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Music theatre delight

Robert Hofmann and Penny Shaw, ‘Au Naturel!’ ⋅
13 September 2019, Kidogo, Fremantle ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Perth connoisseurs of sophisticated light entertainment know they are in good hands with baritone Robert Hofmann (“fresh from New York”) and soprano Penny Shaw. The audience was treated to a range of duets and solos from musical theatre as the artists shed their operatic selves (with a couple of exceptions) in favour of a relaxed cabaret show at the popular Fremantle venue Kidogo.

The evening kicked off with the duet from Bernstein’s Candide (which some might argue to be operatic), which illustrates the differences in expectations of the newly betrothed eponymous hero and Cunegonde. The theme of odd/unlikely/unsuitable couples recurred throughout. More irony followed, with Hofmann’s warm and self-deprecating presentation of ‘Wonderful’ from Wicked then Shaw’s appropriately coy ‘I enjoy being a girl’ from Rogers and Hammerstein’s now little remembered (and possibly too non-PC these days?) Flower Drum Song. This opening bracket showed both singers in full voice (were mikes really needed?), Hofmann smoothly resonant and Shaw brightly scintillating. The singers, supported by accompanist Tommaso Pollio, blended well together, both fully engaged in the dramatic moment of each number.

Hofmann and Shaw with Pollio at the piano. Photo Mark Liao

Some less familiar fare varied the emotional trajectory, culminating in Sondheim’s ‘Broadway Baby’ (from Follies) delivered with great razzamatazz by Shaw. Then a treat: Shaw’s celebrated impressions of all the women characters in Downton Abbey, delivered in the context of a prequel to the greatly loved (and timely, given the current release of the movie) TV series. It was bracketed by the Frank Loesser song ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ and the title theme from New York, New York.

After an interval, Shaw stepped back from the mike to deliver a rafter ringing aria ‘Tacea la notte’ from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, lightening the mood afterwards with an anecdote about the super diva Montserrat Caballé. The charming Mozart duet ‘Bei Männern’ (The Magic Flute) sung in English was an excellent bridge back to music theatre. I was delighted with songs from one of my favourite musicals (and especially the Ken Russell movie version) The Boy Friend by Englishman Sandy Wilson, firstly the duet ‘You’re never too old’ (who could forget Max Adrian in soiled spats?), and Shaw’s adaptation of ‘It’s nicer in Nice’ in celebration of Fremantle.  Hofmann strutted his stuff in ‘Everything old is new again’ (by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager) and the show concluded with the duet from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. The audience could certainly have done with more, but were more than happy with what they had received, a very satisfying good night out.

Pictured top: Penny Shaw sings with Robert Hofmann. Photo Mark Liao.

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Spectacular musical but dated stereotypes

Review: Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Important Musicals and John Frost, The Book of Mormon ⋅
Crown Theatre, September 5 ⋅
Review by Erin Hutchinson ⋅

The love that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have for traditional musical theatre shines through in The Book of Mormon, with its big numbers and even bigger characters, and the audience lapped it up.

As you’d expect they would – after all, Perth fans of Parker and Stone, the creators of the phenomenal South Park and Lopez, the co-writer of Avenue Q, have been sitting on their hands waiting for The Book of Mormon to arrive here since it busted Broadway apart in 2011.

The story follows two young missionaries to Uganda, ready to spread the word of God as revealed by their ‘All-American’ prophet, Joseph Smith. The clean-cut high achiever Elder Price (Blake Bowden), is determined to achieve ‘awesomeness’, while his sidekick Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak), supports him along the way. Hardly surprisingly, their new home doesn’t meet their expectations, and the underdog Cunningham copes better with its pitfalls than his high-falutin’ superior.

The show’s disarming trick – hardly what you might expect from the resumé of its creators – is that it’s essentially a sweet story that romanticises finding your own truth in religion.

Perhaps that’s what makes some of the satire feel a little dated.

That’s not to say this isn’t a spectacular production. It sweeps you up with its glorious opening imagery, the catchy, expertly sung show tunes and the continually impressive choreography by Casey Nicholaw.

A colourful cast of dancers with a man in a tie standing centre stage
Blake Bowden, Nyk Bielak and Tigist Strode lead the company through catchy show tunes in Book of Mormon. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The set, by Scott Pask, is a visual feast, taking us through scene changes simply and with great impact even on the wide, narrow Crown Theatre stage that means the group missionary numbers couldn’t quite fill the space as effectively as they would a more conventional configuration.

