Three women dancing in semi-darkness
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Transporting hearts and minds

Review: Sym Parr, The Presence of Wool ·
Shearing Shed North of Albany, 14 April ·
Review by Maree Dawes ·

Sym Parr has been working with community dance projects and the concept of the shadowy remnants of things – including wool – for over five years. The Presence of Wool is a culmination of both these strands.

From the outset, this work has a time-shifting quality; most audience members arrive by bus, swept from the city through the darkening streets, then country roads, to arrive at a shearing shed in the last of the light. The tea and coffee available for patrons on arrival could have been laid out for shearers past.

The shed is large, distorted by shadows and decorated with repurposed woollen artefacts. Its structures creak as it stirs in the cool wind, augmenting composer James Gentle’s soundscape. Though the work takes place, predominantly, inside the shed, the mind of the viewer is swept with the dancers, through paddocks, trees and pens, over fences into the wool stalls.

A group of dancers, moving in smoky semi-darkness.
Smoke billows through the slats, evocative of fire. Photo: Bob Symons.

The cast consists of professional dancers Rita Bush, Cayleigh Davies and Talitha Maslin, alongside community dancers and local dance students, all of whom perform with noteworthy focus, energy and joy in movement. Exciting changes of pace are heightened, both by the range of experience amongst the dancers and by the choreography, which encompasses mechanical movements, characterisations of 1950’s workers, child-like play, struggle and death.

Dim lighting and an uneven floor ensure that audience members’ senses are on high alert as they make their way through the shed, directed only by flashlights. One scene sees lighting and smoke billowing up through the slats, evocative of a fire. In another, a dancer (Talitha Maslin) flees through the darkness, slamming gates and thumping the corrugated walls – an escaped sheep, the cook on the rampage? At times, the movement of the audience is distracting but it can also been seen as part of an immersive experience.

Three dancers in a shed, they each step one foot forward and spiral towards the front foot, arms held up as if in surrender.
The dancers perform with noteworthy focus, energy and joy in movement. Pictured (L-R): Cayleigh Davies, Talitha Maslin and Rita Bush. Photo: Bob Symons.

The inexorable soundscape has its softer moments, possible reflecting on childhood or pastoral scenes. More often, though, it amplifies the edginess of the performance. The shed is a character in its own right and Gentle’s sound recordings from local sites – including the old woollen mills (foundations laid 1923), voice recordings of people who worked in the mills and snippets of 1950’s pop tunes – are central to the creation of that character.

With little divide between the viewer and viewed, the audience is wrapped in the experience. In the final moments three dancers are silhouetted by hand-held lights, out in the paddocks. Audience members drift in, closer and closer, until suddenly it is over and the doors of the bus open.

On the bus ride home I think about refugees, homelessness, poverty, death camps, animal welfare, childhood games, meaningful work, precious fabric, shedding the unwanted and repurposing. The Presence of Wool is an immersive experience that stimulates heart and mind.

The Presence of Wool had its season in Albany, April 12-14.

Pictured top, from left to right are Rita Underwood, Annette Davis, Jassica Hesford. All photos by Bob Symons.

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Features, Music, News, Performing arts

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
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

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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columns of light, with fragmented, stained-glass window like walls
Installation, News, Reviews, Video, Visual arts

Glow in the park

Review: ARTTRA Light Festival ·
Claremont Park, 5-7 April ·
By Belinda Hermawan ·

Returning for its second year, the ARTTRA Light Festival showcased 16 original light installations in a family-friendly outdoor setting, after dark. Having attended last year’s spectacular debut, I was looking forward to another display of innovative, one-of-a-kind artworks.

Amongst the highlights of this year’s Festival was Roly Skender’s Flywire film, which was expertly projected on a screen installed between two trees. The mesmerising projection used shifting geometric shapes and lines to create movement in the night sky.

Another favourite was Combs VJ’s box installation, which also made use of monochromatic audio-visuals, with the encased pyramid and mirrored sides creating an eye-catching effect, all set to perfectly timed beats. Also well-engineered was Naz Sumadi’s playful, origami-inspired Mechanical Morph, an ever-transforming pinwheel.

