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Baroque distinction

Review: Perth Symphonic Chorus, “Magnificent Bach” ⋅
Winthrop Hall, May 18 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

On an unusually busy choral weekend the Perth Symphony Chorus was in competition with both Voyces and WASO Chorus as well as – perhaps on a less elevated level – the unfolding Federal election count. Those audience members who turned up in a jubilant or despondent frame of mind would have found spiritual sustenance to support either mood; with Bach, Vivaldi and Dr Margaret Pride and her forces we were in the best of hands.

Bach dominated, as suggested by the title of the concert “Magnificent Bach”; but if this was intended to establish his Magnificat in D major BWV 243 as the focus of the evening, it was something of a misnomer. As the opening work, it was hampered in the first instance by a chilly Winthrop Hall that was not filled to capacity and latecomers who ought to have been led unobtrusively to the vacant seats further back.

The performance was prefaced by a brief but helpful introduction given by Dr Pride, illustrated by the musicians. The hall acoustic was sympathetic to the orchestra but had the choir sounding unexpectedly subdued. By the fourth verse ‘Omnes Generationes’ however, the forces were coming into balance and ‘Sicut locatus est’ was marked by firm singing and full tone. Similarly the challenges of the closing ‘Gloria’, before it reaches its jubilant and joyous home run, were finely controlled. The commendable idea of drawing soloists from within the chorus was not wholly successful. What no doubt worked well in a rehearsal studio did not readily command the comparatively vast spaces of Winthrop Hall, although alto Claire Lane and bass Brett Peart were especially successful in getting into their vocal stride and giving pleasure in the process.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G major BWV 1049 was given in tribute to Adrian Maydwell, musician and doctor, who during the week had tragically lost his life in an accident. A more eloquent salute than that provided by Bach, soloists Paul Wright (violin) and Emily Clements and Laura van Rijn on flute and the Perth Baroque Orchestra could hardly be imagined. The performance, perfectly judged and executed, featured glorious interplay between the soloists.

In terms of impact, it was Vivaldi’s Gloria that proved to be the choral highlight of the evening. This time the somewhat recessed choral sound cleared quickly to give way to wholly engaged and expressive singing. Claire Lane once again gave particular pleasure, while in ‘Domine Deus’, the extended solo part provided soprano Hyoshin Kang with an opportunity to settle into her role and perhaps be inspired by the exquisite oboe playing of Anna Rodger. In ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ the choir matched the vibrant orchestral opening, while in the concluding ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ the energy and clarity of the choral lines supported by Jenny Coleman’s clarion trumpet, brought the work to a stirring conclusion.

Dr Pride brings distinction to whatever she and her collaborators tackle. On this occasion Wright and the Perth Baroque Orchestra provided a golden thread throughout the evening which was as much their achievement as anyone else’s.

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WA Day celebration

Alessandro Pittorino has been exploring the organ since he was a child, literally inside and out. The West Australian organist has recently returned from New York’s Juilliard School and will be performing at Government House Ballroom’s WA Day Gala Concert. Pittorino’s charismatic performing style will be on display alongside tenor Paul O’Neill, soprano Naomi Johns and drag queen Cougar Morrison in a celebration of Western Australia’s diversity, humour and culture.

Editor Rosalind Appleby caught up with the 25 year old organ sensation to find out more about his fascination with the instrument.

Rosalind Appleby: What first inspired you to play the organ?

Alessandro Pittorino: When I was around 5 years old, I saw someone playing quite a large pipe organ in Fremantle and I was completely fixated on it. My mum use to like to go into the church on a Sunday afternoon for quiet and peaceful reflection, away from the crowds. Around the same time the movie Harry Potter had just been released. With the organist seated on ground level, but the sound coming from all around the building, and so many different sounds – I honestly thought it was magic. I had found my Hogwarts letter! I was then granted access to this instrument and continued to explore it by myself – the ultimate musical instrument for any child who loves to explore!

RA: The pipe organ has evolved since the 3rd century BC into one of the most complex man-made devices. Why do you think humanity has been so interested in music made from blowing wind through pipes?