Many of the songs are killers – with the comic chops of Parker and Stone, you wouldn’t expect any less. WAAPA graduate Joel Granger is a standout as the district leader Elder McKinley, showing his new missionaries how religion can help dismiss deep and distressing topics by thought suppression in Turn It Off. Bielak came into his own in the Act 1 finale Man Up where he ‘grew a pair’ (just like Jesus), and the pastiche dance moment in Spooky Mormon Hell Dream was cane-work heaven.

The nerdy references and guest appearances were giggleworthy, and the display of Australian and imported talent and tight ensemble work onstage was inspiring.

That said, some of the show’s really clever bits were washed aside by the stereotyped representations of the characters.

While we might take offense at its crass and crude humour (of which there is an abundance), we are a little desensitised to that by now – by South Park and its animated peers as much as anything else.

But where do we stand on broad, white brushstrokes of ‘uncultured’ African people, and is this legitimate satire or a shortcut to hollow laughs and cheap effect?

An African woman looks coyly at a man in a tie
Tigist Strode playing the stereotypical role of Nabulungi with Nyk Bielak. Photo by Jeff Busby

Okay, it’s not all Disney and The Lion King, but does it have to be an extreme depiction that felt lifted straight from Team America? And how must Tigist Strode feel playing Nabulungi, the only female lead, whose solo was beautifully sung but who essentially prostitutes herself to be saved by a white man who can’t even remember her name.

Everything dates. A generation grew up loving Parker and Stone’s South Park. Team America was hilarious and I still love Lopez’s Avenue Q, but our sense of humour and appreciation has changed and grown over the years, especially in the era of Trump, Johnson and others closer to home. It’s got to colour our point of view, even when we’re just out for an evening of fun.

That said, The Book of Mormon is a witty and wonderfully profane musical and worth you going to make up your own mind about.

And then, either way, buy the soundtrack.

The Book of Mormon continues at Crown Theatre until 17 November.

Pictured top L-R: Shauntelle Benjamin, Blake Bowden (Elder Price) and Nyk Bielak (Elder Cunningham. Photo: Jeff Busby.

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A world of grace and enchantment

Review:  Grace Knight: ‘The First 40 Years’ ⋅
Ellington’s Jazz Club August 31 ⋅
Review: Ron Banks ⋅

There is a world of experience behind the sparkling eyes of jazz singer Grace Knight. Firstly there is the early experience in the pop world as the lead singer of Perth-based group Eurogliders, whose career took them to international hits and four successful albums. That career was followed by three decades as a jazz singer for Knight, who perhaps can be said to be in the latter stages of her remarkable career.

But she’s not washed up at all, I hasten to add. As well as playing jazz club gigs, Knight teams up with her old Eurogliders companions for the occasional tour back into the world of pop. And she’s about to team up again with her old mate jazz and soul singer Wendy Matthews for more gigs together.

On the evidence of her performance at Ellington’s, the English-born, Melbourne-based singer has much to offer audiences in terms of impeccable jazz timing and phrasing, and a fun approach to life in the spotlight. She ventured back into pop on occasions, with songs such as the massive hit Heaven from her Eurogliders days.

Her musical journey through jazz, pop and even Irish folk was enhanced by her Ellington trio – the incomparable guitar playing of Sam Lemann, the subtle bass of Karl Florisson and the delicate drumming of Ben Vanderwal. There is a great rapport between this quartet of musicians, each tune delicately led off by Lemann’s relaxed yet imposing guitar work. He makes playing the guitar appear effortless, with each chord change an exercise in subtlety.

The same can be said for Knight’s ease with the vocals on jazz standards such as Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, Soft Winds, Am I Blue and Undecided. Then there is the pleasure of hearing her delve into her Eurogliders’ catalogue with tunes such as Fragile, written by her former partner Bernie Lynch. Or her venture into Irish folk songs, such as Down by the Salley Gardens, set to the words of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. That Yeats should be quoted in a jazz club is unusual, one might say.

An essential part of any performance centred on a singer is their ability to engage with the audience, and Knight is certainly up there with those who are willing to share – or even overshare – with the public. She is self-deprecating most of the time, telling tales against herself, inviting her audience into her world, if only briefly, with well-delivered and entertaining anecdotes about her colourful past as a singer. Not too much candour, mind you – just enough to make us believe in her, even if she confesses at the start that she will be telling lies.

