Features, Music, News

The other Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s moving Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will receive its Australian premiere in Perth this weekend. But it isn’t by the composer you are probably expecting. The oratorio was written by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and rediscovered late last century. Ron Banks finds out why.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the older sister of the more famous Felix, was a prolific composer. Or should that be a prolific composer of unpublished and unperformed music?

During her short life of 41 years Hensel wrote about 460 pieces of music, mostly for piano. As a child she excelled at the piano and in composition lessons. However composition skills were not considered the sort of task fit for a married woman and her career was discouraged by her father, although her brother managed to publish some of her pieces under his own name.

A wood engraving of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel by her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel.

Her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, actively encouraged his wife, putting out manuscript paper each morning and suggesting she fill the sheet with notation by the end of the day. Hensel took up the challenge, despite the lack of success with public performance. Only small groups of friends ever heard her works.

Two years into her marriage she wrote one of her biggest works, and one that remained undiscovered until late in the twentieth century. The Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel (Scenes from the Bible), is otherwise known as the Cholera Cantata, after the cholera epidemic swept Europe from 1829 until 1836. During the epidemic Hensel nursed her family and afterwards plunged into composing the oratorio. The three-part libretto is based on Biblical scenes that embrace a narrative of misery and despair, eventually turning to a joyful praise of God. It is written for eight-part choir, orchestra and soloists.

This long-neglected work will be performed by the University of Western Australia Choral Society on December 15. Its choral strength will be boosted to about 200 singers with the addition of the St Barnabas Choir and the Perth Undergraduate Choral Society.

The massed voices will perform the oratorio at Winthrop Hall under the direction of Sarah Mills- Menoque. The concert will conclude with Vivaldi’s Gloria and Christmas carols conducted by Kris Bowtell. Audiences are invited to picnic afterwards by the Winthrop Hall pond.

The UWA Choral Society’s final performance for the year comes after a successful tour of China in October, with about 80 singers performing concerts of classical and modern music in four cities. UWACS president Jan Kirkman said the concerts were enthusiastically received by the Chinese, with ecstatic reviews.

Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will be performed  as part of ‘Festive Celebrations’ on December 15 at Wintrhop Hall.

Pictured top: The University of Western Australia Choral Society on tour in China.


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Features, Music, News

Words on song

Everyone loves a good story, especially one straight from the heart. Ara Jansen finds out why the much-loved Barefaced Stories series has become such a success at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Musicians usually use their singing voices, instruments and songs to tell their stories.

This month at Fremantle Arts Centre’s Barefaced Stories the musicians won’t be able to use (or potentially hide behind) any of those things.

The challenge and the potential exhilaration of the monthly storytelling event is the opportunity to stand on stage and share a story lasting less than 10 minutes to a room full of unknown people. It’s the place to tell a tale, maybe get something off your chest, reveal something or simply take flight in the telling. That’s the beauty, risk and freedom of Barefaced Stories.

The ‘Music Edition’ line up this month includes Alex & Rob (Hope… It’s a Trap Podcast), Andrew McDonald (artist, comedian and cultural critic), Michael De Grussa (Kill Devil Hills, Eskimo Joe) and Jamie Mykaela (comedy/cabaret) alongside special guest musicians Lucy Peach and Ofa Fotu (Hot Brown Honey, Odette Mercy).

“For the musicians, it’s performing in a very different way to what they are used to,” says Barefaced Stories co-creator Andrea Gibbs. “It’s not about being a character but being real and you.”

It’s not the time to trot out those stories you’ve told ad nauseum over the years. No, this is a space to potentially go to those dark, amazing, sad, wonderful and never told before places.

“We push people because if you have something you feel you shouldn’t say, that’s the story we want to hear.”

Gibbs says the night is usually curated to make sure the stories have a light and shade about them. They must be true and storytellers are encouraged not to memorise the piece like a monologue, but rather tell it as you would to a friend.

“There are always laughs, even in really dark stories. It’s almost like people needing to breathe.”

The monthly event celebrates the idea that everyone has a story to tell and the Barefaced stage has played host to everyone from truck-drivers to accountants.

