Features, Music, News, Visual arts

Celebrating diversity

Dr Louise Devenish’s career as a percussionist has taken her around the world collaborating with a huge range of musicians and artists. Her wide-reaching approach to music making underpins the Gender Diversity in Music and Arts Conference which Devenish is convening next week at the UWA Conservatorium of Music. Seesaw mag caught up with Devenish to find out what gender diversity looks like.

Seesaw: The Gender Diversity in Music and Arts is the third in a series of national conferences focused on gender in the arts, building on the momentum generated from conferences at ANU (2017) and Monash (2018). What inspired you to host the conference in WA?

Louise Devenish: I am inspired by the strength and advocacy shown by Australian artists and academics on this issue, particularly Cat Hope, Vanessa Tomlinson, Claire Edwardes and Liza Lim.  I have seen the effects of their advocacy appearing in programming, education and in general visibility in certain areas of the arts. By hosting the conference in Perth, I hoped to add more voices to the discussion and create an opportunity for people to get together to talk about gender diversity, and to broaden the discussion to include organisation and individuals across a range of genres and approaches to music and art.

S: As a woman in the performing arts industry you’ve been intentional about commissioning and collaborating with women creatives, both as a solo artist and in your ensembles Decibel and Speak Percussion and Intercurrent. Now you are championing the topic at an academic level – is grassroots activism not enough?

LD: I think there is always more to be done in terms of championing equality, and that efforts across industry, academia, community are all equally important. Particularly in the context of how artists make work today – a large number of us epitomise the portfolio career and are therefore active in a range of spaces. At UWA, one of my roles is Diversity Chair within the Conservatorium, and even in the few years since I started here I have seen change in this space. This conference is a great opportunity to invite students, staff and peers to continue focused discussion around the issue, and to expand our efforts.

Artist in Residence Shoeb Ahmad. Photo supplied.

S: In the past few years there has been a renewed concern about the lack of visibility for women and people of diverse gender in the music industry. What difference does a conference like this one make?

LD: Like the 2018 event, GDIMA 2019 is designed to be a very open platform. Although it’s called a conference, it is not just about the presentation of research in the field of gender studies, but also in providing a platform for gender diverse artists to share work – in short an opportunity to increase visibility. I am thrilled that there are a range of performances and creative work being presented, from emerging through to established artists, well known and relatively unknown.

S: You have invited an impressive range of guest speakers and artists including Jennifer Walshe (Ireland), Robyn Schulkowsky (U.S.), Shoeb Ahmad, Sandy O’Sullivan, Nicole Monk and Vanessa Tomlinson. What do you hope they will bring to the discussion?

LD: All of these artists are total inspirations – both artistically, but also in their ability to talk about their work and about important topics related to it. With support from range of partners including the UWA School of Design, Institute of Advanced Studies and Tura New Music, we’ve been able to draw together a range of keynotes and artists in residence working in different artistic fields, at different stages of their career, and active in different cities to share their experience.

S: The #metoo movement has been a helpful catalyst in many arenas; has it brought more awareness to gender disparity in the arts?

LD: I think it has – and in fact one of the papers presented at the conference – ‘Teaching Women in Music in the #MeToo Era’ – will focus on exactly that. Come along!

S: Larger arts organisations seem to struggle to move beyond a male-dominated canon of art. However the small-to-medium organisations have been addressing gender diversity in their programming and commissioning for awhile now. Are there examples of what is working to redress the balance?

LD: The opening plenary session is aimed at this – we have invited representatives from small-to-medium and MPAs including WASO, Wa Opera, Pica, Tura and WA Music to speak about what each organisation is doing in this space. 10am, 17 July!

American percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky will be performing the Australian premiere of Armadillo. Photo by wowe.

S: The conference also includes three unique concerts with free access for the public. What can audiences expect?

All three are going to be fantastic. Armadillo will feature Robyn Shulkowksy’s work of the same name, performed by three generations of percussive women.  Shoeb Ahmad has drawn together an ensemble to perform their work in what promises to be a really fascinating lecture-recital. Decibel 10 and 10 is part of the ensembles 10 year anniversary celebrations, and features works by women composers from WA including a world premiere by Kate Milligan.

S: Can you see a future where we will no longer need conferences promoting gender diversity in the arts?

Not yet….but I am optimistic! The response to this conference has been overwhelming already – there is a clear interest in discussing and working on gender diversity at present. I hope that another Australian city will host this event in 2020 to continue the discussions…Brisbane, Adelaide or Sydney perhaps!

The Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference runs July 16-19 at the UWA Conservatorium of Music. 
Concert 1 Armadillo is July 16.
Concert 2 Decibel 10 at 10 is July 18.

 

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Ben Burgess takes WAYO to infinity and beyond

From budding violin player to executive director, Ben Burgess has had a long association with the West Australian Youth Orchestra. Burgess chatted to Rosalind Appleby about a new commission and other innovations that are providing WAYO’s 400 young musicians with opportunities to reach for the stars.

Ben Burgess, executive director WAYO. Photo supplied

Seesaw: You’ve dedicated 14 years of your working life to this organisation. What is the appeal of working with the Western Australian Youth Orchestra?

Ben Burgess: The main appeal is giving young people fantastic performance opportunities and seeing young people grow and improve through all our groups, over many years.  We also have many individuals and organisations that support what we do which is always encouraging. Because it is a small team at WAYO you can really see the results of your hard work be it in concerts, sponsorship or funding.

S: WAYO has been around since 1974. Has the role of the organisation changed much over the years to attract new generations of audiences and musicians?

BB: WAYO’s core values have never changed but we have been able to introduce new programs such as the International Conductor Season and collaborations that add a new element to being in a youth orchestra program. We also invest time and resources in creating and promoting programs and concert that interest the concert-going public as well as our members.

S: Recently I’ve noticed a new focus on Australian composers, particularly women, with the commissioning of Melody Eotvos and the performance of a piece by Dulcie Holland this year. What has prompted this?

BB: WAYO’s last four commissions have been from Australian female composers which we have premiered on main stage concerts plus a work we toured internationally, and all our groups regularly perform Australian music. Recently and justifiably there has been some focus on bringing gender equality into programming but it’s something WAYO and the small-to-medium sector have been doing for many years, but possibly not everyone has realised.

Melody Eotvos’ Solar Wolvz will be premiered by WAYO on July 13. Photo supplied.

S: On July 13 WAYO’s flagship ensemble will perform Eotvos’ Solar Wolvz. Can you give us any clues as to what the piece is about?

Solar Wolvz is based on a very peculiar chain of ideas, all related to meteors, comets and any unpredictable objects in space. Inspired by the ghostly Spider Crater in the Kimberley region, the icy Oort Cloud that surrounds our solar system, and Ouamama (the only known interstellar object that has passed through our solar system), Solar Wolvz is a musical journey through time and space filled with brilliant orchestral colour.

S: The concert will be conducted by Benjamin Northey, Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and Associate Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Why is it important to secure high profile conductors like Benjamin Northey to work with the orchestra?

BB: Many years ago, the idea of getting an international conductor straight off the professional circuit to spend a week with WAYO was a pipe dream. Now we have had 13 years of having conductors from all over the world come to Perth for a week. This program has meant the orchestra spend an intense week like a professional orchestra does instead of rehearsing once a week over a few months. It provides WAYO members with a glimpse of the professional world but in a supportive and exciting environment. One of the really nice things of the program is the enthusiasm the conductors themselves show in embracing the orchestra and working together for a week.

S: I still remember the thrilling feeling the first time I played in an orchestra. Did you participate in WAYO when you were studying oboe? What was it like? Was it a good stepping stone to a career in music?

BB: I was lucky enough to do WAYO both as a young violinist and later as an oboe player and spent upwards of 10 years as a member. It was a terrific experience musically and socially and it was a big and vital help when I later performed professionally in orchestras around Australia, and even later when I transitioned to arts management.

S: What is your favourite orchestral work?

BB: Anything by Richard Strauss, so likely Don Juan.

S: Under your directorship WAYO has experienced significant growth in audience and sponsorship partnerships, as well as international tours. What is your secret to success?

BB: WAYO has a lot of great people and organisations that believe in what we do and contribute in all sorts of ways. We honour the long tradition and history of what WAYO has done, but also look to continually improve it and be ambitious with new things that a youth orchestra typically isn’t known for. For example our collaborations with Orchestra of the Makers (Singapore), the Perth Festival and delivering special events for our major sponsors.

S: Where is the organisation heading next?

BB: In addition to our standard big concert seasons and our world famous Babies Proms, we are looking at more unique events and  collaborations within the Western Australian community and an international tour in a few years.

Benjamin Northey will conduct WAYO for the premiere of Solar Wolvz on July 13.