Both interactive and highbrow, Wilma van Boxtel’s Love Seat was more than a park bench. Her illumination recreated the red velvet seats of a theatre and encouraged community members to take a moment to sit and enjoy art together. Also using the park space to advantage were the three rock-like pillars of Sean Adamas’s colour-changing Crystallines (pictured top), Glenda Dixon’s Coloured Clouds that lined tree canopies with wool felt lamps, and ARTTRA Prize winner Per Aspera ad Astra by Amy Perejuan-Capone, the shimmering gold geodesic dome evoking a playground atmosphere.

A dome, lit golden
ARTTRA 2019 winner Amy Perejuan-Capone, inside her installation ‘Per Aspera ad Astra’.

Strolling through the grounds of Claremont Park, I was struck by how much families were enjoying themselves amongst the art. Children were actively engaging with pieces, running in and out of spaces, asking questions, playing games, taking photos, and watching moving images intently. Participants could play a Tetris-inspired video game by stepping on a control-board, walk in front of an animation playing on a theatre-sized screen, or pose for portraits with rainbows. Paired with a program of live entertainment, craft activities and food trucks, the festival atmosphere this year felt more palpable and inviting.

It was, perhaps, fitting that the work I came across first, and came back to again out of continued curiosity, was Joanna Sulkowski’s clever yet ambiguous neon banner Not What You Expected. We bring our own expectations to events, and there seemed to be a shift in focus from last year’s event. If the objective of this year’s festival was to raise the interactivity level to make the event more accessible for families – particularly those with primary school-aged children – then it was undeniably a success.

The trade-off, however, was a variation in production quality and consistency of theme between pieces. I felt there were two exhibitions this year: a collection of ground-breaking art-works worthy of a professional gallery, interspersed with what appeared to be a lower-budget set, for child’s play. I found, too, that the presence of promotional material interfered with the experience, with one installation risking the appearance of a market stall.

That said, the Town of Claremont has set an excellent example of what local governments can do to actively promote arts and culture amongst all ages. Harking back to childhood memories of glow-in-the-dark stickers and recreational star-gazing, ARTTRA Light Festival celebrates the sense of awe that comes with illumination and discovery. Fittingly, the installation that best encapsulated this spirit of wonder was that of Freshwater Bay Primary School’s entry: a spectacular field of papier mâché mushrooms of all sizes, glowing iridescently through silhouettes of fairy tales. It was pleasing to see this generation producing art as well as consuming it – the future is indeed bright.

Pictured top is Sean Adamas’s ‘Crystallines’.

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Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Sea story strikes a sad note

Review: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Blueback ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, 10 April ·
Junior review by Isabel, age 9 ·

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s production of Blueback was adapted by Peta Murray from the book by Tim Winton, and directed by Philip Mitchell.

The play was about a boy called Abel Jackson and he lived by the sea. One day when he was scuba diving he met a fish and he called him Blueback because of his colour. The story follows Abel as he grows up and tells about the changes in the ocean like pollution.

Abel moved away to go to school and when he came back in the holidays, people were trying to buy his family’s land. After he finished school, Abel went to university to study the ocean and he travelled the world. Meanwhile, his mother was back at home watching all the changes in the ocean like dying fish and sea lions from Antarctica washing up on the coast.

The performers (Daniel Doseck and Jessica Harlond Kenny) were really good at moving the puppets. At the start they moved an eel around and it moved in a very realistic way. My favourite puppet was Blueback because he was really friendly and when he first met Abel he grabbed his flipper and wouldn’t let go. The puppets for Abel and his mother were a bit creepy because they were bald and they didn’t have mouths. The puppets used for when they were swimming made the people look like eels because they had no arms or legs.

The lighting made everything look blue like the sea. The set was used in several ways to make a coral reef, a road and some grape vines. My favourite part was at the end when Abel’s daughter Anna met Blueback.