Barefaced Stories is 12 December at Fremantle Arts Centre.

Pictured top: Barefaced Story co-creators Andrea Gibbs and Kerry O’Sullivan. Photo Simon Pynt.

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Calendar, February 2020, Music, Performing arts

Music: Yundi Li Sonata World Tour 2020

4 February @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by Harmonie International ·

The youngest winner of the International Chopin Competition, Yundi Li is coming to Perth! Hailed by over 10 million fans worldwide as the most flamboyant, original, and talented virtuoso on the planet, pianist Yundi is a true virtuoso with over 19.75 million followers in China alone.

After a sold-out tour in Auckland, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in 2018, he will return this February with his Sonata World Tour. Yundi embarked on an exploration of  Chopin, Schubert and Rachmaninov with five exclusive headline dates and this will be his Perth debut. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to listen Yundi’s music live.

More info
W: perthconcerthall.com.au/events/event/yundi-li-sonata-world-tour
E:  boxoffice@perthconcerthall.com.au

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Fisch comes full circle

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s Requiem ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 29 November ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Giuseppe Verdi is primarily a composer of operas, and Asher Fisch is primarily a conductor of operas, so it is no surprise that the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem had the intensity and emotion of a night at the opera. True, there were no elephants (Aida), hunchback clowns (Rigoletto) or Hebrew slaves (Nabucco). But there was a 150-strong choir (the WASO chorus supplemented by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the St George’s Cathedral Consort) and four high profile soloists joining the orchestra on stage, plus a capacity audience; the Concert Hall was bursting at the seams.

Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was premiered in a church, with a liturgy rather than an opera libretto. But it contains the drama and emotion of romantic opera and who better to bring this to life than Fisch, who has spent his six years at the helm of WASO schooling the orchestra in this sound world. It was full circle for the Israeli maestro, who conducted the Requiem in his debut with WASO in 1999 (then a protégé of Daniel Barenboim and yet to complete his now legendary first Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004).

As we have come to expect, Fisch brought Verdi’s dramatic architecture to life in all its majestic detail. From the haunting opening ‘Requiem’ whispered over misty string to the writhing storms of the ‘Libera me’, via moments of brass splendour recalling the Triumphal March from Aida and heart wrenchingly intimate vocal solos, each cameo reached its zenith. There were numerous exquisite moments from the orchestra as, under Fisch’s baton, the ensemble navigated tempo changes, eased fluidly in and out of phrases and breathed shimmering beauty into Verdi’s soundworld.

It’s a dark sound world, though; a work of fear and trembling rather than comfort and hope. Verdi exploits the period’s prevailing “judgement” theology with his inclusion of the Sequence. Its recurring ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’) was sung explosively by the chorus and soloists and the orchestra was unleashed with Wagnerian lavishness. Four trumpets stationed in the upper gallery added to the immersive experience.

Soprano soloist Siobhan Stagg capped her year as WASO’s Artist in Residence with a compelling performance, her golden voice and delicately clear top end making every phrase a delight. Stefanie Irányi’s darker mezzo brought a penetrating intensity, tenor Paul O’Neill sang with gleaming ardour and Warwick Fyfe’s splendidly effortless baritone completed the quartet.

And now to the chorus, who in many ways were the highlight of the night. The 150-strong composite choir were remarkably unified, singing with a warm, cushioned sound that had the clean purity of an organ. For six years Fisch has honed a creamy, rounded orchestral sound built on German romantic repertoire: now he has found a choir to match his orchestra.

I am a huge lover of opera but I wonder if perhaps this was even better? As the great requiem composers recognise, sometimes the more profound experiences are those of the soul, not the spectacle. What a privilege to experience the increasingly refined beauty of our orchestra, chorus and world class soloists in immaculate acoustics, without distraction. One thing is sure; it bodes well for WASO’s much-anticipated concert performance of Fidelio in February.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo Rebecca Mansell.

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Classical music, Film, News

Where the sound of movies began

Mark Naglazas talks to Benjamin Northey about the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s new venture into the Golden Age of movies.