Pictured top: the West Australian Youth Orchestra performing with conductor Peter Moore. Photo: Andrew J Clarke Photography.

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A tactile sound world

Review: Louise Devenish, ‘Sheets of Sound’ ⋅
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, June 28 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

“Sheets of sound” is how jazz critic Ira Glitter described the brisk, muscular playing of John Coltrane in the late fifties. Taking a literal, but also contrasting approach, Sheets of Sounds by Louise Devenish explored the sonic properties of paper, metal and plastic in ways that were tactile and visually sculptural. Three new commissions brought together the different strands of her practice in recent years; namely, electro-acoustic music, new instrument designs, and the intersection of performance art with theatre.

Percipience: After Kaul by Devenish and Decibel New Music Ensemble colleague, Stuart James, made use of the ‘overtone triangle’; a set-up developed by the German percussionist Matthias Kaul. Three triangles hung from a metal frame with wires connected to Styrofoam balls that amplified their sounds. A sort of etude on metallic timbres, the techniques used made the triangles vibrate, modulate, and decay in singing-like undulations throughout the structure. There were echoes of gamelan in the insistent beating patterns and dissonant overtones, while the meter-less sections brought attention to the delicate drones in the electronic backing. Percipience created a whimsical world for an often-overlooked instrument, and the piece’s title seemed apt for a work where the artist’s personality is key to its realisation.

During his tenure with Speak Percussion, Melbourne composer Matthias Schack-Arnott became known for developing percussive instruments of striking visual design. In the tradition of Harry Partch, the 20th century maverick whose creations demanded novel playing techniques, Shack-Arnott’s motorized instruments pit the performer against a mechanical flow of energy. Catacomb Body Double is for two amplified bass drums as well as a myriad of objects including glass, knives, and cymbals. The work is inspired by Catholic iconography around the exhumation of early Christian martyrs. Devenish brushed two knives against the drum skins, creating a wash of effects reminiscent of magnetic tape played backwards. Different objects were placed on the drum’s surface and their quick succession built up the kinetic energy of the piece: glasses, bells and wooden frames were made to rattle and rub against the skins, evoking the excavation-like imagery of the work. Arresting for its visuals and for Devenish’s gestural playing, the piece did lose some its impact towards the end when the material became a tad predictable due to its repetition.

Permeating through the pores of shifting planes by the Pittsburgh-based composer, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, is a performance-installation whereby physical gesture is as important as the resulting sounds. Large sheets of metal and paper hung from the ceiling reflecting the dim lights in the room.  Sitting on the floor, Louise started by pouring rice on hard surfaces, creating swells of hushed and minute sounds. The tactile gestures were then transferred to the creasing of paper and the beating of metal sheets with various mallets. Devenish’s knack for duration, pace, and mood made these simple actions fascinating to follow.

The piece was a rare opportunity to see the ever-consummate Devenish explore a more intimate approach to performance; the focus was not on traditional notions of musical virtuosity  but on the humanity of the performer, their body, and the space they inhabit. The technically accomplished piece also featured a set of speakers that made the paper sheets vibrate, while electronic tones modulated in coarse timbres or slowed down to soft pulses. Devenish’s performance felt generous; it seemed to draw audiences into the quiet dramaturgy of the work’s unfolding.

Sheets of Sound represented an assertion of Devenish’s artistic interests and work ethic. The relationships she has developed with these composers, all of them present for the premieres, spoke of an approach to music making that is collaborative and relational. It followed then that the performances conveyed some of that fluidity and openness to the audience.

Picture top: Louise Devenish Performs Permeating Through the Pores of Shifting Planes by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh.  Photo by Nik Babic.

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Puppetry and dance perfect partners

Review: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fox ⋅
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle, July 6 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

“There are no words”, my 6 year old whispers, without taking her eyes from the stage.

A storm and then a bushfire raged across the stage, leaving a magpie wounded and crying. We watched as a dog befriended the magpie and then a fox seduced her.

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre were using dancers, puppets and a stunning creative design to convey Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks’ book Fox. There were very few words, and we didn’t need them.

Michael Barlow’s production (from 2015), is one of the most profound and beautiful I’ve seen from Spare Parts; a reminder that masterful storytelling doesn’t need words to communicate the deep truths of life.