It’s all part of a seasoned performer’s schtick to get the audience onside, and then deliver smashing vocals that confirm her status of a remarkable talent that audiences can admire and enjoy.

Grace Knight’s final show at the Ellington is August 31st.


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A study in deep listening

Review: Decibel ensemble, ‘Partition Concrète: The Music of Lionel Marchetti’ ⋅
The Sewing Room, 26 August ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Lionel Marchetti is a French composer of music concrète, a type of electronic composition that draws on sounds from the natural world as well as computer generated sounds. In recent years he has collaborated with Decibel, an Australian ensemble who explore the intersection of electronic and acoustic instruments. Their work together is being featured in a national tour which commenced in Perth this week.

Marchetti’s work with Decibel heralds his first venture into performing with acoustic instruments. In order to seamlessly integrate the electronic and acoustic parts he has developed the concept of a ‘partition concrète’. The part, as explained in the program notes, functions as an ‘alter ego with whom it is possible to engage in an intimate dialogue – a support or an ally into which musicians can lean’.

On Monday night this electronic part was played through speakers carefully spatialised (in some instances facing the backstage walls) so that it was impossible to distinguish the instruments from the electronics. The Decibel instrumentalists (wind, strings and percussion) interacted with the partition concrète to create what, at times, felt like deeply thoughtful musical poetry.

In The Last Days of Reality, written in collaboration with Decibel’s director Cat Hope, the sounds of the tam tam (Louise Devenish) and bass flute (Hope) interwove with Marchetti’s partition concrète in a wash of eerie, low tones. The Earth Defeats Me had a similar slow-breathed expansiveness. Long bass clarinet tones emanated from the speakers and Lindsey Vickery playing live bass clarinet. Cello (Tristan Parr), viola (Aaron Wyatt) and flute joined in the responses, creating an ebb and flow that had the pulseless constancy of the sea. There was even what sounded like echoes of mournful gulls and distant fog horns in the percussion and electronics parts.

The ensemble presented the world premiere of Le Cerveau, a work which invited a musical response to pitches generated in the electronic part. Marchetti joined the Decibel members on clarinet for a study in deep listening as they mirrored the slow, warm sounds emanating from the speakers.

By the time we reached the final work on the program, the premiere of Inland Lake, the performers had established an atmosphere of quietude and aural acuity. With deeper listening the delicacy and beauty of Marchetti’s slowly evolving electronics became more apparent, as did the sensitivity and control demonstrated by the performers as they blended almost imperceptibly with the partition concrete. The whine of wind blurred into a more percussive bubbling, layered micro-glitches and fast pulses swirled. The focus moved to pitches slowly bending and building in intensity then evaporating, leaving behind an aching absence. By the end of the 30 minute work Marchetti had shaped our listening: sounds were emancipated from their source and the music became simply and purely sound, or the absence of sound.

The Lionel Marchetti national tour continues to Melbourne and Sydney.

Pictured top L-R: Aaron Wyatt, Cat Hope, Stuart James, Lionel Marchetti, Louise Devenish, Lindsay Vickery, Tristan Parr. Photo by Rachael Barrett.

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WASO’s 2020 vision

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra have launched their 2020 program. On the eve of their program launch Rosalind Appleby caught up with principal conductor Asher Fisch and Evan Kennea, executive manager artistic planning.

The program, as you would expect, is packed with international soloists and some of the greatest orchestral repertoire in music history. But the season also includes opportunities for local composers, new outreach initiatives and a depth that reflects the orchestra is taking seriously its role of building a musical community.

Over coffee Asher Fisch and Evan Kennea exuded the relaxed confidence of a team who have been working together for years. With immense enthusiasm Fisch revealed that he will be conducting a concert performance of another opera, this time Beethoven’s Fidelio in collaboration with the Perth Festival, starring German soprano Christiane Libor.

“I’m very excited about Fidelio, I want this to catch on and do [an opera] every year. It is so expensive but I think it is important and in the end it will be the best seller in our program. It might take a few years but I know from other opera concerts in America, Europe, Israel, they are the first best-seller in the orchestra’s program every year.”

Asher Fisch and WA Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied.

The opera is part of a focus in 2020 on Beethoven, celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth. The Beethoven-mania will include the mighty Missa Solemnis and Fisch will continue his tradition of cycles, this time dedicating a week to Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos performed by Behzod Abduraimov. It is part of Fisch’s vision to reach beyond the programming straitjacket of the overture/concerto/symphony, and to bring in particular new opera repertoire to Perth audiences.