In recent years the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, like many orchestras around the world, has drawn large audiences with their programs dedicated to the music of modern fantasy blockbusters such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, E.T: The Extraterrestrial and Back to the Future.

For their latest trip to the movies WASO is going where few contemporary orchestras dare to venture — back to Hollywood’s Golden Age and the birth of the symphonic score that we now recognise as the sound of the movies. If you want to know what inspired John Williams this is the concert for you.

Under the baton of Benjamin Northey, chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the associate conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, WASO is playing rarely performed selections from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Max Steiner’s soundtracks for Gone With The Wind and Casablanca, Franz Waxman’s music for Sunset Boulevard and Bernard Herrmann’s anxiety-inducing atmospherics for Psycho.

The programme is rounded out by more modern pieces that are grounded in the stirring, deeply emotional scores of Golden Age Hollywood, such Maurice Jarre’s Theme from Lawrence Arabia, John Barry’s soundtracks for the James Bond movies and Ennio Morricone’s beloved music for The Mission.

Northey says that WASO’s Hooray for Hollywood program doesn’t have the instant recognition factor of recent box office hits such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. However, the scores of Hollywood’s Golden Age are of such quality they deserve a concert outing of their own.

Indeed, he believes the work of pioneers of the form such as Korngold, Steiner, Waxman and Hermann created the sound that was later re-embraced by Hollywood in the 1970s after a period of song-based soundtracks.

“It was fortuitous that at the time Hollywood was transitioning from silent to sound cinema Europe was plunging into turmoil. So you had huge cohort of incredibly talented composers and musicians seeking refuge in Hollywood and looking for work,” Northey tells me over the phone from his home in Melbourne.

“Both Max Steiner and Erich Korngold were wunderkinds in their native Austria. They had written operas in their teens and were feted as the next generation after Mahler and Brahms and other composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. They wrote in a Late Romantic style which they then brought to film.

“So when you listen to Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, he’s writing to serve the purpose of an Errol Flynn swashbucklers but he’s also using the language of the orchestral world of the first half of the 20th century,” continues Northey.

“This is why they were so good. You had the best composers in Europe working in an industry that had also attracted all these musicians who were fleeing the rise of Nazism. When you watch these movies and listen to these scores you can hear the virtuosity.”

While Hollywood welcomed this new wave of composers from Europe it took time to acknowledge their contribution. When Korngold’s score for Anthony Adverse won the Oscar in 1936 it was the head of the music department who collected the statuette on Hollywood’s night of nights. There was so much embarrassment about the world-famous composer not getting the Oscar the Academy was forced to change the rules to ensure was acknowledged.

Northey says that by the 1960s Hollywood had abandoned the full-blown symphonic scores, which was often played throughout the entire movie, for much sparser soundtracks, with popular songs filling out the space between dialogue or nothing at all.

The symphonic score made a comeback in the mid 1970s with when Lucas and Spielberg started reaching back into Hollywood history with films such as Jaws and Star Wars, ushering in the return of the kind of soundtrack that dominated movies in the Golden Age, in which each character had their own theme and there is wave after wave after surging emotion.

“We have a lot to thank John Williams for,” says Northey. “He recognised how fantastic a symphonic soundtrack is in underscoring a range of emotions to enhance the viewing experience. It is fascinating that sound was brought to us by refugees fleeing the Nazis. It’s this bit of history we are filling in with Hooray for Hollywood.”

Hooray for Hollywood is on at the Perth Concert Hall on December 6.

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Calendar, February 2020, Music, Performing arts

Music: Garrick Ohlsson

16 February @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by Musica Viva ·

A man, a piano, and you. Garrick Ohlsson is a revered American pianist, a master of the intimate art of the solo recital. His commanding presence – very tall, and with one of the largest handspans of any pianist – is at odds with the delicacy and finesse for which he’s famous. Half a tonne of glossy black wood and gleaming metal becomes a time machine, allowing the music of his favourite composers to speak to us with uncluttered immediacy. If you just want to hear good music beautifully performed, this is an ideal opportunity.

