Procession Soft Soft Loud
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An R&B ceremony

Perth Festival review: Soft Soft Loud, Procession ⋅
Fremantle Arts Centre, March 2 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Soft Soft Loud’s cross-genre contribution to the Perth Festival this year was Procession, a collaboration between American composers Hanna Benn and Deantoni Parks which premiered in the US in September. The artists have a notable list of collaborators under their belts; Parks has toured with The Mars Volta, and Hanna Benn’s arrangements appear on indie-rock albums by Son Lux and Fleet Foxes. Loosely inspired by ceremonial music traditions, Procession grew out of mantras by Benn woven with uplifting numbers to create an expansive R&B suite.  In the program notes Benn stated Procession was about the power of the human voice to connect with listeners. For Parks, it was about aligning the core elements of improvisation, notation, hybrid instrumentation and sampling.

The performance starts in the garden of the Fremantle Arts Centre where the sounds of cymbals, bells, and chimes bring an incantatory mood to the proceedings. Members of the ensemble direct the audience into the building while playing these instruments sparingly. As we march down the corridors, a melismatic female voice along with the lilt of a rhythm section is heard outside, and by time we reach the inner courtyard the band is already locked into a celebratory, jazz-inflected groove.

Vocalist-composer Benn is on one side of the stage sitting behind a rack of synthesizers, opposite her is Parks who bends over the drum kit with an air of absorption. Both musicians take on conducting roles within the ensemble but whereas Benn conducts with dance-like movements, Parks maintains a focused demeanour. Centre stage is a cast of local and interstate musicians including Perth composer Brett Smith on saxophones.

Parks approaches the drum kit as though it were tuned percussion using the pads and controllers around him to trigger samples and bass lines. His drumming is full of off-kilter turns that seem to subvert the music’s direction. But overall the tone for Procession is reassuring and the music, as Benn states, ‘singable’. Strings drift in and out with sighing phrases and the wind section plays responsorial lines that complement Benn’s coaxing vocals. An interlude for clarinet and strings slows down the pace with their unhurried criss-crossing of lines but suddenly these are drowned by a swell of guitar distortion. After a pause, the strings and clarinet make a comeback but now they are pitted against energetic R&B rhythms. There is much to like in the music and execution, however the material in the second half becomes episodic and lacks some of the initial urgency. The concert concludes with a drum solo by Parks that is an impressive amalgamation of drumming, sampling and synthesisers. Yet, it feels odd to end the song-cycle with a solo feature.

Works with a program do not need to be didactic or obvious but as soon as an artist attaches concepts to a piece, audiences will try to find a correlation. Concepts can either enrich or distract from the listening experience and the latter was the case for me. in the program Procession was billed as ‘a celebration of people and place through a re-imagining of ceremonial music.’ ‘Procession’, ‘place’ and ‘ceremony’ are words loaded with cultural significance and it felt underwhelming not seeing a deeper engagement with the themes put forward by the program. Likewise, stressing the use of music technology felt a tad redundant as it had a supportive (rather than exploratory) role, just like most music we hear today.

However, aside from the confusing way it was framed, the musicianship and musicality of the artists made Procession an engaging work.

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Silkroad Ensemble
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Conversations with spice

Perth Festival review: Silkroad Ensemble ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, March 3 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Originally founded by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silkroad Ensemble is a US based organisation devoted to bringing together highly trained classical musicians with various national and ethnic musicians to perform modern fusion works. The line-up has changed over the years, and today the route of the ancient silk road which led through Persia and the Caucuses to skirt India and arrive at China serves more as a metaphor than a reliable guide of the ensemble’s musical foci. The instrumentation for the Perth Festival performance included Spanish-Galician bagpipes, classical violin, grand piano, double-bass, somewhat Hungarian/klezmer inflected cello, Indian tabla, Chinese sheng (a polyphonic, harmonica-like instrument) and mixed percussion played by Euro-American masters (though instruments from the Caribbean and Iran were included).

Many of the compositions had a rhythmic drive and swing which made them feel like updated versions of the 1936 ‘exotica’ jazz standard Caravan, but this is appropriate given the artists are explicit about offering novel blends of international approaches, rather than presenting ‘authentic’ folk performance (whatever that might be). A bit of swing provides just the right spice and loosening agent to bring these materials together.