“I must say the management is so understanding because every crazy idea I have had that is expensive and big and everybody was afraid wasn’t going to sell well, they went for all of them, they supported it. It proved, thank God, to be successful in each case. They said nobody is going to come to a Brahms cycle in Perth but we sold very well. These big projects, in the end, that is what pushes us.”

WASOs new recording of Tristan und Isolde for ABC Classic.

Fisch cites the orchestra’s 2018 performance of Tristan und Isolde which recently won two Helpmann Awards and was released as a recording by ABC Classic earlier this month.

“With Tristan we had two great concerts and we have a recording that is now out. There is no better way for us to herald our great orchestra than to put it on a Tristan recording because people in the U.S. and London will listen to it because there is a new Tristan recording – they don’t come out that often because it is a massive thing to do – and with Stuart Skelton who people know is one of the world’s best Tristan’s and deserves a recording.”

Supporting local artists

Kennea revealed with pride that the Beethoven focus is balanced with some exciting Australian repertoire.

The orchestra has commissioned Perth composer Olivia Davies to write a new work which will be premiered by conductor Cristian Macelaru, who will then give the work an international platform by performing it at the prestigious Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, where Macelaru is the director.

Iain Grandage’s spectacular percussion concerto Dances with Devils, inspired by Australian gothic stories, will be performed by Claire Edwardes. And in a landmark event Deborah Cheetham’s groundbreaking 2018 work Eumarella, a war requiem for piece with its fusion of Western classical tradition and First Nations culture, will be performed in Perth with chorus, soloists and children’s choir.

The international contemporary repertoire includes Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus and John Adams’ Absolute Jest, a witty concerto inspired by the ecstatic energy of Beethoven’s music, featuring the members of Australian String Quartet as soloists. British composer Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour, written for the Orchestre national d’Île de France balances out the gender parity in the contemporary repertoire nicely.

Building a musical community

WASO has expanded its efforts to reach new audiences in 2020 with the launch of two new concert series: Afternoon Concerts and Naked Classics.

“We are not sitting on our hands hoping an audience will develop somewhere, we are getting in there and trying to help build an audience in Perth.” Kennea explains. “When you finish work come to the hall, bring your colleagues, have a drink and enjoy a short, sharp, punchy concert that is done by 7:30, so you can head out for dinner.”

And for those who love WASO concerts but don’t always have someone to go with, Music for Every 1, a meetup at Perth Concert Hall connects solo attendees with others who share a passion for classical music.

Kennea also talks with excitement about the orchestra’s role in musical education. WASO’s Crescendo music education program was recently recognised with an Art Music award. Created by WASO in 2014 and inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema, Crescendo delivers free, ongoing and regular music education to more than 400 students in Kwinana.

“Our education program is a crucial plank in the company. Simon Rattle when he went to Berlin [Philharmonic] said: ‘You have been the most phenomenal high priests of music, now you have to become the evangelists as well.’ It is true, you have to have a great orchestra, that is the basis of everything, but then you are part of a community. And particularly [WASO] is a critical part of a much bigger musical world, and how the orchestra helps keep the health of that musical world is a really important thing.”

Grammy Award-winning violinist Gil Shaham. Photo supplied.

The orchestra’s outreach into the community will unfold along several avenues, including a Discovery Concert, building on the popular series initiated in 2019, this time with Fisch at the piano and podium providing a guide through the concept of musical variation. Fisch will also conduct Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra narrated by Iain Grandage, and educator Paul Rissmann will return as artist in residence for a family concert.

The roster of soloists includes the star power of conductors Vasily Petrenko and Ludovic Morlot, Grammy Award-winning violinist Gil Shaham playing Brahms, Australian pianist Jayson Gillham performing Liszt, and Macedonian superstar Simon Trpčeski in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2.

Returning seasonal favourites include another Easter collaboration with St George’s Cathedral (Bach’s Easter Oratorio); the ever popular Last Night at the Proms; Chris Dragon conducting Comic Cons, and WASO at the Movies performing the soundtracks to the next instalments of Star Wars and Harry Potter.

“We still have Asher doing his core repertoire,” Kennea explains, “Repertoire he has used to build the orchestra over the past five and a half years, so reinforcing that kind of playing. But [we are] pushing the envelope out a little bit which is good.”

It is good indeed.

The WASO 2020 program is available online.

Pictured top: Evan Kennea and Asher Fisch relaxed over coffee. Photo by Rosalind Appleby.