Overall, the play was quite sad and a little bit scary. I would recommend it for older children because all the death makes it too scary for younger kids.

 

Junior review by Eddy, age 6 ·

This was a story about a fish called Blueback. He was very big, blue and very old. There was a little boy and his mum who lived by the sea. The boy was little at the beginning of the play but he grew up and went to school and then university to study the sea.

The play is very sad because lots of things are dead or get killed, like fish, a shark and lots of people.

The puppeteers moved the puppets really well and made it look like they were swimming. The best part was when the boy discovered Blueback and Blueback nipped his flippers.

There were flashing lights for the lightning. The music got sad when the sad parts happened and was happy when the happy parts happened.

I think this play was quite good and big kids will enjoy it.

Blueback continues until April 27.

Read our “senior” review by Rosalind Appleby here.

Pictured top is a scene from ‘Blueback’.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

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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Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Cross cultural epic

Review: Orana Productions, “Mimma: A Musical of War and Friendship” ⋅
Regal Theatre, April 11 ⋅
Review by Claire Trolio ⋅

A politically tumultuous, pre-WWII Italy meets the swinging London district of Soho in a brand new production which opened at the Regal Theatre last night. Mimma: A Musical of War and Friendship is the product of a chance meeting between the two WA based creatives from librettist Giles Watson and composer and producer Ron Siemiginowski.

The score includes both high energy, musical theatre numbers and operatic arias. It’s a curious combination that reflects the varied styles of Siemiginowski who had already written some of the music before he and Watson embarked on their creative venture. As such, the contrasting styles do feel a little incongruous, but the production solidifies in the second act which is more operatic in style.

Mimma (Mirusia Louwerse), Sarah (Holly Meegan) and Uncle Lorenzo (Igor Sas) at the Soho nightclub. Photo by Gary Marsh

Mimma is about how war wreaks havoc on the lives of innocent people on both sides, but at the crux of it, the story is about two young women: passionate, Italian journalist Mimma (Mirusia Louwerse) and London nightclub singer Sarah Parker (Holly Meegan). Turin is becoming increasingly dangerous for Mimma and her family, who refuse to stay silent under the reign of Mussolini, so she seeks refuge with her uncle (stage veteran Igor Sas) in his Soho nightclub. There she meets the kind-hearted, tea drinking, singer Sarah and the pair quickly become friends.

It’s their spirits and their careers that define the two female leads. Both women are strong, politically aware and unwavering in their values of freedom and fairness. Sarah is a dedicated singer who commands the stage while her ally Mimma is a journalist whose vocation remains at the core of her sense of self and ultimately creates a reason for her imprisonment. It’s refreshing to see a new work that champions women who have men in their lives but who are never defined in relation to them.

The casting of these two characters, then, is vital to the success of the production and fortunately Louwerse and Meegan delivered as Mimma and Sarah respectively. Accomplished soprano Louwerse displayed her vocal dexterity brilliantly in the second act. But it was Meegan who left the audience gasping and sighing with delight with her heavenly vocals. Meegan’s vocal clarity astounded the audience and was a true highlight of the performance.

The talents of Jason Barry-Smith as Mimma’s brother Aldo, and Suzanne Kompass as her mother Ada were partially obscured behind the booming music and chorus in Act One but both shone performing the Italian language arias in Act Two.

Uncle Lorenzo (Igor Sas) and Sarah (Holly Meegan). Photo Gary Marsh.

The Perth Symphony Orchestra performed expertly under music director/conductor Sean O’Boyle, whilst director Adam Mitchell proved once again why he’s in high demand right now.

After a dramatic couple of hours, Mimma concludes with some distinctly local flavour. The titular character and her surviving family move to Western Australia, docking at Fremantle and forging a new life on Australian soil. It’s a tidy package for local audiences to relate to, one which serves as an important reminder that those fleeing war-torn countries deserve to be welcomed and protected, and celebrates the ways in which immigrants enrich the cultural landscape. A fitting end to a cross-cultural epic.