Despite the classical base of the ensemble, the performance therefore tended towards a mixed jazz ambience, which is both something of an advantage and a weakness. There is always something remarkable about classically trained artists playing jazz beats and swinging rhythms, a kind of precision and sharpness of attack which jazz performers do not always choose to embody (jazz is, after all, inherently looser). There is however already an extremely impressive history of international jazz fusion and ‘World music’ from the twentieth century, and while the Silkroad performers were pretty fabulous, they do not quite hit the ecstatic heights of the one-off improvised groups with sitar and tabla players convened by Miles Davis or John McLaughlin, nor that of the extraordinary performances captured on the wonderful and voluminous Éthiopiques recordings.

Silkroad’s performance was nevertheless very fine on its own terms, especially when the artists got more into the swing of things and the initially poorly balanced and rather distorted sound system was smoothed out. By and large the performers succeeded in spite of, not because of, the Perth Concert Hall. A more intimate, jazz-like location would have enabled them to shine even more.

The program was quite diverse, including a pair of absolutely outstanding solo vocal pieces composed by 20th century Hungarian avant-gardist Györgi Ligeti. Singing without amplification, soloist Nora Fischer was accompanied on piano by Cristina Pato. The pair captured the slightly fractured rhythms and halting but lilting time signatures and vocal phrasing beautifully.

A pleasant surprise was the closing suite by avant-garde composer John Zorn, whose exploration of radical Yiddish music underpins his Tzaddik label. Zorn’s compositions allude to the principal Archangels of Jewish lore. The pieces had a wonderful, bouncy lilt, but also unexpected interruptions, pauses and impressively bassy underpinnings. These were interesting but still fun pieces which extended on klezmer motifs and provided ample opportunities for different members of the ensemble to come forward, and then self-consciously play off each other.

Also notable was the piece composed by the ensemble’s tabla player Sandeep Das, which highlighted the rapid backwards and forwards musical exchanges between Das and the other two percussionists, including Shane Shanahan on the giant Iranian tambourine known as the daf. The string performers also got involved as the musical cross conversations developed.

Despite the initial teething problems with the sound (at least from where I sat), the Silkroad Ensemble offered an impressively celebratory and highly accomplished performance which had rather more of a jazzy feel than might have been expected. The ensemble is dedicated to using human differences productively, as a way of generating musical and affective links and new conversations. Our politicians and immigration officials could do worse than follow its lead.

Pictured top: the musicians from Silkroad Ensemble. Photo Max Whittaker.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Jazz gymnastics

Perth Festival review: Jazzmeia Horn ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, March 1 ⋅
Reviewed by Ron Banks ⋅

Texas-born jazz singer Jazzmeia Horn has an extraordinary voice no doubt about that.

It’s a big voice; one that can soar into the stratosphere, explore the depths of a song, whisper, cajole, shout, scream like a two-year old, ease through a jazz ballad with nonchalance and style or scat and burble sounds that reshape your thinking about how the jazz idiom should be presented.

Her jazz heritage is the likes of singers such as Betty Carter or Ella Fitzgerald, but she takes their material and gives it a fresher, more daring and adventurous edge.

Her opening number was the old standard Willow Weep for Me, refreshed by her remarkable vocal range into something  strange and mysterious. It set the pattern for the kind of vocal gymnastics that show how the human voice is not yet done with re-invention and re-interpretation.

More standards were to follow – a medley of Tenderly, The Nearness of You and Misty, for example – each number crafted with a subtlety and delicacy that suggest a mind and voice working overtime to overturn established conventions of vocal delivery.

She can also get into the be bop tradition like an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist – that talent at full play in her interpretation of Charlie Parker’s little-known Au Privave. It’s not the kind of number for the faint-hearted performer.

If Horn has a fault, it’s that she is, for some perhaps, too inventive, too versatile, too willing to go out on a limb in her artistry rather than stay within the normal confines of how a song should sound. But if that’s a fault, give it to me any day.