My daughter loved Magpie, danced by Gala Shevtsov with an alert fragility, her heart torn between her loyalty to Dog and her aching desire to feel the wind in her wings. My son loved Dog, danced by Scott Galbraith with big-hearted exuberance. And Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Fox was utterly entrancing with a rippling silk tail that flickered dangerously like fire. Ogle conveyed the “smell of rage and envy and loneliness” that hung about Fox with her taut leaps and sharp contortions.

Key to their successful character portrayal is the blend of puppetry and choreography (Jacob Lehrer) and the exquisite design (Leon Hendroff) and costumes (Nicole Marrington and Sheridan Savage). Graham Walne’s lighting and projections convey the heat of fire and jealousy, the calmness of water and trust and the tumult of storms and grief. The metaphors are reinforced by Lee Buddle’s sound track which includes the sounds of smashed glass and distorted electric guitar (Fox), the friendly fun of a folk band (Magpie and Fox) and the serenity of a flute and rain soundscape.

The visual and aural metaphors carried the story deep into our hearts. My junior critics identified strongly with the characters and engaged in lengthy discussion afterwards. They felt the show had an undercurrent of sadness and fear. But the exquisite beauty and playfulness of the dancers kept a finely honed emotional balance. This was one of the best children’s theatre productions we’ve seen.

Fox continues until July 20.

Pictured top: Rachel Arianne Ogle is utterly entrancing as Fox. Photo: Simon Pynt.

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Jazz rains supreme

Review: West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra, King Street Corner Pocket Jazz Festival ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre and surrounding venues, July 4-6 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Intimate jazz festivals such as the King Street Corner Pocket are a chance to encounter new talent, renew acquaintanceship with old talent, and marvel again at the breadth and depth of jazz music available to audiences in Perth.

The idea of the festival is to run events over three days, muster the musicians in small bars, lounges, even hotel reception rooms and give them about an hour in each venue to showcase their versatility and variety of styles. No big-name imports, just local talent many of them at the beginning of their career or not too far in.

The Corner Pocket Festival began last year, and is now in its second incarnation under the auspices of the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra. There is no headline commercial sponsorship, but WAYJO’s reputation for encouraging jazz among the younger breed of musicians is endorsement enough.

Thursday’s opening performances began promisingly, despite the gloomy weather perhaps deterring a few fans from venturing out into the rainy night. Proceedings began at 5.30pm with percussionist Daniel Susnjar, one of the city’s most inventive time-keepers leading TRISK (his trio with pianist Chris Foster and bassist Nick Abbey) through original compositions in His Majesty’s Theatre Barre Café.

The old theatre is one side of the central axis of King Street, and each performance is within easy walking distance up laneways or across the street. Most capable of drawing a modest crowd on opening night were the small bar venues such as The Cheeky Sparrow and the Sewing Room, with the three venues in His Majesty’s the most convenient for dashing from one to another within the hour-long time frame of performance. Those with the energy and enthusiasm for a spot of venue-hopping jazz can experience as much of the festival as physically possible with the discounted 10-show pass. Even without the package tickets are $15, or just $5 for late entry.

Nueva Salsa Orchestra playing at The Sewing Room. Photo Eliza Cowling

Opening night saw the debut of guitar and drum duo Bill and Ben upstairs in the Maj dress circle bar. These two young men possessed the chops to deliver fresh arrangements of jazz standards such as Body and Soul and The Way You Look Tonight.

Down the laneway at the Cheeky Sparrow, The Island Trio (electric piano, bass and drums) started with a funky version of Summertime before ransacking the Great American Songbook in the search for re-invention.

Upstairs in the carpeted and curtained room of the Intercontinental Hotel, a five-piece outfit Mejadra explored the further shores of jazz with energy and drive.

Heading back to the Barre Café, fans could hear Danish guitarist Kristian Borring and his trio serving up his lyrical original compositions in amplified acoustic jazz style.

As heavy-weather dusk shaded to deepest night, the atmosphere was almost tropical Downstairs at the Maj with vocalist Libby Hammer and her quartet demonstrating the perfect union of voice and skilled accompaniment on some of the brightest and wittiest number’s in the female jazz vocal repertoire.

Hammer is a city treasure with her big stage personality, perfect pitch, rich store of standards and her capacity to deliver the complete entertainment package. This was cabaret jazz at its finest, enlivened by the explanations and banter with her band boys about how she chooses her set of songs. Hammer has a kid’s program coming up in the city for the school holidays which sounds worth checking out if you want your youngsters to get hooked on music and jazz.