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Hitting the sweet spots

Review: WA Academy of Performing Arts, Sweet Charity ⋅
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, 24 August ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Sweet Charity is one of those musicals to come out of the 1960’s that viewed the life of young women with a blend of cynicism and romance. How could it be otherwise with a “book” or script by Neil Simon, the playwright who gave the world so many bitter-sweet narratives about looking for love, the difficulty of relationships inside and outside marriage, and the culture of masculinity that treated women as dependent on men for their happiness.

These themes bubble up in the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a hopelessly optimistic, naive young woman whose horizons, when we meet her, are restricted to a job as a dance-hall hostess, those ten-cents a dance girls who were part of the culture of seedy New York in the pre-feminist fifties.

Simon and his song-writing partner Cy Coleman (with lyrics by Dorothy Field) created the show for the 1960’s when the feminist movement was about to begin and women were questioning their own future. There was still the sense that marriage to a suitable man was an answer to their problems and an assurance of happiness. But could it be that there were other possibilities for women – perhaps a satisfying career as an independent person who could manage without the assistance of a husband?

Caitlin New as Charity, with Grace Collins and Annabelle Rosewarne as Helene and Nickie. Photo by Jon Green

These are the kind of questions that were beginning to be asked, and Sweet Charity shines a strong light on those possibilities, although they are at the ironic edge of the narrative around Charity’s search for love and fulfilment.

Watching the wonderfully energetic and even inspired version of this sometimes sad, sometimes morbidly funny romantic-comedy musical by final year students at WAAPA, one can only wonder how many young women are still trapped by the low expectations visited on the hapless Charity.

We know, of course, that society has come a long way since the sixties in leveling out the expectations of men and women in both relationships and career possibilities. But the doubt still remains that in some circumstances women’s expectations are still constrained and that some women have a right to feel trapped.

In other words, in telling the story of Charity, the musical is revealing the truth that progress is not always possible for all women – or for men, either. So it could be said that Sweet Charity is both of its time – and timeless.

That this productions can bring these thoughts to the forefront of thinking about our culture is testament to the power and gutsy performances of these young players, whose talents in acting, singing and dancing are wonderfully energetic and engaging.

Sweet Charity’s initial charm lies in the emergence of the eponymous heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine) in a choreographic solo routine that starts the show. Charity’s body twists and twirls upon the stage, demonstrating the vibrancy of her body, her main asset in determining her career possibilities.

That she has a mind as well is revealed as the show progress, but Charity’s sense of self is under-developed: she’s too trusting, too naive, too needy. Unlike her dance-hall colleagues who’ve developed a hard-bitten cynicism from the school of hard knocks, Charity prefers optimism to cynicism, trust to disbelief.

Caitlin New’s performance as Charity is stunning from the get-go, and she keeps up the energy and dynamism throughout this quite long musical, appearing in most of the scenes as her life and romantic entanglements unfold, or perhaps unravel.

The show is built around the triple threat talents of New, who is equal to the tasks of singing, dancing and acting. But she is excellent company, with a bevy of characters –  from the young men in her life to the other girls at the dance-hall – who get the chance to shine, displaying an amazing sense of confidence and maturity for young players about to begin their careers on the stage.

There is some quite brilliant choreographed sequences by Michael Ralph, crisply executed by the large ensembles of dancers that suddenly emerge on stage. Behind them, literally on the stage, is the orchestra under the direction of Craig Dalton that keeps the musical moving forward. Show-stoppers such as Hey Big Spender, If They Could See Me Now and The Rhythm of Life are brought to life with all the glory of the original production on Broadway that featured the choreography of Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity. That’s some company these young players are keeping up with, under the astute direction of Sydney-based director Shaun Rennie.

Just about everyone deserves recognition for their performance, but singled out must be Grace Collins and Annabelle Rosewarne as dance-hall colleagues Helene and Nickie, Conor Neylon as heart-throb actor Vittorio Vidal, Victoria Graves as his girlfriend Ursula (both characters a parody of the Hollywood movies), Luke Wilson as potential boyfriend Oscar and Jackson Peele as Daddy, the jazz-playing pastor whose song The Rhythm of Life, is a delightful ensemble dance parody of sixties religious cults.

WAAPA’s Sweet Charity hits all the bitter-sweet spots with perfect precision.

Sweet Charity runs until  August 31.

Pictured top: The energetic young cast of Sweet Charity. Photo Jon Green.

