Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Beethoven’s Eroica’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, October 11 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅
If you’re lucky enough to find them, there are some pieces of music so personally transcendent, so transportative, that they seem to have been created with your specific ears in mind. For me, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of these. This means of course, that I can’t possibly describe the music to you. But hang on, that’s my job.
Williams (1872-1958) had strong opinions about the English music of his time. In short, he found it wanting and so set out to create his own “national music”, drawing on the folksongs of the past, as well as the Golden period of Tudor music and interweaving these with the Romantic stylings of his time. The piece referred to in the title is from a 1567 hymn tune Tallis created for Psalm 2. A little like the way Michael Nyman was to riff off Mozart’s melodies a century later, Williams transposes Tallis’ gorgeous vocal strains for strings. The effect is a song of strings – the violin and the viola in a heavenly call and response that makes your heart burst. Williams intended the music to evoke the beauty of the British countryside (the word pastoral is used almost constantly to describe his music) but for this listener, with no such associations, the music is simply a step into the sublime. As though he managed to distill all the tiny beauties and griefs of the world into 15 minutes.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the accomplished direction of guest conductor Douglas Boyd, (music director of L’Orchestre de chambre de Paris and artistic director of Garsington Opera), gave it their all. Of particular note were genuinely extraordinary performances from concert master and violinist Laurence Jackson and associate principal violist Alex Brogan.
So for this reviewer in particular, Williams is a tough act to follow. Luckily, Iain Grandage’s brand new work Orphee – Concerto for Cor Anglais is, to use an underused term in classical circles, an absolute humdinger. Grandage introduced the work with a piano accordion in tow – his punishment for the time needed to reset the stage for his own composition. Using his prop, he gave the audience a charming but perhaps slightly bewildering account of the work’s tonal similarities to Williams, whose work is a frequent inspiration for the Perth-born composer. Grandage created the work as homage to his music professor, UWA Professor Emeritus David Tunley. Tunley specialises in French Baroque and the Orphee concerto embraces this tradition with the criminally neglected cor anglais at its centre.
Where Williams is beatific and reassuring, nothing is as certain in Grandage’s world. The piece is gorgeous yes, but with a pervading sense of menace. The cor anglais was played with a sinuous fervour by the brilliant Leanne Glover, glittering in green. Trembling drums, a single bell, sliced across by a draught of strings. It felt ominous, the slightly mournful horn carried on a bed of dense strings, at times lushly beautiful, at others like a buzzing, frenzied cloud that brought bees to mind. Grandage has an acute ear for melody and pacing – again and again we were brought back to the cor anglais’ pleading refrain, almost jazz-like at times. The end result was a genuine triumph – a charged, evocative work that challenged as much as it delighted.
It was a special joy to witness the composer’s own response to this world premiere of his work, especially one so personally dedicated. Grandage, seated across the aisle from me, twisted his beard, leaning forward nervously, in response to the work’s more ambitious movements. Wonderful too, to relish the prospect of a Perth Festival curated by an artist who seems as eager as he is accomplished.
And then there was the Beethoven. Caveat – I’ve got Beethoven baggage. More specifically, symphonic baggage. I’m not sure whether it stems from my horror of A Clockwork Orange or from sheer overexposure, but when I hear the crashing chords of any of his symphonies it’s all I can do to stop myself from keeling over in boredom. In admitting this, I don’t mean to be contrary for the joy of contrariness. Beethoven’s contributions to Western music are perhaps unsurpassed, (with the possible exceptions of Mozart, Miles Davis and the Beatles) laying down formative melodies and musical structures that inform music of all varieties. Maybe it’s because his symphonies are so ingrained in our musical imaginations that it’s difficult to find them interesting now? The bombast; the driving cadence; the building crescendo and then, the requisite moment of delicacy. Listening to a Beethoven symphony is like slipping into a warm bath – you don’t do it because it’s exciting, you do it because you know exactly how it will feel and it’s lovely.
WASO performed Eroica (Symphony No. 3) with great verve. The work (1802-1804) is often heralded as a stylistic dividing line between the Classical and Romantic periods, reflected in the different tonal flavours of the four movements. Primarily, it’s a Classical work but there are generous hints of the incoming subtlety of the Romantic period – oh, the glorious strings early in the second movement! It’s almost like you can feel something more tender trying to escape from the heavy majesty. The players worked hard to extract every last gasp of pomp out of the score, under the feverish direction of Boyd, rousing them on towards the last grand notes. And grand it was.
But ultimately, I tend to side with Charlie Brown’s famous curmudgeon Lucy. In her words: “Beethoven…he’s not so great.”
What were Seesaw writers’ favourite shows this year? What were the highlights and lowlights for the arts in WA? And which artists will our contributors be looking out for in 2019?
As 2018 draws to a close, Seesaw writers reflect on the year that was and the year that will be.
Xan Ashbury Top shows Cloud Nine, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler for West Australian Youth Theatre Company in July. Gutenberg the Musical, starring Jacob Jones and Andrew Baker. The musical was directed by Erin Hutchinson for Western Sky Theatre in June. Huff by Cree playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, staged at the Subiaco Arts Centre in March by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.