With this big versatile voice comes a big personality; Horn likes to chat with her audience, invite them into her world. Remarkable for a jazz singer (rather than a showbiz singer) she successfully involved the audience in a call-and-response encounter based on, of all numbers, Cole Porter’s Night and Day.

That number morphed into the audience chanting back phrases about self-esteem (”love yourself, love your skin”). It could have sounded corny but it wasn’t. It was pleasurable for both the singer and the audience.

Horn is now based in New York and brought with her musicians of great subtlety and craft in pianist Victor Gould, bassist Barry Stephenson and drummer Henry Conerway. Their ability to follow or to lead the singer down new pathways was deeply pleasurable.

The Perth Festival has been short on ground-breaking jazz performers in recent years, but Jazzmeia Horn’s presence this year signals that great jazz is always just a phone call away. Horn deserves to become an international star of the art form.

Photo top: Jazzmeia Horn. Photo Jacob Blickenstaff

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Some things leave you speechless

Perth Festival review: Cat Hope, Speechless ⋅
Sunset Heritage Precinct, February 28 ⋅
Review by Laura Biemmi ⋅

So often, words fail us. The tragedies of our time can leave us stricken, without words, struggling to comprehend the state-sanctioned monstrosities before us. Australian society has a lot to answer for, points out Cat Hope in the program notes for her new opera, Speechless. She highlights the Australian government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, its lack of respect for our Indigenous communities, and its inability to recognise the plight of women in Australia, lamenting that ‘these are groups who, as a result of being spoken for by others, are left without a voice.’

Hope’s response to these crises that plague our nation was to create an opera which received its premiere at the Perth Festival this week.

Visually, Speechless was inescapably captivating. The audience were placed in curved rows around the oval performance space, giving the uncomfortable impression of spectatorship, as if watching a football game. Thick strips of fabric dangling from the ceiling, reminiscent of bar-graphs detailing horrific statistics, were pulled down and tightly wrapped around the principal performers, the set itself becoming an oppressive actor on stage. Matthew Adey’s lighting design included pole-like lights suspended from the ceiling to just above the floor, acting as both structural guideposts for the actions of the performers and as physical accompaniments to the Australian Bass Orchestra. In one particularly striking display in the third act, the red lights overhead drifted glacially from the back of the space near the orchestra, to the front of the room, menacing in its hue and bathing all in its light.

Four soloists stand on chairs with a group of black clothed chorus members clustered around them
The chorus turn their attention to the wordless singing of the soloistss Photo Frances Anrijich

Stripped of their words, the performers onstage connected with their audience in a more visceral manner. Sage Pbbbt was compelling in her guttural cries and wordless gasps; Karina Utomo’s aria of screams was deeply moving; the percussive vocalisations of Caitlin Cassidy were equally virtuosic and unearthly in their execution, and the mourning that pervaded the beauty of Judith Dodsworth’s voice was only enhanced by the lack of text. Such vocalisations were deeply moving, and were felt on a level I had never experienced before in a concert setting. The choir, made up of members from five separate community choirs, were effective in their role as ‘citizen’s commentary’, drifting through the space and connecting (or not) with the principal performers. However, I felt there was space in the opera for the choir to have a more prominent role as the members of Australian society. Some ‘numbers’ involving the principal performers began to feel familiar towards the end of the work.

Much like the performers onstage, the Australian Bass Orchestra communicated with their listeners in a more bodily fashion. The notes from the bass orchestra–consisting of low winds, brass, strings, electronics and percussion–could be felt reverberating through the feet of the audience, settling uncomfortably in the stomach. However, such a human, bodily effect was juxtaposed harshly with moments of metallic, mechanical rage, particularly in one intense moment scored for ‘rock band’ and strobe lighting. This clash between bodily and mechanical elements served to remind audiences of the inter-relatedness of the two; the horrors of our time might be systemic and seemingly untouchable, but they are essentially man-made.

Aaron Wyatt conducts the Australian Bass Orchestra. Photo Toni Wilkinson

Such bodily reactions to Speechless, are important. Hope drew inspiration for the opera from the 2014 Human Rights Commission Report The Forgotten Children: National Enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Reports such as these filled with clinical figures of statistics and descriptions of conditions have not been effective at ending our current stance on asylum seekers, nor on any social issue plaguing Australia. Connecting on a level that surpasses pure intellect might be the next best option. Speechless was overwhelming; an experience so forcefully immersive, it was impossible to ignore. And that’s exactly what Australian society needs to experience.