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Gun Brit Barkmin
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Virtuosic Vocals

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘An Evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin’⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 23 August ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Gun-Brit Barkmin carried all before her in last year’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and many were looking forward to this recital of Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Wagner.  The German soprano, young in career terms, did not disappoint, with each item leaving one wishing more of the same, only to be carried on to new heights with the next. Not only her gleaming silvery voice but her charismatic and enthusiastic stage presence illuminated the works performed, with WASO at its biggest and best under Asher Fisch.

The program opened with a crisp and energetic rendition of Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, followed by Barkmin and Abscheulicher! from that work.  Her very clear soprano with no unnecessary vibrato was powerful and penetrating, and the aria was delivered, as were they all, with full-on dramatic intensity. Nor did she, here or later, let a sheet of music get between her and the audience. Mahler’s Blumine provided a rather inconsequential filler but was delivered with grace and delicacy.

This was followed by Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a work of sumptuous melancholy. Barkmin returned (having traded her basic black pantsuit for a glittery black gown) and embarked on a superbly evocative interpretation. Her voice easily rode the large orchestra, sometimes blending as one special instrument, and on the words ‘und die Seele unbewacht will in freien flügen schweben’ (in Beim Schlafengehen) appropriately soaring above it. In the same movement she lit up the final ‘zu leben’ with a beautiful heartfelt note. Beim Schlafengehen was further distinguished by Laurence Jackson’s violin solo, while Andrew Nicholson delivered a beatific flute in Im Abendrot.

After an interval the orchestra embarked dramatically on the fanfare of the ‘Entrance of the Guests’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Barkmin joined them in delighted wonderment for Dich, teure Halle, which was over only too soon, leaving one wishing for more Wagner. Instead we were assuaged by more Strauss:  ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome (orchestral only!) maintained the excitement and exoticism of this 114 year old work. It was followed by the last soliloquy and final scene from that opera, with Barkmin returning now in glittering white and gold to act out the unhinged passion of the princess of Judea. She sang with controlled legato and emotional intensity, from the triumphant ‘Ich lebe noch, aber du bist tot’ to the electrifying last sentence ‘Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund’.  Rarely has Perth seen a concert with such virtuosic singing and dramatic intensity.


Pictured top: Gun-Brit Barkmin. Photo supplied.

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Love is in the Hair

Review: David M. Hawkins, Hair: the American Tribal Love Rock Musical ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre, August 24 
Review by Rosalind Appleby 

In the music theatre world there is a large step from the wholesomeness of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) to the rock musicals of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Rocky Horror Show (1973). In between is Hair: the American Tribal Love Rock Musical (1967), the first-ever rock musical with songs that became the anthems of the Vietnam War protestors.

Hair revolutionised music theatre. And it wasn’t just the rock music. 50 years later it still packs a disorientating punch with its loosely structured medley of rock songs, minimal dialogue and subversive politics. And then there is the wild celebration of hippie culture with onstage nudity, profanity and substance abuse.

David M. Hawkins’ Australian revival of Hair began its national tour in Perth last week and on opening night Amy Campbell’s swirling, free-wheeling choreography (not a chorus line in sight) set the vibe. Adam Gardnir’s minimal set (scaffolding draped with colourful sheets) is offset by the flamboyance of James Browne’s costumes: harem pants, kaftans, beaded dresses, rainbows, flares… And of course the hair: dreadies, afros, long hair everywhere.

Paulini commanded the stage as Dionne. Photo by Alison Rodrigues

Cleverly enshrouded under the scaffolding was Tina Harris directing the band through Galt MacDermot’s score, flowing smoothly from electric guitar riffs to military marches via tribal drumming, ballads and a hoedown. Hits like Good Morning Starshine, Easy to Be Hard, Aquarius and I Got Life propelled the show along and riding the wave were four stunning soloists.

Hugh Sheridan’s swaggering high school drop-out Berger oozed sexuality, relishing the opportunity to clamber through the audience wearing little more than Indian tassels. He was offset by Prinnie Steven’s sophisticated Sheila, sung with husky sweetness. Australian Idol star Paulini is relatively new to music theatre (she made her debut in Bodyguard in 2017), but commanded the stage as Dionne, singing with agility and power; White Boy was a show highlight. Recent WAAPA graduate Matthew Manahan held his own among the star power as an endearingly vulnerable Claude. They were backed by an explosive ensemble who projected non-stop energy into the audience culminating in the exhilarating finale Let The Sunshine.

The explosive ensemble cast in Hair. Photo by Alison Rodrigues.