AP: There’s a certain human element to this otherwise machine of an instrument. This idea of a living and breathing instrument, just like we as humans breathe, gives the organ this humanizing element. But it immediately transcends that as the organ works with the infinite – as long as you hold the note, only then will it continue to sound. It is interesting to add that the organ I be will playing is called the ‘Infinity’. The sheer amount of musical possibilities that can be achieved with facility has fascinated and continues to fascinate musicians, builders, and audiences alike. Although the organ looks like a beast of an instrument, it is actually incredibly intimate and is capable of producing many different types of sounds, depending on what the score may require. Whether it is J. S. Bach’s monumental Passacaglia in C minor or John Williams’ iconic Star Wars suite, the organ, at its best, gives its player the ability to express themselves with the amount of power and flexibility usually only afforded to an orchestra. There is something special about doing that and witnessing it.

RA: Pipe organ repertoire spans over 500 years. What is your favourite period of organ music?

AP: That would be like trying to choose your favourite child. I love listening and performing all sorts of different music for all sorts of different reasons. There is no one size that fits all. The beauty about the arts is that it has power to be a true reflection of who we are and rarely will that ever be a black and white image. Our world is filled with so much colour and there are as many emotions as there are colours in the world. There exists all sorts of music to convey and express that, and that’s why I can’t choose just one.


RA: Where do you hail from originally (you have a rather exotic name!)?

AP: I was born and raised right here in Perth! I attended East Fremantle Primary School, then both Christian Brothers College Fremantle and Trinity College East Perth! I have both Italian and Greek heritage, but I am a proud Australian.

RA: You’ve studied at the University of WA and have recently returned from three years at The Juilliard School. Where do you hope to take your career now?

AP: I am so incredibly blessed to be living and working as a performing artist. My work takes me all over the world, and affords me the opportunity to work with so many different people, both in the performing arts and outside.

RA: What do you love most about what you do?

AP: I love being able to share what I do with people – and I love meeting and being around people as a result. Like with any career, being a musician is a full time job requiring precise training, development and performance on an almost daily basis.

RA: You bring a lot of flair to your performances. What do you hope people will experience at the WA Day concert?

AP: I hope my audience is able to relax and have some fun! This is meant to be a celebration of who we are as West Australians! I think we deserve to be a little more proud of our not-so-little state and celebrate the amazing people we have here. If we support one another, and celebrate the best of who we are, there is no reason why Perth and WA cannot be the best in the world. In so many ways, it already is.

RA: Anything else we should know about the WA Day Gala?

This is the first major performance featuring an organ in the Government House Ballroom, and I’m so grateful to be sponsored by Principal Organs of Roland Australia who is providing a brand new Rodgers Digital organ direct from America. Perth audiences haven’t had the chance to experience an instrument like this before as this type of instrument just doesn’t exist here. Although it is not a pipe organ, it is a digital replication of what it would be like to have the real thing in the Ballroom. It comes pretty close! I’m also proud to say it is the first time a drag queen has featured at the Government House Ballroom. Cougar Morrison is a stunning performer; we both studied and worked in NYC, albeit at different times. She brings an international performance extravaganza with a local feel and flavor to the show. I’m so excited to be working with her! This will be one of the most diverse concerts on the calendar so far – and of all the many performances that I do, this is the one that I’m most excited about!

The WA Day Gala Concert is at the Government House Ballroom on June 2.

Picture top: Alessandro Pittorino

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Musical pictures

Review: Giovanni Consort ⋅
St George’s College, May 4 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

Expectations were high for the opening recital of the Giovanni Consort’s 2019 concert series. Soprano Brianna Louwen, recently returned from the UK with considerable credentials, took the bold directorial approach of seeking to reflect the themes in tableau form as a means of taking the music and words to an enhanced level.

Christ (actor Paul Rowe) was led to the cross as Gesualdo’s O Vos Omnes commenced and, largely swathed in black, he and his background black panel became the canvas upon which artist Kristie Coakley expressed her interpretation. Later, during a section of Monteverdi’s opera Lamento d’Arianna, Arianna (Brianna Louwen), in billowing white, took up her position and received the same treatment.

Brianna Louwen as Arianna, painted by Kristie Coakley. Photo Susie Penco.

Gesualdo and Monteverdi, 16th century composers hailing from what was eventually to become unified Italy, largely faded from view until comparatively recently, despite the prominence they achieved during their lifetimes. Gesualdo, with his bold use of chromaticism, unexpected progressions and challenging dissonances, perhaps took Renaissance music as far as it could go; Monteverdi on the other hand looked firmly towards the new style of Baroque composition.

The opening work, Gesualdo’s brief O Vos Omnes of 1603, is a striking example of the composer’s ability to incorporate the unanticipated to most stirring effect and it provided an inspired start to the evening. Then followed the two major works on the programme, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday and Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, the latter a surviving excerpt from a lost opera set as a madrigal. A bracket of madrigals by both composers brought the short recital to a conclusion.