This small jazz festival named after a Count Basie tune features about 55 gigs with more than 200 musicians contributing and has the potential to grow into something bigger than its current ambitions. But perhaps its appeal is simply because it is intimate and relatively simple – guys and gals getting together to show what they can do and hoping those who love a sense of adventure will come along for the ride.

The King Street Corner Pocket festival continues until July 6. 

Pictured top: Cabaret jazz at its finest with the Libby Hammer Quartet, Downstairs at the Maj. Photo Rosalind Appleby

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Children, Features, News

Kids Winter Gig Guide

“Bring your rain poncho and wear noisy shoes,” the instructions read. Now that sounds like an intriguing art installation.

Contemporary artist Marnie Orr is running school holiday workshops at the Art Gallery of WA and they are all about rain. From July 10-19 children will use their bodies and found materials to brew up a storm in an immersive exploration of rain. The AGWA workshop is one of many art activities for children launching as Perth’s creative community gears up for school holidays.

The State Theatre Centre  is brimming with events. On July 13 the building will come alive with Aboriginal art, poetry, films and culture to celebrate Naidoc Day.  And between July 6-14 the theatre will be overrun with robots as Barking Gecko take over the building. A season of Finegan Kruckmeyer’s show My Robot  (read Seesaw’s review here) will be complemented by some very cool free classes. Kids can flex their engineering and design skills by building a Lego robot, then fight it out in the Battle Arena with other young programmers. In the Super Heroes Workshops kids and adults work together using drama and creative thinking to solve problems.

Robots battle it out at Barking Gecko’s Robot Workshop

From August 13  – 16  the State Theatre will present a production of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes & Dirty Beasts.  Roald Dahl’s classic reworking of The Three Little PigsCinderellaLittle Red Riding HoodSnow WhiteGoldilocks and Jack and the Beanstalk  is being brought to the stage by Shake and Stir Theatre.

There is an enormous range of art classes at Fremantle Arts Centre for children and teenagers: photography, cartoons, pottery, anime and mosaic to list just a few. And you can check out the work of 2018’s Year 12 students in Pulse Perspectives, (reviewed by Seesaw here) in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA.

Don’t forget to include some musical magic in your school holiday fun. The WA Youth Jazz Orchestra will present Jazz for Juniors at His Majesty’s Theatre July 9 & 10. These fun-filled concerts introduce young children to the concepts of jazz music and the instruments the musicians play. Best of all, everyone gets the chance to try out some instruments built for small hands.

Be inspired by some of WA’s best young musicians as the WA Youth Orchestra and conductor Benjamin Northey perform a concert of Australian and Russian music, including the world premiere of a piece by Australian composer Melody Eötvös. Tickets don’t come much cheaper than this for a full symphonic concert and you can be guaranteed a passionate performance.

At UWA’s Conservatorium of Music kids can leap into the world of percussion at the Discover! Percussion workshop at UWA on July 10, or a saxophone bootcamp with Emma McPhilemy on the 12-13th.

A fusion of dance and puppetry in Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s Fox. Photo supplied.

And of course Spare Parts Puppet Theatre will perform puppet shows in Fremantle throughout the holidays. Their show this time is the story of the unexpected friendship between a magpie and a dog. Fox is a fusion of puppetry and dance that will take you on a journey through scorched scrub and ochre desert where the true meaning of friendship and loyalty will be discovered.

WA’s performing and visual arts companies are reaching out this winter to engage young people with the arts. There’s no better time to dive in!

Pictured top: A real robot is part of the cast in Barking Gecko’s My Robot. Photo supplied.

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The sound of the symphony

Whether you’re curious, fearful or an expert on classical music, Asher Fisch has the perfect concert for you. The principal conductor of the WA Symphony Orchestra chats to editor Rosalind Appleby about bringing the drama back to the symphony.

There is something contagious about Asher Fisch’s enthusiasm, the way his eyes crinkle with a smile and his arms wave in the air as he talks.

The Israeli maestro is discussing the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s new Discovery Concert series which kicks off this weekend with “The Classical Symphony”. Fisch’s vast knowledge and love for the symphony will be on display as he takes the audience on a journey through the classical era discovering how it has paved the way for the symphonic music of today.

“I’m not trying to educate, I’m trying to illuminate,” Fisch explains when we meet backstage at the Perth Concert Hall. “Trying to give the audience a special, good kind of experience. It is a concert still.”