More info
W: musicaviva.com.au/ohlsson/
E:  contact@musicaviva.com.au

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Music, News, Reviews

Fascinating musical exposé

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘The Art of Orchestration’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 23 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

As audiences for the traditional concert format age and a younger generation seeks a fresh approach, it is exciting to see the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s creative initiatives taking flight. ‘The Art of Orchestration’ is the second of WASO’s two Discovery Concerts this year featuring affable principal conductor Asher Fisch offering insights into the music. As judged by the enthusiastic reception, there are plenty of Perth folk of all ages who are open to having their musical appreciation expanded.

All three compositions in the programme were conceived for keyboard, but it took their orchestrated versions to bring them to their current renown and, as explained and illustrated by Asher Fisch, each work took a different route to orchestral life.

The evening opened with the conductor’s introduction from a dramatically deserted stage. Joseph Nolan’s masterful performance of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on the Concert Hall organ (and on a scale that would not have been known in Bach’s time) was followed by Stokowski’s technicolour orchestration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The orchestration is now considered to be in poor taste but it was impossible not to feel admiration for the skill with which the transformation was achieved; and for the fact that the movie is believed to have brought a generation of children to a love of music.

By way of contrast, it was Richard Strauss himself who sought a richer palette for some of his songs.  Here the audience had the immense pleasure of hearing Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, WASO’s first “Artist in Association”, deliver a bracket of five songs. Earlier in her career Stagg won the Richard Strauss song prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition with An die Nacht, and it was clear why.  Stagg has a voice of rare beauty, deployed with utmost sensitivity and with a core of contained intensity; the words have a natural flow and her stage presence is a delight. Regarding the transcriptions themselves, the first and last songs were accompanied successively on piano and by orchestra: unsurprisingly the composer achieved a close match of scale and mood between the two, both in the restraint of Morgen, as in the concluding Cäcilie, with its freely expressed emotions.

Following interval, Asher Fisch continued sharing his absorbing insights, happily contradicting Yvonne Frindle’s admirable programme notes by arguing, contrary to general belief, that Mussorgsky always had orchestration in mind when he set Pictures at an Exhibition for piano. At the keyboard, Fisch, a fine pianist in his own right, self-deprecatingly contrasted the unpianistic nature of certain passages with Ravel’s inspired orchestration. And if the audience was stimulated by this fascinating exposé, no less did the musicians respond. Older listeners might have been happy to see out their remaining days without ever needing to hear Pictures again, but here was a beautifully paced and weighted viewing of the chosen drawings and paintings, with the delicacy and wit of, say, Tuileries not suffocated by the mighty grandeur of the concluding Great Gate of Kiev. Played to death it may be, but here the introductory discussion of the work seemed to infuse new life into an old warhorse.

Asher Fisch and the artistic planning team must be saluted for being prepared to challenge the venerable ‘symphony-concerto’ formula without any dumbing-down, instead embarking on new paths designed to draw in younger audiences and stimulate old ones alike. On this occasion, with the conductor as an engrossing guide, the risk of a fragmented evening was entirely avoided: instead an appreciative audience went home savouring a small but memorable Richard Strauss song recital and consummate performances of the two other orchestral settings.

Asher Fisch and Siobhan Stagg join WASO again in Verdi’s Requiem on November 29th and 30th.

Pictured top: WASO’s affable Asher Fisch. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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Calendar, March 2020, Music, Performing arts

Music: Ben Folds with WASO

16 & 17 March @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·

One of the major music influencers of his generation, piano pop sensation Ben Folds delivers a  cavalcade of hits, like ‘Landed’, ‘Capable of Anything’, and ‘Luckiest’ fifteen years after his first ever orchestral concert right here in Perth.

The multi-platinum-selling artist has since released numerous collaboration records, and created music for film, TV and a Billboard chart-topping piano concerto. Folds, who currently serves as the first ever Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, just recently released his first book, a memoir entitled ‘A Dream About Lightning Bugs’, described as a collection of interrelated essays and anecdotes about art, life, and music. He is also currently touring Australia on a book promotion tour.