Speechless continues until March 3.

Picture top: Karina Utomo’s aria of screams. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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A poet with a feather in her hat reads as she stands by a mallee sapling
Literature, News, Reviews, Spoken word poetry

Poetry a natural delight

Perth Festival review: Writer’s Weekend, Poetry ⋅
University of Western Australia, February 23-24 ⋅
Review by Elizabeth Lewis ⋅

Poetry punters often feel their events are pushed into small side rooms in festival programs which typically privilege popular novelists; not so with the 2019 Perth Festival Writers Week, curated by William Yeoman. There is a nice balance of poetry offerings, two in particular that have crowds queuing outside the sizeable University Club Auditorium.

The first is the launch on Saturday of An Open Book, the new poetry collection by David Malouf. It is clear that Malouf’s books have been companions to many over the course of their lives. His novels have been celebrated by various awards and studied in high school curriculums. The feeling in the room is expectant and engaged.

A show of hands from the audience indicates that not many knew Malouf as a writer of poetry before becoming a novelist, but he is keen to talk about his continuing passion for poetry and what it can do. “Presence is a word that is very important to me…poetry should be about a consciousness in time of an eternal moment.” Malouf talks about the intense focus of language and description to capture moments and meaning, “close attention is what most art is about”.

In a short session Malouf manages to dispense countless small stories and pearls of writing wisdom. He talks about the pleasures of observing the confidence of small children and recalls poignant memories of growing up during World War II, “I can remember the moment I received the first great shock of my life. The SS City of Benares carrying child refugees was torpedoed, 77 children died…I remember sitting on our front lawn with its chain link fence…there are places you will find yourself where your parents can’t save you”. Themes of childhood innocence and the loss of that innocence run through An Open Book. The title poem explores this tension:

“My mother could read me, or so she claimed,
like a book. Fair warning! But I
too was a reader and knew that books

like houses, have their secrets.”

The audience is warm, appreciative and full of questions. Many wait patiently at the signing tent while Malouf greets each reader and takes the time to correct a few small mistakes printed in his new book; to ensure the poems are read according to the finely tuned detail he intends.

Nigerian poet Ben Okri reads with a deep, melodic voice. Photo supplied

In the same theatre the following day is Poetic Sensibilities, a panel featuring Nigerian poet Ben Okri alongside Australian writers Tracy Ryan and Malouf. The event is described as a discussion on the pleasures of poetry in contemporary times however panel host Terri-Ann White structures the session by asking the poets one question only and then inviting them to read from their work for the duration. Disappointment gives way to enjoyment as the three poets share from their collections and experience. Ryan presents a poetic case for the bonds of family and our responsibility to the next generation and Malouf offers poetry as a point of human connection: ‘the poet speaks directly to the reader about his experience in the world, which the reader picks up and makes his own experience.” Okri is the stand-out performer with his deep, melodic voice and romantic Rumi-esque imagery. Unfortunately, there is no time for audience Q&A either which leaves me feeling I haven’t quite connected with the poets or their ideas, only brief examples of their writing.

The highlight of Writers Week for me is the New Shoots Poetry Trail in the Kings Park Botanic Gardens. New Shoots is a nation-wide project by Red Room Poetry, commissioning poems designed to connect readers to the natural environment.

At New Shoots Poetry Trail  four poets Nandi Chinna, Renee Pettitt-Schipp, Daniel Hansen and Luke Sweedman perform poems inspired by specific species of the native Mallee tree.

On Sunday at 8:30am it is bright and sunny, the air full of the chatter and chirp of birdsong and the scent of trees; a perfect scene for a suite of poems on the qualities and preservation of the Mallee tree.

More than thirty attendees separate into small groups and are led by guides along tree canopied walkways to four stations in succession, each featuring a different poet. The curved pathways form natural amphitheatres and an intimate atmosphere as listeners gather close to the poets.