Since the Israeli maestro joined WASO as principal conductor in 2014, his musical authority and charisma have cemented a significant relationship not just with the orchestra but with audiences too. Fisch, one of the top conductors on the international circuit, has made a particular effort to connect with the audience from the podium, an uncommon habit in Europe but one that is building him a loyal following in WA.

“I notice when I speak to the audience – Australian audiences are much happier to be spoken to than European audiences – they like the fact that the conductor turns around and speaks to them in normal day-to-day language. They like it and they react to jokes very well.”

Asher Fisch working with the WA Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied.

Fisch honed his speaking skills during four years of conscription in the Israeli Army where he worked as a radio journalist. He brought those skills to the concert hall in 2017 with WASO’s  “Wagner and Beyond” series where his teaching from the podium was a huge success with both the live audience and those who heard it via the ABC radio broadcast. This time Fisch will tackle the music of the great symphonic composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Illuminating the drama

“What I want people to understand is that they are hearing a tale, and a drama. The drama is not between characters but it is between scenes, and harmonic changes. If you are really into it you can go and hear a Mozart symphony and enjoy it as much as you enjoy a Mozart opera, minus the characters. Just try to find drama and a story. So you’re not just sitting there to be entertained, try to follow the symphony as if it were a tale and a drama.”

Fisch will use a string quartet and early symphony from Haydn to demonstrate the origins of the symphony, followed by some Mozart – but with a twist.

“I will experiment by playing the ‘Paris’ Symphony No 31 with Mozart’s ‘dream orchestra’. There is a letter he writes about his dream orchestra and he imagines 40 violins. The Australian Chamber Orchestra play with six violins and say that is the authentic way (which it was), but that was not Mozart’s dream; he wanted 40 violins. So we will play a movement of the ‘Paris’ with a fuller section to hear how it sounds.”

The second half of the concert will be dedicated to a full performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which Fisch says is the perfect prototype of the classical symphony.

The Discovery series will continue with a second concert in November, the “Art of Orchestration”, where Fisch will demonstrate how composers transformed works for piano into orchestral masterpieces. The program will include a Bach Toccata performed on organ followed by Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for orchestra, made famous in the Disney film Fantasia. Siobhan Stagg will sing some Strauss songs with Fisch at piano, followed by an arrangement for orchestra. Rounding out the program will be Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which Fisch describes as ‘the best orchestration of all time’.

“The beauty of these concerts are they are for anybody from your young musician son or daughter, through to audiences who are interested but didn’t dare yet, or weren’t sure because they didn’t know what was going on, to very established audience members who want something different. These are the two concerts in the season that are open to everybody.”

A concert facelift

Fisch’s vision isn’t just about audience education. With classical music audience numbers dwindling worldwide he says it’s time to do something different.

“I’m concerned about the structure of the regular concert program; the overture, concerto, symphony. You have to vary, do something a little different. This is my attempt to break from the mould. We cannot have an overture, concerto, symphony in every concert.”

“In Germany there is a big chunk of the population who really like to go to concerts. But even there audiences are dwindling. Not in opera but in symphonic concerts. We are constantly fighting. In theatre you get a new production, you don’t get the same thing. In Europe audiences go to see the same opera again and again to see different singers, and a new production. But we have nothing parallel in the symphonic world to offer them. What they hear at home on their CD’s and what they hear in the concert is exactly the same. So you have to try and enrich this with something different.”

The sound of the symphony. Asher Fisch and WASO. Photo supplied.

Expanding the mould been a consistent message during Fisch’s tenure with the orchestra, which last year was extended until 2023. Fisch’s programs have included a Beethoven Festival (the complete symphonies across two weekends in 2014), a Brahms Festival (across two weekends in 2015) and opera in concert (the much-lauded Tristan und Isolde in 2018). Next year he will conduct a family concert. This democratic, broad-sweep approach to sharing classical music is what has endeared him to audiences. And he can trace it back to his first exposure to the classical repertoire, as a child in Israel.

“My parents took me to the Israel Philharmonic every time they came. We sat very close in the 3rd row. I was always fascinated by the conductor because I was sitting right behind him and watching what he was doing. But for me it was the sound. I was playing the recorder and then piano and a bit of mandolin, but the symphonic sound…just the sound…”

For a moment he is lost for words. How does one articulate the glory of a full orchestral sound?

“That’s why I am a sound conductor, rather than rhythmic or shaping or phrasing” he concludes. “For me it’s all about the sound.”