Looking forward to… Our Town at Perth Festival. Black Swan State Theatre Company present Thornton Wilder’s classic play. Clare Watson directs a cast of professional actors and everyday citizens. Le Norat Perth Festival. Perth theatre-makers The Last Great Hunt tell interwoven stories of love in a world that’s falling apart, as they perform a faux foreign film live. Re-member Me at Perth Festival. Lip synching maestro Dickie Beau channels audio recordings of great historical performances of Hamlet. Billed as “humorous and haunting”.
Top Shows “No Second Thoughts: Artemis Women’s Project” @ LWAG – a stunning inquiry into the continuing history of feminist art in WA. The Second Woman @ PICA – If I could turn back time I would have made the effort to try to attend the whole 24 hours of this endurance piece! However, the four hours I spent watching Nat Randall and assorted men replay the same scene over and over was life-changing.
Can I say the entire Unhallowed Arts program? It was so amazing to have a festival (a monstrosity!) that encompassed institutions, ARIs (artist run initiatives), performance, experimental and visual art, and cutting-edge science and humanities research.
Nationally, the (slowly…) increasing number of ARIs that are now able to offer artist fees to exhibiting artists. I hope that a Perth ARI is soon able to access funding that will allow them to pay artists on a regular basis too!
Locally, it would be hugely biased of me* to say the opening of a new ARI in Perth’s CBD… but seeing a few more spaces opening up as exhibition venues has been heartening. I’m thinking of venues such as Old Customs House and the Lobby as well as Cool Change Contemporaryhere!
* Miranda is a co-director of Cool Change Contemporary.
The renaming of the Fringe World Pleasure Gardens to include a certain company’s name has been a recent reminder for me of the huge amounts of money that oil and gas companies give to the arts, and how they use the arts to appear “progressive” whilst contributing hugely towards climate change, making no effort to reduce emissions and paying very little tax. Of course it’s not news that this happens and that all our arts institutions rely on this source of funding in lieu of adequate governmental funding, but it’s been increasingly on my mind, and something that I think will require a reckoning amongst us artists and arts professionals – we are all implicated.
Looking forward to… “Cassils” @ PICA, as part of Perth Festival “Love, Displaced” @ Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, as part of Perth Festival The Violent Years@ The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights, as part of Fringe World
Leon Levy Another year of frequent absences from Perth has meant missing some significant productions and performances. Some of these – had I seen and heard them – would most certainly have jostled for inclusion in a “top 3” which was, in any case, challenging enough to achieve.
“Don’t Stop the Music” (ABC TV), for the moving depiction of the transformative impact of the introduction of music teaching at primary school level, and for the possibility that it will prove to be a catalyst for widespread adoption of music in the school curriculum. Such a development would also be an apt tribute and memorial to Richard Gill whose untimely demise was a grievous blow to music-education and to the nation… the “arts lowlight” of the year, if this loss can be thus characterised.
Since I’m only allowed to nominate three events, I’ll have to keep as a secret the fact that I’m also looking forward to Wot? No Fish!!, with Danny Braverman (Perth Festival), and can barely contain my excited anticipation of the glorious Elgar Violin Concerto, to be played by Nikolaj Znaider with WASO under Asher Fisch.
Nina Levy Top shows
Really difficult to choose this year! So many great shows.
Attractor by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, Dancenorth and Senyawa’s , presented as part of Perth Festival. Oh the Dancenorth dancers. Sigh. Huffby Cliff Cardinal, presented by Yirra Yaakin and Cliff Cardinal. Utterly compelling. You Do Eweby Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia as part of “The WA Dance Makers Project”. Ok, I didn’t actually see this work in the theatre because I was interstate for the season, but the studio show won me over with its highly relatable humour.
Arts highlight As I said at the time, the realisation, earlier this year, that we only have one more festival under Wendy Martin sent me into a period of premature mourning. At the risk of sounding unoriginal (because I’ve edited this piece and know how many other people have said the same), the appointment of Iain Graindage as the next Perth Festival director made my heart lift.
And seeing Strut Dance’s Sunset headline the 2019 Perth Festival launch was pretty special – a huge achievement for local independent dance.
The passing of the wonderful Richard Gillat age 76, conductor and music educator extraordinaire – such a loss to our community.
At a more personal level, I am also deeply saddened by the recent passing of my friend and mentor Lesley Goodman, a visual arts educator, who worked at the Art Gallery of WA for many years. For a short time I had the privilege of working with Lesley at AGWA, as her education assistant, and learned so much from her about how to talk to young people about visual arts.
Jonathan W. Marshall Top shows
2018 was an especially good year for dance, beginning with Vessel in the Perth Festival: a piece in which the dancers hunched forward so as to become faceless, moving sculptures.
Marrugeku’s trilogy of solos Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) was also superb, featuring Eric Avery’s tremendous “burlesque” (or disrespectful re-enacting) of colonial tropes, performed while dressed in an animal hide tail coat, and using a violin and a microphone stand in ways which would feature well in a punk band.