Director Cameron Menzies has embraced the original intent of Hair writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado, enveloping the audience in the sweaty, hairy embrace of hippy culture, in all its glorious freedom and messy failure. He adds some interesting twists: in the hallucination scene Claude witnesses a roll call of American heroes that includes an African American female Abraham Lincoln and the final nude scene is flipped shockingly on its head, as the audience finally finds out what happened to Claude after conscription.

As conservatism once again dominates our global politics Hair’s themes of non-conformity, community and global responsibility are refreshingly welcome. The audience standing ovation confirmed I wasn’t the only one wanting to let the sunshine in.

Hair continues in Perth until September 1 then on to Geelong, Wyong, Wollongong, Sydney, and Gold Coast.

Pictured top: Matthew Manahan as Claude and Hugh Sheridan as Berger. Photo by Alison Rodrigues.

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Jamie Oehlers by night

Review: Jamie Oehlers, ‘Night Music’ ⋅
Album released May 2019 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Tenor saxophonist Jamie Oehlers is one of the busiest and most creative jazz musicians to come out of Perth. His latest album Night Music is his tenth to date in a two-decade career that now combines performance and recording with his duties as an academic in the jazz studies course at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Like many of his colleagues in WAAPA’s jazz course, Oehlers is a product of that same course, adding a recent PhD to his long list of achievements. In fact his album Night Music is based on the theory of his PhD, which bears the title “Developing a Chromatic –Intervallic Approach to the Jazz Improvisation through Reflexive Practice.”

It’s the kind of title to cause apoplexy in the die-hard jazz fan who does not put much faith in academic approaches to music-making. But in layman’s terms it means Oehlers has developed a technique for improving a young musician’s skills at improvisation, the bedrock of any jazz musician’s creativity.

Tenor saxophonist and composer Jamie Oehlers. Photo supplied

What such a project does reveal is that musicians such as Oehlers are testing their creativity, coming up with new ideas, or developing ways to improve old ideas.

What matters in the end is the kind of music that comes out of the end of the saxophone and in Night Music, Oehlers’ instrument is full of ideas that he explores with the help of Ricki Malet on trumpet, Harry Mitchell on piano, Zac Grafton on bass and Ben Vanderwal on drums. The album was recorded in Crank Studios in Perth, with Oehlers writing all the compositions.

As the title suggests, Night Music was inspired by the sounds of the night, more specifically by the sounds of New York in the hours between sunset and dawn when the city is not so much sleeping as alive to the restlessness and energy of a major megalopolis refusing to accept the need for slumber.

The album is filled with spiky sounds, urgent rhythms,  splashes of colour and bouts of lyricism that are not so much designed to smooth the soul as keep it awake. It is not one of those albums you turn to ease your way to sleep just past midnight.

The opening track’s title Sleep Thief is suggestive of the whole enterprise because Oehlers aims not to put you to sleep to sleep but rob you of sleep by coming up with ideas that will reinvigorate you. The compositions are demanding in the sense that there are often dissonances in the music and sometimes unsettling sounds that take some getting used to. But it is an album whose qualities improve with repeated listening.

Night Music is available as a download or on CD.

Picture top: Jamie Oehlers. Photo supplied.

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six instrumentalists stand on the stage of an empty auditorium
Features, Music, News, Performing arts

A concrete collaboration

A performance by Decibel ensemble is a visceral sensory experience, particularly when performing music by French composer Lionel Marchetti.  Their musical collaborations – spanning eight years – are being celebrated in a national tour, part of a series of concerts recognising Decibel’s ten year anniversary. Seesaw magazine chatted to Decibel’s artistic director Cat Hope about the magic that happens when acoustic and electronic sounds overlap.

Rosalind Appleby: Firstly congratulations on Decibel’s 10 year anniversary as a band! It’s great the party is continuing all year with this series of 10 at 10 concerts. And I’m pleased WA (as the original home of Decibel) is hosting the launch of this tour with Lionel Marchetti. What are your highlights from the past 10 years?

Cat Hope: The highlight is really how we have evolved and consolidated as both a musical project but also a group of people playing music together. But specific highlights would have to include the tour of Europe in 2012, where we worked with German Radio producers and tonmeisters: it really validated us and our approach, and made me realise that there is a place for our music outside the ‘experimental music ghetto’ that I sometimes feel we are relegated to in Perth.

Our performance at the International TENOR conference earlier this year was also great, because it became clear there that we are held in very high esteem by our international colleagues.