But there is no better way to experience one of the modern world’s most distinctive singer-songwriters than with the full power of WASO!

More info
W: www.waso.com.au/concerts-tickets/whats-on/concert/ben-folds-with-waso
E:  waso@waso.com.au


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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical journeys

Review: Perth Orchestra Project, ‘Destinations’ ⋅
Calloway Music Auditorium, UWA, November 22 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Orchestra Project is proving a welcome addition to Perth’s musical landscape. Conductor Izaak Wesson, who founded the semi-professional ensemble in 2017, is a student at the UWA Conservatorium of Music and his ensemble draws on student and graduate musicians. As conductor and artistic director Wesson (and team) have established a reputation for thoughtful programming, innovative presentations and a relaxed atmosphere. It is an attractive package, but the highlight for me is the new works. POP has premiered eight pieces from local composers, an achievement that surpasses the efforts of Perth’s professional orchestras, and the thrill of the new brings a exciting frisson to their concerts.

“Destinations” was the ensemble’s sixth concert since founding and the featured composer was Kate Milligan. Her new work Migrations offered a reflection on the other pieces on the program and also on her trajectory as a composer currently based in France.

Opening the evening though, was a work by Charles Ives, the pioneer of American modernism. The Unanswered Question is normally heard as an orchestral work but this performance presented the original, more intimate version for string quartet, flute quartet and cor anglais. For this quasi-dramatic performance the instrumentalists were spaced around the audience in the darkened auditorium, their music illuminated by stand lights. Under the steady hand of Wesson, the piece unfolded with gently sustained chords in the strings punctuated by a “question” from the cor anglais and answered by the increasingly animated flutes. The sense of stasis generated by the string chords was not entirely effective due to wavering pitch but the interaction between the groups was compelling.

The propelling rhythms of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was a complete contrast. A montage of Reich’s recordings of trains, train conductors, interviews with Holocaust survivors and general station noise exploded from the speakers. The string quartet interacted with the recording, drawing our attention to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech and mechanical noise. It was a slick performance with all four string players navigating Reich’s complex changing metres in synchronisation with the recording. The funky syncopations of thrumming train wheels and the bustle of station noise generated a sense of journey, the thrilling feeling of seeking a destination.

The clatter of vintage early 20th century trains were replaced by the calm hiss of pneumatic doors in Kate Milligan’s Migrations. Her recordings of the Paris metro underpin her new work, in a stylistic nod to Reich. The flutes returned to the stage and their rushing air and spitting sounds together with the slowly accelerating string rhythms took the audience on a distinctly more modern journey. Milligan’s field recordings included snippets of buskers (the melody taken up briefly by the instrumentalists) and the chatter of people at a station. The use of sine waves droning at the edge of audibility (apparently generated from the geographical location of current displaced people around the globe) added an ominous edge to our contemplation of travel. The last sounds we heard were the chatter of people fading into the distance. The silence afterwards was achingly lonely.

The works on the program spanned a century and Milligan’s work was a reminder that, 100 years later we haven’t travelled very far regarding the humanitarian right of being free to choose one’s location and destination. The synergy between the works on the program and the compelling performances confirms POP’s capacity to deliver an engrossing evening of music.

Picture top: The string players from POP L-R: Jasmine Middleton, Shannon Rhodes, Adrian Biemmi and Liz Moss. Photo Finlay Cooper.

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Calendar, February 2020, January 2020, Music, Performing arts

Music: WASO’s Summer Classics

31 Jan & 2 Feb @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·

You can smell the coconut oil, taste the salty air, and feel the sand between your toes. But before the Freo Doctor comes in, WASO is taking the temperature up a notch! Conductor Benjamin Northey brings the sunny, unstoppable good vibes to lead WASO and special guests through a concert program bursting with classical hits.

From Vivaldi to Gershwin and Ravel, we’ve pulled out all the stops, so come on down, grab a drink and relax with the perfect addition to your summer soundtrack.

More info
W: www.waso.com.au/concerts-tickets/whats-on/concert/wasos-summer-classics
E:  waso@waso.com.au

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