The poems are deeply connected to their subject, passionate and educational. Nandi Chinna’s Anatomy of a Lignotuber describes the ingenious construction of the Mallee’s root system, growing buds below ground so that in the event of a fire the plant can survive and sprout again.

“Beneath the ground in living state;
woody swellings hold life in suspension,
a contorted arrangement of tissue,
swollen buds, a pulse of protection
against erasure, defoliation,
the flat horizon we call ‘clearing’…”

Renee Pettitt-Schipp explores the importance of naming, memory and sound in her poem Mallee, written after talking with her mother about her childhood memories of Mallee trees.

“…she knew them first by their sound
leaf-shift a dry wind moving
land’s tongue a gentle roaring
the day her father bought the farm

her father bought the farm
place of the mallee leaf lifting
home of the mallee fowl nesting
ears cupping a strange land’s tongue…”

Nyoongar poet Daniel Hansen speaks of his desire to connect with the land and with all people with honesty and energy.

“From the woodlands to the Sclerophyll,
Of the Eucalypt Forrest’s I know,
Within the air I can certainly feel,
A benevolence which resembles that of Home…” (Koolark-Home)

Our final poet Luke Sweedman, who happens to be the seed collector for Kings Park, gives us an intriguing insight into seed-collecting trips into the desert.

“I held the paper bag with the seeds we collected fresh
from the lost flowering mallee that was found alive”. (Exploration in mallee)

The Trail offers a fresh and delightful way to connect with poetry and nature and to realise how one can inspire us to better care for the other. Of all the events I attended at Writer’s Week, this blend of location, performance and the written word was the most moving expression of the themes of creativity and diversity underpinning Yeoman’s festival.

Pictured top: A sun-flecked morning as Nandi Chinna reads her poetry at King’s Park. Photo Elizabeth Lewis

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Grandmother Por Por and Ting Ting in martial arts poses with a worried Celeste looking on
Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Barking Gecko’s ghost buster

Perth Festival review: Barking Gecko Theatre, A Ghost in my Suitcase ⋅
Heath Ledger Theatre, February 26 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The supernatural children’s adventure A Ghost in my Suitcase opened at Perth Festival last night. Playwright Vanessa Bates’ adaption of Gabrielle Wang’s novel had its premiere in Melbourne last year, played Sydney Festival in January and has finally arrived in the home town of its creators Barking Gecko Theatre.

Barking Gecko is renowned for empathic, playful children’s theatre, and now it can add thriller to the catalogue! Directors Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton have captured both the hair-raising adventure and the sensual, otherworldly flavours in Wang’s novel.

When twelve year old Celeste arrives in China her observations of the sounds, images and even the smells (garlic!) she encounters invites us into her experience of otherness. As her journey of self discovery unfolds we meet grandmother Por Por and Ting Ting and discover the family history of ghost hunting.

Quirky ‘journey’ cameos (bicycle riding, a leaking bus, a sampan boat) are interspersed with scary ghost hunting scenes, linked by Celeste’s reflections. Rachel Dease’s sound design sets the tone for each scene; gentle gongs and burbling water contrast with thunderous explosions and a singing voice (Celeste’s) that is darkly edged with distortion.

Por Por rides a bicycle with Celeste sitting on the back
A quirky journey scene. Amanda Ma as Por Por and Alice Keohavong as Celeste. Photo Stefan Gosatti.

The white boxes and frames of Zoe Atkinson’s set design are rearranged and stacked to frame the action and provide backdrops for Sohan Ariel Hayes’ stunning video projections. The cliffs and mist of Cloud Island are particularly beautiful.

Some scenes like the ghost under the bed are the stuff of childhood nightmares, lit by Matthew Marshall in spooky reds or with strobe lighting. But they are balanced by humour and provide opportunity to witness Celeste’s gutsy resilience. Of course Wang’s ghosts aren’t just external. The biggest challenges for Celeste are the ghosts of her heritage and her grief, hovering in the background and bringing real weight to the story. With Por Por and Ting Ting at her side these and all the other ghost complaints are successfully resolved.

The most important part for my eight year old companion was the fight scene where Celeste and Ting Ting work together. And we’ll never look at goldfish the same way again!