RA: Lionel Marchetti has been working in the French genre of musique concrète since the 80’s, utilising recorded sounds (instruments, voice, electronics etc) as raw material in his digital compositions. How did you first come across his works?

CH: We met Lionel when Decibel shared a bill with him during a performance at Liquid Architecture in Sydney in 2011. I was so impressed with his live performance, and this idea that music concrete could be a performative genre, that I asked him to write a piece for Decibel. The result was a beautiful work that we premiered the following year at the WA State Museum, Premierè étude (le ombres). Later I found out that he was in Australia back then to be on the bill with Eliane Radigue, as he is a preferred diffusor of her electronic works. She was unable to travel that time, but we went on to work with her later, so that’s a nice link. Since then we have worked with Lionel on around seven works, in different ways: they are all on our Room 40 CD release, The Last Days of Reality released at the end of last year.

Portrait of French composer Lionel Marchetti, also the cover art of the Decibel/Marchetti album The Last Days of Reality. Photo Bruno Roche.

RA: Decibel’s 2012 commission from Marchetti was the first time he had done anything for a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. Can you explain the process of how you came upon the idea of a ‘partition concrete’, a concept which inspired the title for this concert?

CH: Premierè étude (le ombres) is a text score, and comes with what Marchetti calls a ‘Partition concrete’ (concrete part). Referencing his music concrete practice, the partition concrete is a fixed audio ‘part’, like any part in an ensemble. The partition concrete is reproduced through carefully calibrated and situated speakers onstage, and sometimes alongside,  the live performers. The performers are instructed to interact with these sounds in specific ways. The result is truly wonderful: delicate but at times surprising, a real examination of the nature of sound and performance. You can also listen to these partition concrete alone: they are all on his Bandcamp site.

RA: What has Marchetti’s music brought to Decibel Ensemble’s ongoing explorations into the integration of electronic and acoustic instruments?

CH: This is a great question: one thing that became clear to us a few years into our existence was how important scores were going to be as part of our commitment to the integration of electronic and acoustic instruments. So we found innovate ways to read and create scores for electronics within the ensemble. Marchetti’s music took us in a different direction again, as it relies much less on notation. The detailed instructions are within the sound, but structured through the text score. It draws on the intuitive musicianship we share as creators of electronic or acoustic music, and relies on excellent ensemble skills to come together. I really believe in this common musicianship concept – musicianship as something that all experienced musicians hold, irrespective of process, genre or style. When you truly explore that notion, the results can be pretty special.

RA: In this concert the loudspeaker is not simply a system of amplification or even an instrument in itself – Marchetti is trying to render the speaker invisible. Can you explain how he manages to make the sounds from the speaker invisible?

CH: When the acoustic instruments are work working within and around the sounds from the speakers, you really can’t tell which is which sound is coming from the instrument or speaker, and that’s kind of magical.

RA: The program includes two works Marchetti wrote for bass flute (you) and a work for Decibel ensemble. There is also a new collaborative work that will be performed on the night – can you give us some clues what we can expect from this?

CH: Two of the works are collaborative pieces between myself and Lionel: The Last Days of Reality (2018)  for bass flute, tam tam and partition concrete, and The Earth Defeats Me (2014) for bass flute, bass clarinet and partition concrete. These were made differently from the others in that I first created a graphic score in the Decibel ScorePlayer as I usually do, performed and recorded it, sent to Lionel who would then use it to create the partition concrete in some way. That partition concrete is then built into the score, so whenever we play it, from the score, that part is included. I love the way these turned out.

There are two other existing works for the ensemble (and Lionel will play a clarinet in one of them!), but also an extended new work by Lionel, Inland, which we will be developing in the residency before the concert.

RA:  How should we be listening to it?

Darren Jorgensen called this music the ‘new classicism’ in his Realtime Review of a concert we did featuring Marchetti’s music in 2016, and I think it’s a good term. There is an unexpected and strange kind of formality to this music, a new and different type of formality that I am still attempting to describe. The music is experienced as a sensory experience because it requires a kind of virtuosic listening – the sound is rich and multilayered, coming from places you don’t expect, instruments creating sounds that seem to defy their construction or intention, as well as the use of unusual instruments at times. The closer music moves toward the real centre of sound, the more visceral it becomes.

“Partition Concrète” is at the Sewing Room on August 26 and continues to Melbourne and Sydney.

Read Seesaw’s review of “Partition Concrète”.

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