One would have had to go far to hear singing of such accomplishment. With one voice to a part, no conductor and no instrumental support, there was no hiding imperfection… and there was truly none to hide.  The octet was impeccable both in ensemble and exposed line, and cadences were a joy to behold, miracles of balance and poise.

As regards the non-musical component, the Consort was extraordinarily unaffected by the necessarily continuous movement of the artist, who made herself as inconspicuous as was possible in the circumstances. On the negative side, the evolving scenes before us tended to impose a rather homogenous atmosphere of unrelieved misery on the proceedings, and the contrasts that one might have expected to hear between the two composers did not readily emerge.

While both Gesualdo and Monteverdi have secured their places in musical history, performances of their works are sufficiently rare as to make the Giovanni Consort’s programme greatly welcome, especially in such technically immaculate performances.

Pictured top: the Giovanni Consort at St George’s College. Photo Bourby Webster.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical juxtapositions

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra ‘Mozart Clarinet Concerto’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, May 3 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

There are combinations of composers from different musical eras which work well, and late 18th century meets early 20th century can be one of them. Mozart chamber music meets Elgar hulking great symphony, however, seemed to be an odd mix. Yet this wrench from one musical sensibility to another resulted in a great concert.

Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concerto (K622) is heard so often that one rather takes it for granted as a soothing cosy listen. But guest soloist Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic, really blew the cobwebs away. English conductor Mark Wigglesworth showed his versatility in immaculately steering the WA Symphony Orchestra through both this and Elgar’s Symphony No 1.

Ottensamer, tall and youthful looking in a smart blue suit and what appeared to be sneakers, quickly had the somewhat skittish audience settled into attentive silence. He opened the Allegro at quite a brisk pace, with smoothly legato yet crisp playing and very distinctive low notes. Without large obvious flourishes, he achieved a subtle decorative effect with nimble grace notes and well-judged rubato. The Mozart-sized orchestra followed effortlessly. The Adagio was played perhaps slightly slower than usual and more beautifully rendered than I have ever heard it, with exquisite accuracy and shining limpid tone, again with sonorous support from the conductor.  The final Rondo movement displayed a lively and sunny mood, culminating in rapturous applause from the audience. It did seem a pity this was all we heard from him.

Elgar’s Symphony No 1 (Op 55) was acclaimed at its 1908 premiere to be a great modern work. Its perceived modernity lies in vividly contrasted sections within movements which appear to be grappling with each other, with terms such as “wild juxtapositions”, conflict, struggle, tempestuous, fury etc abounding in the program notes.  Some people might be unkind enough to describe it as a bit of a mess, but it is not incoherent and has a clear structure, well understood by Wigglesworth who, conducting mostly from memory, managed to finesse all the details.

Elgar is famous in providing a good march, however the opening ‘nobilemente’ theme is hardly martial and this performance brought out its rather melancholy aspects, with well-controlled crescendo and diminuendo. The quieter moments displayed the delicacy of clarinets, and flutes, over the massed violins – the orchestra had expanded after the interval by about two thirds.  A gentle segue led into an Allegro displaying blaring brass contrasted with more soothing passages.

The Allegro molto features what the program refers to as a ‘malicious march’, which sounds like something that might be heard in a World War II movie, with a map featuring large arrows advancing on the Polish border, or maybe a phalanx of tanks. The ensuing slow movement, Adagio, is in Elgar’s English pastoral mode but not one of his more interesting excursions. In the final movement Wigglesworth continued to clearly navigate Elgar’s juxtaposing themes including an optimistic restatement of the great ‘nobilmente’ theme from the opening movement which concluded an enjoyable evening of contrasts.

Picture top: Andreas Ottensamer blew the cobwebs away.

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Mix and match media

Review: Zubin Kanga ‘Piano Ex Machina’ ⋅
State Theatre Centre, April 24 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Many contemporary composers have sought to create works that are not just for the ‘ears’ but ones that also incorporate visuals, new technologies and invite audiences to interact with or influence the performances. London-based pianist Zubin Kanga was in Perth last Wednesday to present Piano Ex Machina, his third instalment in a series of concerts exploring mass media and new musical interfaces. Presented by Tura New Music at the State Theatre Centre, the recital featured new Australian works as well as a piece by the German composer Alexander Schubert.