Alice Keohavong is endearing as Celeste, Amanda Ma is a multifaceted Por Por and Yilin Kong pulls some cool martial arts moves as the aloof Ting Ting. They are supported by John Shrimpton and Frieda Lee in various roles.

A Ghost in My Suitcase continues until March 3. Suitable for children aged 8+.

Picture Top: Celeste (Alice Keohavong) watches as Por Por (Amanda Ma) and Ting Ting (Yilin Kong) battle a ghost. Photo Stefan Gosatti.

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Two singers stand with arms outstretched while dancers move around them
Dance, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

New parameters

Perth Festival Review: The British Paraorchestra, The Nature of Why ⋅
Heath Ledger Theatre February 21 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

There are multiple things happening at once in the British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why. Musicians with disabilities are in the spotlight and the audience is on the stage too, co-mingling as ‘revered accomplices’ according to English conductor and Paraorchestra founder Charles Hazlewood.

Hazlewood’s eloquent invitation before the performance began to ‘be curious as physicist Richard Feynman was curious’ disguises a challenge. Because as we process onto the stage, surrounded by chanting musicians, dancers, wheelchairs and instruments, it is clear the artists have the upper hand. They know what is about to unfold around us and we don’t.

Hazlewood and his orchestra of disabled musicians made their debut at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with the goal of disrupting the barriers around our expectations of disability and our experiences of traditional orchestral music. In this production, created in 2018, they also quietly flip power on its head.

Wheelchair bound Caroline Bowditch’s choreography blocks performers and the audience into shapes and places we are barely aware of. A blind violinist clearly knows where he is going while the audience is on the back foot trying not to get in the way. But it unfolds with such gentle joyousness that it is only afterwards these role reversals become clear. At the time it is all about the immersive experience.

I feel the hot breath of a dancer on my foot, the reverberation of percussion on my skin and the constant movement of people brushing by. I have a heightened alertness to the moments of pathos and joy expressed around me. Am I in the way? I want to join in.

The Heath Ledger Theatre stage is framed by Hazlewood and the string players of the Perth Symphony Orchestra at one end and a battery of percussion at another. In between wander musicians (amplified through speakers above our heads), dancers (there are only four but it feels like more because the musicians often join in) and the audience.

The dancers and musicians use contact improvisation to weave a dance built from shared weight, touch and awareness. It is by its nature measured and responsive, with slow lifts and entwined limbs. Bodies coagulate and disperse, reforming elsewhere. Out of nowhere a line of dancers form with arms floating like wings, lit by a corridor of light.

Cameos pop up in corners including a particularly delightful pas de deux between a dancer and a musician in a wheel-chair whose horn rests on his lap while he spins. A string bass player establishes a walking bass line groove while a dancer literally gives legs to the instrument, crab-walking around the stage with the bass in his lap.

Two people in wheelchairs entwine hands and a singer engages an audience member as dancers, musicians and audience mingle.
The mingling of dancers, musicians and audience. Photo Toni Wilkinson

The work is structured around audio recordings of Feynman discussing the attraction and repulsion of magnets. The American Nobel-prize winner’s constant refusal to draw definitions that might be limited by his own frame of reference provides a theoretical backdrop for Hazelwood and his creatives to question the parameters we put around music and dancers, performers and audience, those with a disability and those without.

Composer Will Gregory from the electro-pop duo Goldfrapp creates sections of semi-improvised music in response to the audio excerpts. It is riff-based; built from a rhythm or walking bass line and layered with the colours of bass clarinet, strings, harp, percussion and luscious electric guitar. Two sopranos float above the texture, joined by the glorious calls of the horn. The rhythms invite movement and the harmony has a plaintive yearning.

Bit by bit the audience responds, enticed into the dance by an ecstatic crescendo which evaporates at its peak into sudden silence. There is a sense of disappointment that the new world we created has finished too soon. Also pride at the parameters we ‘accomplices’ have inadvertently expanded thanks to the guiding hands of the Paraorchestra and friends.

The Nature of Why continues until February 23.