Asher Fisch presents Discovery Concert: The Classical Symphony on June 28 & 29.

Pictured Top: Asher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

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World premiere a thrill for Perth

REVIEW: Musica Viva, Doric String Quartet ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, June 9 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

The launch of the world-renowned Doric String Quartet’s national Musica Viva tour was an auspicious occasion for Perth. The performance featured the world premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean’s third string quartet. Programmed between European composers Haydn and Schubert, whose traditional approach to the quartet form is now so well-known and deservedly loved, Dean’s modernistic approach was a complete contrast – but by no means less enjoyable or inventive. Dean is a man of his times of course, as were Haydn and Schubert, and his approach to composition is based on the tempo and issues that confront us in the 21st century.

His String quartet No. 3, subtitled Hidden Agendas, is inspired by, as Dean notes in the program, “the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities.” Introducing the world premiere from the stage, Dean amplified that comment by referring to a certain US president. The work is also influenced by the world of modern media, the bombardment of messages by the digital devices we all possess and, to quote the program notes again “other challenges to the democratic process.”

Quite a formidable canvas of issues on which to draw, but Dean is bold in his approach to the string quartet format with five movements that display not only his adventurous compositional skills but the brilliant talents of the Doric String Quartet.

The work begins with the sounds of the digital age expressed musically – noises both subtle and loud of the messaging in this century. There is dissonance, aggression in the notes wrought from the violins, viola and cello that convey a sense of unease. This is a work that aims to unsettle, provoke and confront.

Subsequent movements keep up the tension and confrontation, with little time for relaxation or release. Hidden Agendas is a thoughtful, inventive and complex work that deserves our attention and succeeds remarkably well in getting and holding that attention. The Doric String Quartet, who are familiar with Dean’s previous two quartets, must have thrilled the composer with their interpretation.

Now regarded as one of the leading quartets of the younger generation, the UK-based ensemble moves easily between Dean’s 21st century concerns and the old world of European music with its charm, tradition and familiar comforts. Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major Op 33 is a case in point. Subtitled The Joke because of its ending (we don’t know quite how it will end as the musicians tease out the final bars), the work draws on all kinds of cheeky influences – from comic opera and folk music to the tarantella – to make its bouncy, jaunty impression. The Doric Quartet’s interpretation is, as to be expected, flawless and full of finesse in conveying the sense of joy and humour inherent in Haydn’s Opus 33.

Their execution of Schubert’s no 15 quartet in G major is similarly flawless to the point of majestic. Rather long at 45 minutes for a string quartet, Schubert demands a lot from the players and the Quartet’s energy and skill never falters, which makes the experience of listening to this first-class ensemble entirely pleasurable.

The Musica Viva Doric String Quartet tour continues to Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle, Sydney and finishes in Brisbane on June 26. Tickets online.

Pictured top: Hélène Clément, Alex Redington, Ying Xue, John Myerscough from the Doric String Quartet.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Operatic thriller

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Tosca ⋅
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, June 8 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Tosca is opera’s closest thing to a thriller. Puccini’s late romantic opera with its jealous lovers, political activism and gender violence is set within Napoleon’s imminent invasion of Rome and unfolds in a seamless blend of arias, recitatives and choruses.

The design team behind Freeze Frame Opera’s groundbreaking productions of La Boheme and Pagliacci have transformed the Centenary Pavilion at the Claremont Showgrounds into an opera set of cinematic proportions. In typical FFO style the opera has been trimmed and subtitles adjusted to sharpen the action, but the key elements remain and purists won’t be offended. Plus the audience gets to experience the show from grandstand seating while enjoying pizza and beverages – what’s not to love?

Director Rachel McDonald has updated the opera to the Cold War. On opening night crackling loudspeakers announce the escape of the political prisoner Angelotti, who staggers into the pavilion through a side door.  The painter Cavaradossi and his lover the famous singer Tosca help him escape and the suspense begins as Scarpia, the chief of police begins to hunt them down.

Robbie Harold’s set design makes fabulous use of the pavilion, maximising its vastness for the Act One cathedral and Act Three warehouse (with prisoners arriving for execution in the trunk of a vintage car). Even more impressive was the almost claustrophobic intimacy achieved in Act Two. Curtains framed the chief of police Scarpia’s office, revealing at various points Scarpia showering (in silhouette) and the graphic torture of Cavaradossi (a dramatically committed Jun Zhang) taking place. Meanwhile front and centre Scarpia (a menacing James Clayton) attempts his final conquest: the rape of Tosca.