WIKI-PIANO.NET is part of Schubert’s Community Pieces, a series of works whose content can be edited by online users. The piece recreates the disparate world of cyberculture by having a website as its score. Kanga becomes a conduit for a series of disjointed actions, visuals and musical fragments where the strands of a Beethoven piano sonata co-exist with Tom and Jerry videos. Kanga’s delivery is deadpan as he follows the absurd instructions on the webpage, like hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand and then facing the audience to apologize repeatedly. The eccentric stunts are interspersed with musical material that ranges from atonal classical music to commercial pop. The performer’s body and the situation are in the foreground and Kanga is convincing at harnessing the energy and irreverence of the work.

A focus on physicality and the absurd is also present in Jon Rose’s Ballast, an updated version of his work with motion-sensor technology in the eighties and nineties. It starts with Kanga playing several runs at fast speed. The mechanical-like patterns are reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s works for player piano and its digital counterpart in the nineties, Black MIDI. Along with the dense, dissonant playing, Kanga triggers electronic samples by waving a motion-sensor ring in his right hand. The performance builds into to a frenzy before Kanga starts pacing around the piano flailing his arms like a man possessed. Ballast is all that you would expect from a Jon Rose composition; it is virtuosic, in your face, and full of wacky antics.

More use of sampling comes in Tristan Coelho’s Rhythm City, which sees the performer manipulating everyday sounds and video-clips with a MIDI controller. Kanga makes the videos stutter and glitch, looping them forwards and backwards. The piece is a feature for his virtuoso keyboard technique; he pummels the piano during the jazz-inflected passages and regains his composure in the minimalist figures. Despite an effective synchronization of the visual and piano parts, I found the electronic samples became overly familiar after a while.

Kate Neal’s A Novel Piano features an animated film by Sal Cooper along with theatrical props on stage and an acting role for Zubin Kanga. The work is adapted from the hour-long music-theatre piece, While We Sleep. The video presents whimsical sequences of books morphing into a piano and onstage Kanga breaks the third wall by leafing through paperbacks and drinking from a mug. Apart from the brief theatrical section at the beginning, A Novel Piano functions more as a soundtrack to the animated film. Visuals, theatre and sound are an ongoing concern in Neal’s work; however, they do not seem fully integrated in this standalone work.

A real sense of exploration with the sonic material is present in Zubin Kanga’s Transformations, which in contrast to the more art music oriented pieces in the program, delves into electronic dance music with a decidedly experimental bent. Low clusters of sound are contrasted with arpeggiated patterns on a synthesiser, and the stark mood pervading the work makes it revelatory of Kanga’s musical personality. The exploratory streak continues with Benjamin Carey’s Taking the Auspices, a piece of computer-generated visuals and semi-improvised playing. Carey has devised an artificial intelligence environment where the performer is in interaction with computer algorithms that listen to and respond to the performance. The interactions yield sympathetic results and push Kanga into an abstract musical language. On a screen, fractal-like visuals follow the ebb and flow of the performance. Taking the Auspices is a work combining complex programming technology with a warm and sensitive realization.

Closing the concert is Transplant the Movie 2! by Adam De La Cour, a short film that parodies eighties action films and video games. Despite the crude visuals (think Adult Swim and Troma Entertainment) the feature has a strong narrative line, including a memorable AMEB spoof featuring the Australian composer Neil Luck.

As entertaining as these works are, Piano Ex Machina relies a bit too much on irony and pastiche. In my opinion, the most affecting moments in the concert come during the works of Zubin Kanga and Benjamin Carey, for these engage with the audio-visual medium in more exploratory, inquisitive ways.

Picture top: Zubin Kanga at the intersection of technology and piano. Photo Raphael Neal.

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Hacking the piano

At Seesaw we enjoy publishing a range of voices. In this feature WA Academy of Performing Arts student Mae Anthony offers her insights as a Gen Z and a pianist in an interview with experimental pianist Zubin Kanga.

Have you ever wanted to control what a performer does on stage? International experimental pianist Zubin Kanga is taking the idea of improvising on a theme to a whole new level, inviting audiences to hack his piano recital by uploading ideas to a website. The piece is called WIKI-PIANO.NET and will be performed as part of his recital at Subiaco Arts Centre, the penultimate leg of his national tour.

PIANO EX MACHINA is the third in a series of unique programs (DARK TWIN (2015) and CYBORG PIANIST (2017)) containing pieces that merge elements of theatre, cinema, gaming, internet culture, and advanced technology. Nearly all of these pieces have risen from discussions and collaborations between the Australian/UK pianist and artists from around the world, resulting in funny, ironic and entertaining incarnations that offer insights into everyday life.