Pictured top: Sopranos Joanne Roughton-Arnold and Victoria Oruwari with arms outstretched as dancers move around them. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

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Freddy Kempf
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Russian romance and jazz

Perth Festival review: Freddy Kempf ⋅
Government House Ballroom, February 17 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

The Perth Festival over its long history has enticed dozens of first-class pianists to our concert halls, and London-born pianist Freddy Kempf is another name to add to an already impressive list.

Kempf’s soloist style can best be described as aggression leavened with passages of pure lyricism and subtlety. Playing with confident bravura he brilliantly essayed two of the great Russian composers of the repertoire: Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Sonatas by both composers made up the bulk of his program, each a masterclass in passionate, daring performance of what are complex, demanding works.

Seated at the great beast that is the ballroom’s Fazioli grand, the 41-year-old pianist played with an assurance, muscularity and musicality that suggested we were witnessing an authoritative voice in the highly competitive arena of the solo recitalist.

His playing of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 and Sonata No. 8 and Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 revealed their power, complexity and subtlety. But the biggest revelation was the choice of the music of Nikolai Kapustin, a composer I suspect was not well-known by the capacity Festival audience.

The Russian-born Kapustin, now aged 81, was originally a jazz pianist and composer in jazz. It is this jazz background that comes into play in his Concert Etudes which are a fusion of classical composition and jazz. There is not the improvisational aspect of jazz in his studies, but instead a brilliant coming together of musical forms in his compositional style. Kempf’s understanding of the jazz idiom was just part of his complete mastery of performance, his technique well-equipped to transition in an instant from the strictures of classical music to the more swinging, chordal structure of jazz.

His interpretation of Kapustin sounded somewhat like Andre Previn in jazz-classic mode, and it would have been enjoyable to have heard some more of Kapustin beyond the three studies presented in the second half of the program. Overall, though, his choice of repertoire was excellent and Kempf’s brilliance should long be remembered as a Festival highlight. Hopefully he will return.

Pictured top: Freddy Kempf plays with confident bravura. Photo supplied.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Blissed out minimalism

Perth Festival Review: Cat Power ⋅
Chevron Gardens, Elizabeth Quay, February 14 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅

It was the kind of blessed Perth night when, on the way to the gig, you see women in burqas gleefully splashing in rainbow-hued water fountains. Not too hot, not too cool, wondrously still. Sure, the venue might be named after a multinational oil company, and sure, Elizabeth Quay might be a strangely treeless urbanscape, but Perth was feeling pretty rosy on Thursday night as a capacity crowd welcomed American songstress Cat Power to the stage.

The Atlanta native’s onstage reputation precedes her – and not in a positive way.  Chan Marshall is a performer who wears her heart firmly on her sleeve and while her talent is never in dispute, the quality of her live performances frequently is. Past performances have attracted some rather savage reviews due to her reluctance onstage – she’s like the anti-Elvis Costello – you never know what to expect. Who can forget the cruelly abbreviated show at the Fly By Night in 2003?  A good show at The Astor in 2010 won back hearts but her last Festival show in 2013 was a clanger, with Marshall full of apologies. Happily, for this Valentine’s crowd, the fourth visit to Perth for the artist was marked by a mood of blissed-out grace.

Opening proceedings was Cross Bones Style, a fan favourite taken from what is widely considered her masterwork – 1998’s Moon Pix.  The crowd firmly in hand, Marshall’s soaring voice acted an aural beacon for the rest of the show.  Certainly there was little to see – a dimly lit stage, conspicuously devoid of any spotlight, kept the star well obscured.  But when you have a voice like Marshall’s, perhaps you don’t need visual input?  From the throaty whisper of He Turns Down to the anthemic Woman from her latest offering Wanderer, she sang without reserve, often with the barest accompaniment. Marshall’s voice is the focal point of her music – the instrumentation, while often gorgeous, drops away into the background. She always sounds as though she’s giving away parts of her soul when she sings – it is focused, intensely personal and raw. No wonder then that performance sometimes seems a task too great.

Musically speaking, it was a generous set – old gems set alongside newer material with snippets of covers and medleys – bits of Glen Campbell’s take on These Days; a line from Dark End of the Street – thrown in for good measure, but always incorporated and made her own. The more contemporary songs had an almost modal quality – stripped back to a single instrumental phrase that was then worked around and around with her vocals.  The effect was circular, almost hypnotic, the crowd lulled into a soft summer fugue.

