? How do you manage work/life balance with young children?  

Husband groupie. That’s cool. I like it when he’s in the audience cos he cheers as though he’s at the rugby! It is certainly a family affair. Not just my husband, but the kids get involved, dropping off flyers etc. They also come to the shows. They are the motivation, and part of the team. Robbie (our designer’s) kids were helping making props for Boheme. Maybe we can even use them on stage in the near future. Mine would like that…  if it meant pocket money!

What is your favourite place in Perth?  

The beach. Good for the soul.

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

At the moment, outside of opera, it is all about the kids and their interests, and then there’s wine and coffee of course! I'm also a bit of a Dockers tragic.

Thank you Harriet O'Shannessy for sharing with us. You can get tickets to hear Harriet sing in The Merry Widow here, and go here to support Freeze Frame Opera and find out about future operas. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

An intuitive connection of 30 years

Every half decade the WA Symphony Orchestra celebrates their relationship with guest conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a gala concert. And why not; it’s a partnership of deep mutual respect and Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is much-beloved by audiences.

Since becoming guest conductor in 1987 Verbitsky has conducted the jewels of Russian repertoire, introduced countless Russian soloists and witnessed many changes at WASO including the tenures of four chief conductors. There has also been a huge growth in musicianship. For the 25th anniversary celebrations in 2012 Verbitsky described the orchestra as a ‘really fantastic orchestra, professional on the world stage’. In a recent interview he went one step further and declared them to be ‘the best orchestra in Australia at the moment.’

For the 30th anniversary gala concert Verbitsky programmed two large-scale Russians works: Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Both programmatic works were inspired by 19th century poetry and quote the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead. The Bells also provided an opportunity to profile the WASO chorus who are currently in top form.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony depicts Byron’s tortured, guilt-stricken hero Manfred and is one of the great program symphonies of the 19th century. Verbitsky established a rugged foundation from the first appearance of Manfred’s restless wandering idée fixe. His immaculate precision as a conductor was balanced by idiosyncratic heart-on-sleeve entreaties; an imploring stare at the violins drew out raw intensity while a chopping gesture provoked an incisive attack from cellos and basses.

Tchaikovsky’s colourful caricature of the Witch and her waterfall in the second movement was reminiscent of The Nutcracker’s glittering magic. Verbitsky conducted without a baton and the woodwind players were receptive, responding to his relaxed contouring with bubbling, fluid sextuplets.

The expansive lyricism of the third movement built via a folk dance into a moment of throbbing passion and then the blistering aggression of the finale unfolded with the percussion section pounding a dark descent into the underworld.

The struggle of the individual versus the universe underpins much romantic ideology. Tchaikovsky doesn’t have the sarcasm of Mahler, the decadence of Wagner or the word painting of Berlioz; instead his Manfred Symphony has the gripping energy of a tempest with rare glimmers of light.

Rachmaninov dwells closer to the psyche of the hero; deep emotions pour from his pen. And this is where Verbitsky reached full stride, unleashing the humanity in the music. He extracted the essence of the sweetly naive The Silver Sleigh Bells, the troubled tranquility of The Mellow Wedding Bells and the terrifying energy of The Alarm Bells. The culmination was the deep lament of the final movement, lifted only at the very end by the hint of twinkling sleigh bells and a return to tonality with gentle clarinet arpeggios. And then the final testament where Verbitsky summed up the entire symphony in the last two bars, floating a lingering chord that swelled darkly and floated like an exhalation. A small contour from Verbitsky’s hands extracted a hint of brass chorale warmth, the last sound echoing through the hall.

The WASO Chorus sang with a dark, smoothly blended sonority. Credit to director Christopher van Tuinen and vocal coach Andrew Foote for the way the chorus navigated comfortably through the daring harmonies and tricky rhythms of The Alarm Bells. Paul O’Neill was a last minute replacement for Bradley Daley and his gleaming voice shone through as he navigated the tenor part. Antoinette Halloran captured the languorous soprano part and baritone Warwick Fyfe lamented The Mournful Iron Bells with impeccable Russian diction and utter conviction.

The concert was a revealing insight into the intuitive connection between the orchestra and Verbitsky, leaving a lingering impression of glittering, honeyed sound and impressive coherence.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Australia's feminist revival in the arts

You are about to hear a whole lot more from women in the creative arts.

When I was writing my book Women of Note I was surprised to discover that 25% of Australian composers are women. This is more than almost any other country - our best kept secret! However despite the statistics it became clear from my interviews and research that many women still struggle with visibility issues. The majority of commissions by far go to male composers, who also hold most of the positions in institutions and on boards.

Logo for the Women in the Creative Arts Conference

That is beginning to change. In August the Australian National University is holding a Women in the Creative Arts Conference. The key note speakers are Liza Lim and Cat Hope and the conference has already attracted over 100 delegates across a range of art forms. 

Conference director Natalie Williams hopes the conference will "provide an opportunity for research professionals to gather, present their methodologies, discuss the unique issues surrounding the creative arena, and propose strategies to enhance and enrich their working lives as strong members of an international cultural and artistic voice. The gathering will feature a rich exchange of research ideas, including round-table discussions and panels that develop and enhance practices for women in the creative fields."

The WICA conference is riding the crest of activist revival addressing the visibility issue for women composers. Other developments include Musica Viva's Hildegard Project established last year, the first national program designed to encourage and commission women composers. The appointments of Cat Hope as Head of Music at Monash University and Liza Lim at the University of Sydney are also significant. Lim will be involved with the National Women Composers' Development Program, another recent development tackling the issue of mentoring emerging women composers. Hope has been part of a research team collecting data on the working life of arts practitioners.

Some of these ideas are quite innovative and it is significant they are all happening at once - four years ago when I wrote Women of Note there was nothing like this occurring.

I am particularly excited about the ANU conference; I have been invited to present a paper on Women of Note and I am looking forward to catching up with east coast networks. I don't know of any other Australian conference like this for composers. The last women composers' conference was in the nineties when there were gatherings around Australia that were significant for galvanizing support for women in composition and contributing to an increase in the numbers of women composers. I have high expectations for this one. Especially given the current proactive climate around women in the arts. Could women composers be leading Australia's fourth wave feminist revival??