WIKI-PIANO.NET by German composer Alexander Schubert is arguably the most exciting piece on the programme in the way that it attempts to provoke a genuine human engagement between performer and audience members. Its praxis is the embodiment of the kind of work that Kanga is pioneering through performance: the interaction between art, specifically the piano, and technology.

Hacking the music

Over the phone Kanga described the process Schubert used to create WIKI-PIANO.NET.

“It is like a Wikipedia page that anyone in the public can go visit. The website is comprised of texts, sounds and audio, videos and images that are embedded by the public into the page, and that serves as the notation for the score. It is a piece that is always changing and dependent on the content that is posted.”

The multimedia content is shown to the audience and then the performer must act out, and respond to, what is being shown.

“It is always quite funny to perform because it’s got memes and things that people have done on the internet and can provoke me to react in surprising ways,” Kanga remarked, “There have been instances where I had to yell out lines from that really bad movie The Room or sing along to a pop song. A few weeks ago there was something in there about Will Smith in blue paint in that Aladdin trailer looking really ridiculous.”

Growing up in Sydney, Kanga pursued studies not just in music but also in philosophy and computer science. His music studies from this well-rounded education included the opportunities to explore musical projects with a vast amount of freedom. From as young as 22 he worked with Damien Ricketson and Ensemble Offspring. This opened up possibilities for him to work with experienced senior musicians in other projects.

Zubin Kanga is at the intersection of technology and piano. Photo Raphael Neal.

Collaboration is key

Kanga says that building these relationships between himself as the performer and the composer is so essential to the outcome. One of his significant collaborators is Sydney saxophonist Ben Carey who will be performing in PIANO EX MACHINA. Carey’s piece taking the auspices is inspired by the flocking of starlings and uses artificial intelligence and 3D scans of objects to merge audio and visual elements live on stage. Carey is a technologist but also a saxophone player which gives him insight into Kanga’s performance practice.

“Carey knows how to read my body language and respond in a very organic way, which I think is really important to the sound of the piece,” says Kanga. “Often when you’re working with all this technology there’s so much risk in terms of what could go wrong so it’s essential to have someone you trust.”

Australian Works

The program contains four other Australian works including a piece by monumental Australian composer and improviser Jon Rose, titled Ballast, a work comprising a whirlwind of sound using a 3D hand sensor. The use of new technologies in piano performance is where Kanga feels most at home, and it is also the essence of his research as a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Working as a soloist with new technologies has become the big focus in my work. It’s what I love doing and the kind of work I like commissioning.”

Continuing the theme of new technologies, A Novel Instrument by Australian composer Kate Neal, in collaboration with stop-motion animator Sal Cooper, explores the kinship between cars and pianos. One movement from this large music-theatre work will be premiered in PIANO EX MACHINA. It combines music, images, film, electronics, and piano to create a mixture of musical counterpoint, visuals and movement.

Tristan Coelho’s work Rhythm City amalgamates looped urban film scenes with music. These visuals can be manipulated by the pianist using a midi keyboard and then is responded to at the piano.

International networks

The union of video and piano can also be seen in Adam de la Cour’s Transplant the Movie 2!, a piece that presents as a short film and is a comical take on low-fi action and spy movies from the 1980’s. This piece is the sequel to Transplant the Movie! by the same composer based on early 20th century horror movies.

Kanga resides in London for part of the year where he is able to immerse himself in the vibrant contemporary music culture in the U.K. He works closely with a number of British composers including de la Cour. Kanga says collaborative relationships of this kind create a space where he can merge other styles and interests, such as film, theatre, comedy, and movement on stage with music and work at the piano in particular.

“Hopefully a few of these pieces will be quite funny, as well, rather than being just intense and serious which I think a lot of contemporary music can be,” Kanga said.

Kanga has also contributed a composition to the program, a piece titled Transformations that manipulates sounds from the inside of a piano with those of an analogue synthesiser. It draws inspiration from the lives of his friends, family and colleagues who are experiencing changes to their internal, and in some cases external, bodies. It’s another aspect to Kanga’s adoptive process where his creative outcomes are grown from the seeds of input from others.

His unique methodology enables Kanga’s performances to both provoke and amuse audiences and PIANO EX-MACHINA promises to continue that proud tradition.