The majesty of Marshall’s voice seems to attract a particularly high calibre of accompanists – past efforts have recruited The Dirty Three, Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder.  For this series of shows, she plays with an accomplished band, including a remarkable multi-instrumentalist proficient on mellotron, bass and baritone guitar.  In the darkness of the staging, the players were all but anonymous, but the sonics spoke for themselves.  Marshall’s sparse songs were brought to vivid life, drawing upon an eclectic range of musical traditions (rock, blues, punk, soul) to create a distinctively minimalist sound, full of space and sadness.

Were her voice less impressive, or the weather not as beatific, the complete absence of stagecraft might have been disappointing. But as Marshall’s voice wafted over the still, warm air, the crowd was grateful.  “Thank you for accepting my soul!”  She said as she left the stage, seemingly as gratified by the experience as the sated crowd.

Pictured top: Cat Power. Photo Eliot Lee Hazel. 

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Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

What did you say, Ned?

Perth Festival review: Lost and Found Opera, Ned Kelly ⋅
No.1 Mill, Jarrahdale, February 15 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Ned Kelly as an opera succeeds on a number of levels. It’s an unusual venue in the country, a smooth orchestra, strong performers, a well-drilled chorus, a story that is familiar to Australians. So what could go wrong?

It’s an acoustic disaster, that’s what’s wrong. With the singers unmiked, even though they sing in English, the cavernous space with its corrugated iron roof and open ends snatches away the words that spring from the mouths of the performers to the point where it is extremely difficult to understand what they are saying.

And that means it is impossible to follow the action as librettist Peter Goldsworthy deconstructs the life of Ned Kelly and reassembles it in short, choppy scenes that track backwards and forwards over his career as Australia’s most famous bushranger or bandit, or perhaps most controversial folk hero.

A crowd of colonial settlers at tables with a barmaid serving.
Fiona Campbell and the community chorus. Photo Toni Wilkinson

The opera starts promisingly enough with mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell as Ned’s mother Ellen standing centre-stage on the bare concrete floor of the abandoned Jarrahdale mill and telling the back story of the Kelly  family to the tune of The Wild Colonial Boy, one of two folk tunes appropriated by composer Luke Styles. Her diction is good in the opening number, but as the rest of the cast populate the stage the poor acoustics lead to bewilderment on the part of the audience.

“Can you understand what they are saying?” I ask my wife beside me on the comfortable scaffolding seating with its cushion on each seat. “No,” she says. As we file out after the show I ask if other people had been able to hear what the singers were on about. The answers were also negative.

Had the opera been sung in Italian we would have had surtitles, but I guess such technology would have spoiled the rustic atmosphere of the setting, which was entirely suitable to the colonial history of the story.

The acoustics of the venue is the culprit in the opera’s lack of comprehension because the singers, led by Sam Dundas as Ned, perform with admirable precision to music that is colourful and dramatic, (performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Chris van Tuinen). Composer Styles occasionally gives them difficult notes to negotiate in the sung-through style that owes more to Benjamin Britten than Verdi, so it is understandable that diction is sometimes going to be a problem.

Another problem, less serious, is that the expectations in the publicity material of some kind of gender-bending, off-the-wall production were never met. The production (directed by Janice Muller) has quite a traditional feel; there’s nothing to frighten the horses in its story-telling style. At one point one of the Kelly gang dons a dress, but I couldn’t grasp the meaning of this historical point (once again, defeated by acoustics).

My advice if you want to enjoy Ned Kelly: read up beforehand on the synopses in the program and take a torch to keep up to date on the progress of the scenes. That way it may be a fulfilling operatic experience.

In a strange way, despite the lack of comprehension of the meaning of each scene, Ned Kelly is a pleasurable experience. In the end, it was worth the hour’s coach ride from the city to be part of the Festival’s colourful history of new performances. But there is a lingering dissatisfaction that the question of the legacy of Ned Kelly – folk hero or cold-blooded killer? – was never answered.

Ned Kelly continues until February 19.

Pictured top: Sam Dundas performs with admirable precision as Ned Kelly. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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