Except that it wasn’t the end. An already a lengthy performance was unnecessarily extended with a reunion scene between Mimma and Sarah, where events the audience had seen were recounted. It was a bit too neat and tidy and left the audience wanting less, not more.

That said, the standing ovation said more than a bit of fidgeting did. The creatives behind Mimma have come together to build something new, unique and – with a little more time at the drawing board – world-class.

Mimma continues at The Regal Theatre until 21 April.

Pictured top: Mirusia Louwerse (Mimma) and Holly Meegan (Sarah) have got each other’s back in Mimma. Photo Gary Marsh.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Choral cross-section

Review: Australian National Choral Association, Choralfest “Gala Concert” ⋅
Fremantle Town Hall, April 13 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

The Australian National Choral Association’s Choralfest must have been heaven for lovers of choral music. Four days in Fremantle filled with talks, masterclasses workshops, concerts and pop-up events can’t but have been an inspiring, illuminating – and probably exhausting – experience for all involved.

The festival ran from April 13-16 and the epicentre was Saturday night’s Gala Concert which showcased an impressive cross-section of the participating choirs, both local and national.

Young Voices of Melbourne provided a delightful opening as the men, lined up across the stage, started Away from the Roll of the Sea, conducted from the floor by Mark O’Leary, while the rest of the choir filed in through the hall and added their voices. Clear diction and disciplined singing did justice to the evocative melody, as did accompanist Julia Piggin. An arresting Aboriginal chant took Waltzing Matilda a considerable distance from comfortable nostalgia as, with didgeridoo effects and paired sticks, an atmosphere of both the indigenous and introduced bush world was created. The tricky arrangement was skilfully negotiated.

The Australian Waratah Girls’ Choir (conductors Lindy Connett and Jennifer Scott) opened with a work inspired by the Ash Wednesday Fire, with music by Matthew Orlovich who also assembled the words. Loss, defiance, and a good deal of feeling were conveyed, and flame-red dresses only underlined this reaction to the tragedy. Tundra, in stark contrast, displayed striking vocal leaps, cleanly achieved, with beautiful solo voices emerging from the choral backdrop.

The all-female Perth Harmony Chorus under Carol McIntyre, the largest of the evening’s ensembles, displayed well-integrated sound as well as relaxed enthusiasm. Three items showcased their joy in singing: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning was tenderly and affectingly performed, although the accompanying gestures from the choir were superfluous.

The Australian Voices choir has distinguished itself in the promotion of Australian new music and conductor Gordon Hamilton’s introductory explanations were appreciated, an essential adjunct to appreciation of the two unfamiliar works, Flight and We Apologise. The first, by Berlin-based Australian Jaret Choolun, was something of a technical tour-de-force; the latter, an ingenious slowing down and scoring of a recording of Kevin Rudd’s historic utterance, where the captured overtones were all represented in this setting. Fascinatingly, the conductor then replayed the choral sound successively faster until it matched the speaking voice of the former PM.

A pause in the programme allowed the announcement of the winners of the ANCA Choral Composition Competition Open Section, one of whom, Brian Connell, was in attendance to acknowledge his award. His setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Secret Music written from the Western Front, is a work of gathering power and was conveyed by Voyces with great feeling and conviction.

The Giovanni Consort then eased us back into the compositional world that we are fortunate enough to have inherited, with music of almost ineffable beauty. The renditions of Holst’s I Love my Love and Perth musician Perry Joyce’s excerpt from The Song of Solomon were flawless: two gems within the evening.

Finally Voyces, with conductor Robert Braham and accompanist Jonathan Bradley, provided further balm for the soul in Jake Runestad’s adaption and setting of American naturalist John Muir’s Come to the Woods, whose opening few words could indeed be an anthem for Perth. The course of the day to sunset was faithfully reflected in both singing and accompaniment, and seemed a most appropriate conclusion to an evening of varied choral music, performed to a standard of high accomplishment.

All involved are to be congratulated and the only suggestion is that in future texts be provided, even if at a small cost.

Pictured top: Australian Voices

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