Zubin Kanga performs PIANO EX MACHINA at Subiaco Arts Centre on April 24. Be sure to visit http://wiki-piano.net leading up to the performance to add your own unique voice to the show.

Pictured top: Zubin Kanga. Photo by Raphael Neal.

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Joseph Nolan
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Easter story trimmed but taut

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral, St Matthew Passion
Perth Concert Hall, April 16 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-passion) is generally regarded as one of the outstanding monuments of Western music. It uses text from the Gospel according to St Matthew to re-tell, indeed re-enact, the story of the crucifixion, with voice parts for a narrating Evangelist, Pontius Pilate, St Peter and Jesus himself. Musically, it is constructed in a framework of choruses, Lutheran chorales, recitative (accompanied and otherwise) and aria.  The narrative is basically carried forward by stretches of unaccompanied recitative. It is a complex construction, but in performance can be a transfixing experience whatever one’s spiritual beliefs.

It is also undeniably long. This led to some hesitancy in its reception in the eighteenth century, during which the most often performed passion was Graun’s Tod Jesu (1755). The Bach version’s more recent popularity is said to be due to Mendelssohn’s recuperation and abridgement in 1829, the centenary of its original premier. In modern times, unabridged versions are frequently performed and extensively recorded; it usually runs somewhere between two and a half and three hours, usually with at least one interval.  Why then abridge at all? Audiences are able to sit through Wagner and extremely long movies like the Lord of the Rings series. For this performance by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the reason offered in the printed program is that “WASO rehearsal schedule is not limitless”. Why then do it at all? Why not the much more convenient (shorter) St John Passion, for instance? Obviously these are rhetorical questions but, on the one hand, audiences who know the work may be discombobulated and perhaps disappointed and, on the other, Bach’s intentions are embodied in a work which is very long but which is his best idea of how to present them. Any abridgement is second guessing the composer, who is after all generally regarded as a towering genius.

Rather than the Mendelssohn version, the shortening in this case is the work of respected conductor Joseph Nolan, who has achieved wonders with the featured St George’s Cathedral Consort. In rejecting Mendelssohn’s version, he argues in the program that he has kept the “mainframe of the story intact and that the key relationships are seamless”. In so doing however about a third of the work – it came in at two one hour parts with an interval timed part way into Bach’s part two – has been lost, including such narrative segments as the Annointing in Bethany, the initial Betrayal of Judas, the Last Supper and half of the Interrogation by the High Priests, along with six arias and two chorales.

So how does that work out in practice?  In Part One, it seemed a breathless leap from the initial chorus and chorale to the soprano recitative and aria ‘Ich will dir mein Herze’, and similarly with the other cuts, so while the key relationships might not jar, the lack of continuity does, certainly for those who know the work. The other problem on the night, which might be related, was that Part One was dramatically inert; a lot of well delivered narrative, beautiful sounds and exquisite singing and playing overall, but no real excitement. Part Two, which was more intact, also fared better dramatically; from the soprano’s Erhat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe on was more gripping (albeit lacking the baritone’s Ja, freilich … Komm, susses Kruz and the alto’s Ach, Golgotha …Sehet! Sehet!). The concluding chorus Herr, wir haben gedacht was as riveting as it should be.

On the plus side, the decision for the chorales to be sung a capella was more than rewarding, with the Consort’s well attested discipline and vocal beauty to the fore. The modern instruments of the small sized orchestra were played with Baroque sensibility if not pitch, and special mention should be made of concertmaster Laurence Jackson, particularly with respect to his solo accompaniment to Aus Liebe, Liz Chee exquisite on oboe throughout but noticeably in Ich will bei meinem Jesu and Mache dich, and flutemeister Andrew Nicholson. All was well supported by a continuo group comprising cello (Noeleen Wright) and chamber organ (Stewart Smith).

Tenor Paul McMahon as the Evangelist with Andrew Foote (baritone) as Jesus held the work together with sterling performances. Sara Macliver’s ethereal but tensile soprano was as exquisite, and sung with as much feeling, as ever. As mentioned, her aria Aus Liebe raised the dramatic tension in Part Two creating, with the flute and oboes, a stunning aural effect. Mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell is another local glittering star, and her creamy golden tone was well to the fore, particularly in the crowd-pleasing Erbarme dich.  James Clayton’s resonant bass sounded somewhat restrained; the frequent positioning of the soloists behind the orchestra didn’t help. Richard Butler sang the solo tenor parts with a pleasant plangency but was not quite comfortable in the passage work. Smaller roles were competently sung by members of the chorus. The performance received warm if not quite rapturous applause.