Although there were strong musical showings from both Greywing Ensemble and Decibel (notably the latter’s wonderful Revolution), for sheer digital joy, Robin Fox’s lesson in live avant-techno was hard to go past.
2018 saw the first program at Black Swan Theatre actually devised by still relatively new artistic director Clare Watson (who had until now overseen much of the work programmed by her predecessor). While Xenides and Skylab were disappointing, it was still a bold selection of works, and the bleak queer/trans drama Hir was a stand-out.
Robert Lepage’s approach of taking significant cultural events, conflicts and exchanges and turning them into feel-good theatre about families continues to be massively over-rated (Far Side of the Moon, Perth Festival), while Fringe seem to be digging in their heels in their misguided belief that the more massive and completely uncurated the Fringe festival is, the better — even though this means that artists end up competing with each other for audiences and the program booklet is completely impossible to navigate. At least the Blue Room are curating their Fringe program; always worth looking out for!
Looking forward to…
WA’s gift to new music, the organisation Tura, turns 32 next year, kicking things off with Cat Hope’s bass and extended-vocal-technique opera Speechless(Perth Festival 2019), while our fabulously inventive MoveMe dance festival is almost certain to be back next year.
Meanwhile PICA continues to bring us some of the most exciting interdisciplinary performance, with new works from Aphids (who’s fabulously rag tag Howl featured at PICA in 2018) and Last Great Hunt already programmed.
Also worth looking out for is a new adaptation of Medeafrom Black Swan Theatre, who are also hosting Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is the New White, which made waves in Sydney in 2017.
Claire Trolio Top shows
Not only was Dizzee Rascal (for Perth Festival) my gig of the year – his show was one of the best live music experiences of my life so far. Let Me Finish was a powerful, hilarious and emotive feminist work that showed at The Blue Room. If you missed it, it’s coming back for Fringe next year so get tickets!
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival artistic director for 2020-2023. Whilst I’m still sad that Wendy Martin’s time at the helm is coming to an end, I’m excited to see what direction Grandage will take!
David Zampatti Top shows Folias Antiguas & Criolas: “From the Ancient World to the New World”, Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo: It is impossible to imagine a more exciting or exquisitely performed concert than this. It was thrilling to listen to, and wonderful to watch. The Tale of Tales, Clare Testoni: A small, brilliant gem of storytelling, and a breakout achievement for its deviser and performer, Clare Testoni. Her images have a magical three-dimensionality, and move with an almost cinematic quality. It’s an honest show, and a heartfelt one. What Doesn’t Kill You (Blah Blah) Stronger by Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods: Tyler Jacob Jones, as a writer of script and lyrics, and as a comic actor and singer, is the most prodigious talent in this town. His long-standing partnership with the composer Robert Woods and the versatile performer and director Erin Hutchinson has honed their skills to starry heights.
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival Director for the next four years. We’ve got much to thank our recent directors for, but Iain brings his virtuosity as composer and musician, and makes history as the first born and raised West Australian to fill the position. Exciting times ahead!
Obviously I can be accused of self-pity here, but the retreat of The West Australian from coverage of the arts is both a symptom of a much wider malaise and a cause for particular concern. Still, change is good. Platforms like Seesaw have the capacity to fill the void and energise and grow the audience.
Looking forward to…
It’s hard to look past the festivals right now: Gatz: After the overwhelming experience of The Gabriels, who wouldn’t be looking forwad to another 8+ hour (with breaks for libations) American marathon. Icarus: Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Paradise Lost was one of the marvels of the ’17 Fringe. This time he’s taking to ancient skies. Our Town: I’m not sure that “looking forward” is exactly what I’m doing to Clare Watson’s take on Thornton Wilder’s classic American novel performed by a cast of professionals and “everyday Perth Citizens”. Including me…
Pictured top are Andrew Searle and Zoe Wozniak in “You do Ewe” by Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.
Perth Festival has announced the appointment of Iain Grandage as artistic director of Perth Festival 2020-2023, succeeding current director Wendy Martin whose final program will be the 2019 Festival.
It’s exciting news on many counts. Not only is Grandage an acclaimed collaborative artist and programmer, but he’s from WA.
A composer, Grandage’s Helpmann Award-winning back catalogue includes the scores for theatre productions Cloudstreet and The Secret River, dance production When Time Stops and opera The Rabbits (with Kate Miller-Heidke). He has also won Helpmann Awards for his work as musical director of Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl and The Secret River.
As a programmer, Grandage has curated the chamber music program for Adelaide Festival and been artistic director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival since 2016.
After a decade in Melbourne, Grandage recently returned to WA and is thrilled to lead an international arts festival in his home state. “Perth Festival inspired my journey into the performing arts when I first experienced it in the early 1990s,” he says. “I hope to similarly energise local artists and audiences by extending the Festival’s foundation mission as a Festival for all people.
“It’s a privilege to lead a Festival that has such a rich history, and to play a part in shaping its future on Noongar Boodja by presenting wondrous art made with intelligence and heart that places international artists cheek-by-jowl with locals.”
Seesaw will be catching up with Iain Grandage very soon… so stay tuned!