Harriet Marshall as Tosca, wreaking her revenge on Scarpia (James Clayton). Photo Robert Frith.

But Scarpia’s political and social power is crumbling and as Tosca wreaks her revenge police agent Spoletta (cast in a fabulous twist as a woman) watches with grim satisfaction. This is a post #metoo Tosca (sung by Harriet Marshall) who takes charge, masterminds rescues and brings hope to those around her, ultimately at great cost.

McDonald’s characteristic attention to detail deepens the story. The meta-narrative is elucidated by Mia Holton’s video projections (Scarpia’s face is superimposed onto the Madonna, Tosca becomes a poster girl for the revolution) while McDonald’s stage direction draws out extremes of tenderness and violence from her cast. Even Jerry Reinhardt’s lighting helps develop character (a halo spotlight for Scarpia) and Tommaso Pollio at the piano invests Puccini’s voluptuous score with real emotion.

Clayton is terrifying as a vocally imposing, glass-smashing Scarpia and Pia Harris is a mix of swagger and frustration as the bullied Spoletta. Kristin Bowtell is a desperate Angelotti and Robert Hoffmann doubles as the Sacristan and Jailer. Zhang, his voice a little worse for wear, nevertheless steals the show with his exquisitely intimate O dolci mani (Oh sweet hands). Gliding through it all is Marshall, singing with vocal splendour as the glamorous, jealous, terrified and gutsy heroine.

FFO has done it again; don’t miss this thrilling night at the opera!

Tosca continues at the Centenary Pavilion until June 14.

Pictured top:  Scarpia (James Clayton) seducing the unwilling Tosca (Harriet Marshall). Photo by Robert Frith.

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Children, News, Reviews, Theatre

Enormouse success

Review: CDP presents Tall Stories’ production The Gruffalo⋅ 
Heath Ledger Theatre, June 5 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The theatre has the potential to be the ultimate playground for children. The sense of exploration is ignited just by climbing the stairs into the venue (especially the State Theatre Centre staircase with its stalactites hanging from the ceiling) and working out how to sit on the folding chairs. As teachers shushed and parents passed popcorn the sense of adventure was palpable at the Tall Stories (UK) production of The Gruffalo which opened in Perth this week.

The success of this adaption of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s classic storybook (touring Australia with CDP Kids) is that it takes a child’s imaginative potential and lets it flourish. The audience are invited into the adventure in true British pantomime style; there is no time for yawns in this action-packed hour, no need to dampen down lively spirits.

The audience were part of the storytelling from the outset as the three actors introduced themselves and applied their accessories onstage: a rope tail and a painted nose for the Mouse and hat flaps that turned into ears for the Fox. There was no doubting the characters or the story line and in several places the actors allowed the delighted children to fill in the gaps of Donaldson’s iconic rhyming verse.

Mouse meets the animals in the forest (cast from 2017 production). Photo Heidrun Lohr.

The story about a mouse taking a walk in a deep dark wood is supplemented with song and dance numbers and lots of banter. Fox references Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail in his list of tasty meals, and blames a bouncing Tigger for his indigestion. Owl is a retired air force general who gets Mouse marching, while the sequined Snake dances a samba in front of his (fairylight adorned) logpile house. The additions are funny, smart and draw the audience deeper into the characters. The response was one of undampened enthusiasm as children shouted directions, completed the rhymes and screamed with delight when the shaggy Gruffalo came running into the auditorium to hide from the Mouse.

The all-Australian cast was led by Shannen Sarstedt as the sharp-witted, karate chopping Mouse, supported by narrators  Kyle Kaczmarczyk (who doubled as a Gruffalo that was more softie than scary) and Skyler Ellis whose theatrics created hilarious caricatures of the woodland animals.

Isla Shaw’s forest set design was playful and lush, colourfully lit by James Whiteside. Jon Fiber’s music was catchy and Liesel Badorrek’s recreation of the work of original director Olivia Jacobs completed the entertaining package. My 6 and 8 year old theatre goers were completely caught up in the adventure, delighting in the bravery of the mouse and the antics of the Gruffalo. The show is marketed towards children 3+ and we can confirm it is an ‘enormouse’ success with kids of all ages.

The Gruffalo runs at the State Theatre Centre until June 9.

Pictured top: Mouse meets the Gruffalo. Photo Heidrun Lohr. (Cast from the 2017 season).

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