Some in the audience may have been remembering the Perth Festival performance of 2005, conducted by Graham Abbott and semi-staged by Lindy Hume, which included some of the same soloists and orchestral players with period instruments. It clocked in at something over three hours including one interval, with which everyone seemed to cope, and indeed it was totally absorbing. Perhaps the world, and Perth, have changed too much, but a future uncut or even less cut St Matthew Passion is surely not too much to hope for.

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Old made new

West Australian Academy of Performing Arts: “Beethoven: Moonlight and Pathétique” ⋅
Richard Gill Auditorium, April 12 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Charisma is a slippery thing, impossible to define, but you know it when you’re in its presence. Mike Cheng-Yu Lee, dressed simply and evincing nothing more than a gentle friendliness, stepped up to the fortepiano and instantly had the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. Playing without a score throughout, his concentration was intense, and the combination of familiar music and somewhat unusual instrument made for a fresh and most rewarding experience.

Lee is currently director of the Australian National University’s Keyboard Institute – the largest collection of historical pianos in the southern hemisphere. On this occasion he was showcasing one of the historical instruments in WAAPA’s expansive keyboard collection in an all-Beethoven program.

The instrument in question – the WA Academy of Performing Art’s McNulty-Walter fortepiano (1805) – is a replica by modern maker Paul McNulty  of a Viennese original by Anton Walter. Lacking the pedals of a modern piano, the dynamics of this version is controlled by knee levers, and notes are generally less sustained, leading to a somewhat clipped sound, but generally sounding completely different to a harpsichord.

Along with the famous Pathétique and Moonlight sonatas headlining the bill, other pieces by Beethoven were included. The first were the six short movements of the Bagatelles Op 126, from quite late in Beethoven’s career (1825) and covering a range of tempi and feelings which allowed the audience to appreciate the style and nature of the instrument and its potentialities. Every note was heard distinctively. Lee was able to produce noticeably varied dynamics, especially in the last two movements, filling the room with robust sound and tapering the sound down to a veritable whisper.

The Grande sonata pathétique, or Sonata in C minor Op 13, is of course one of the most familiar pieces in the classical repertoire, but it was like hearing it anew. In some ways, Lee brought out the darker side of this with an almost tortured sound to the introductory passage followed by sustained precise attack. The Adagio cantabile contrasted with gentle warmth but no sentimentality, with just the slightest pause before launching into the Rondo: allegro with flying fingers and a crisp finish.

After an interval we heard the Sonata in E minor Op 90, with its curiously and elaborately named two movements; the first was definitely played with the specified liveliness, feeling and expression throughout, and a lesson in dynamic effects. The second, marked by the composer as ‘not too fast and very song-like’, was indeed that, with soothing rippling effects and utterly lyrical withal.

It is a toss-up as to whether the Sonata in C sharp minor (Op 27 No 2) Quasi una fantasia but known as the Moonlight Sonata is more famous than the Pathétique, but in both cases Lee’s presentation brought something new. The first movement was played relatively slowly, making it somewhat of a cloudier moonlight than is usual, while the allegretto was perhaps a little faster, and livelier. The Presto agitato lived up to its description with quite a furious attack, but with every note clearly articulated and another satisfyingly concise ending.

Pictured top: The charisma of Mike Cheng-Yu Lee.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Fine choral opener

Review: West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, “Fauré’s Requiem” ⋅
St Mary’s Cathedral, April 11 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

Has there ever been so fruitful a period of choral performance in Perth as that now under way?  Six months of eclectic and stimulating repertoire has included the visiting Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Choralfest currently underway in Fremantle and still to come the WA Symphony and St George’s Cathedral performing Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Tuesday.

The WA Academy of Performing Arts has inaugurated the 2019 season with a somewhat unexpected programme. “Fauré’s Requiem” was the concert title, but there in the small print of the Academy’s website was Telemann’s Concerto in E minor for Two Violins and Basso Continuo TWV 52:e4. Harking back to a world some 250 years distant, this work provided an effective and enjoyable opener. A double concerto is always a tantalising prospect, and conductor Paul Wright and Adrian Biemmi on the other violin proved to be beautifully matched soloists. Together with the WAAPA String Camerata, they did ample justice to this rarity.

Thereafter we were onto choral terra firma, the WAAPA Chamber Choir delivering four short unaccompanied works, three of them motets by Poulenc. The first of these, Timor et Tremor, written in 1939 for Holy Week, was followed by two Christmas motets, composed in 1952. Well-meshed and balanced choral sound conveyed the spirit of the works and, in the last, allowed Poulenc’s distinctive harmonies to be savoured. On paper, Edward Elgar seemed an unlikely candidate to conclude this bracket, but he did so most effectively. His brief elegy They Are at Rest was written for the 1910 anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death. A setting of words by Cardinal Newman, and displaying echoes of his Dream of Gerontius, it received a poised rendition by the choristers under conductor Kristin Bowtell.

And so to the title work of the evening. Fauré’s Requiem last received a very fine Perth performance in November under Dr Margaret Pride, and if another outing just five months later seemed excessive, this was certainly not the case. The first, with large chorus and orchestra, was very much what one might expect at Perth Concert Hall. Now, in St Mary’s Cathedral, with a modestly-sized WAAPA Symphonic Chorus and organ accompaniment (Stewart Smith), we were very much closer to a liturgical performance, albeit that the French church authorities of Fauré’s time would have insisted on an all-male vocal line-up. Here we had the choristers intermingled rather than grouped by voice-type, sometimes for the better, occasionally less so, although this arrangement did gain in effectiveness as the performance progressed. The two baritone soloists, Nathan Breeze and Kyle Garces, both brought a pleasing quality that was entirely consistent with the fresh and firm choral tone surrounding them, rather than projecting in an overtly soloistic manner. Ashley Chua’s Pie Jesu was confidently and cleanly declaimed, while Paul Wright’s solo violin in the Sanctus added a moment of distinction.

While a cathedral setting is most apt for a work such as this, the acoustic does pose its challenges. By the time of the Agnes Dei, however, the choral sound was cutting through most satisfyingly, although here, with the spotlight on the tenors, the disadvantage of their scattered disposition was revealed. Nevertheless, this was the movement in which the performance came into its stride and where the choir sounded truly integrated, as it did to the conclusion of the work.

Judged by this season opener, there are some very fine things happening at the WA Academy of Preforming Arts, and music director Kristin Bowtell and his forces have provided a tantalising foretaste of what may be in store this year.

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Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The call of the sea

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre – Blueback ⋅
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, April 13 ⋅
Review: Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Abel Jackson’s sea-fringed life includes diving for abalone, chores around the house and snorkelling with an enormous groper Blueback. He recounts these events to his dad in questioning letters that underpin Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s latest show with a meditative, poetic tone.

Abel’s mother Dora Jackson.

The production is an adaptation of Tim Winton’s Blueback, an evocation of a quintessential West Australian coastline which brims with wildness and quirky characters. There is Abel, who spends the long weeks at boarding school practising holding his breath till his return home to his beloved ocean. There is his resilient mum who holds firm against land-hungry  real estate agents and biffs a fish in the nose to deter it from taking the bait of a greedy fisherman. And there is Abel’s absent dad, who we discover is one of a long line of Jackson’s lost at sea in the dangerous whaling industry.

Peta Murray’s slow moving adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel exploits the rhythmic swell of the language, heard via voiceover, with phrases overlapped like waves and peppered with lists: “snapper, dhufish, cod, yellowtail, groper… what are the names of all the fish?”

The theme of the ocean and humanity’s embryonic connection to it, is explored within a meta narrative of the cycle of life. Aided by the puppets, the story is playful and wistful in turn, expressed best in the relationship between Abel and Blueback which is built with games of hide and seek and moments of eye to eye staring. Don Hopkins’ score is propelled by a bass guitar 80’s groove. But there is a melancholy that pervades this work, perhaps from the lists Abel keeps intoning, and the gnawing absence of his father.

The colourful puppets (designed by Hanna Parssinen) include eels, lobsters, bright fish and of course the majestic Blueback, whose graceful and playful nature is captured by puppeteers Jessica Harlond-Kenny and Daniel Dosek. The human puppets are cleverly created using wetsuit material and round driftwood-like heads – part of the constant reiteration of the connection between people and the ocean.

Yet for all the poetic melancholy and environmentally compelling themes, this show left little impact on my entourage. The potential for immersing the audience in the story was never fully realised. We wanted to dive in but felt like we were only getting our toes wet. Perhaps there is no substitute for actually heading to the ocean and discovering its mystical qualities for ourselves.

Blueback continues until April 27.

Read our junior review, by Isabel (age 9) and Eddy (age 6), here.

Pictured top: Blueback meets Abel Jackson.

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