Review: Perth Symphony Orchestra, ‘Girls Night Out’ ⋅
Astor Theatre, May 30 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅
The Perth Symphony Orchestra is a diverse orchestra with repertoire that ranges from Mozart to George Michael. On Thursday night they added Madonna to the list for Girl’s Night Out, a concert featuring songs written by some of the greatest power women in history. Chief conductor Jessica Gethin leapt onto the podium and introduced the all-woman line up with exuberance: orchestra, singers, arrangers – even the lighting and stage crew – were all women.
The evening was about celebrating and elevating women and as Perth’s favourite soul singer Odette Mercy (Ofa Fatu) belted out Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman it was clear we were in good hands. With the help of pick-up mics and gutsy bowing the orchestra provided the rhythm section supplemented by percussion, keyboard, saxophone and drumkit. Mercy’s luscious voice soared easily over the top.
It’s tough to cover some of the greatest singers of all time but PSO’s soloists were outstanding. Contemporary singer Sophie Foster channelled Aretha Franklin with a mix of power and vulnerability that was impossible to fault. Her cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody sparkled with vitality thanks to the tasty harmonies of backing singers Alana Fay, Chelsea Cullen and Mia Matthiesson – nothing beats three-part harmony sung by voices as sweet as these.
Lucy Peach, of ‘My Greatest Period Ever’ fame, arrived on stage to sing a sleek version of Madonna’s Material Girl. Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head drooped a little but Peach’s sultry growl was perfect for Winehouse’s Rehab, with tenor saxophone solos from Erin Royer adding extra grunt.
Blues-folk singer Rose Parker delivered a heart wrenching original number She Makes Her Future before rocking out to Piece of My Heart by Janis Joplin, ‘the biggest-ovaried singer in the history of music’. Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and the Divinyls’ I Touch Myself had the audience singing along. But it was the irresistible combination of all four singers belting out the Spice Girls’ Wannabe that finally got the (mostly female) crowd dancing.
Straddling classical and popular genres is not as easy as it looks; fortunately PSO commissioned arrangements which ensured neither the song nor the orchestra come out looking foolish. Stephanie Nicholl’s visceral arrangement of Beyonce’s Single Ladies (low strings have so much grunt) , Kathy Potter’s rumba version of Franklin’s Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, and Nicholl’s plaintive string quintet arrangement of Parton’s Jolene utilised the intimacy and power of the orchestra.
As the songs rolled by with their messages of endurance, politics, love and survival, there was a sense of warm solidarity in the room. Historical facts about the songwriters were projected on a screen (did you know Nina Simone studied piano at Juilliard School?) as PSO brought a spirit of celebration and inspiration to the #metoo conversation. Unfortunately the need to elevate women was illustrated by a male spectator who verbally abused another audience member, ironically missing the memo from Aretha: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
But the music prevailed. My enduring memory will be of Odette Mercy stumbling over the lyrics in Adele’s Someone Like You as the act of singing took her on a journey down memory lane. The strings swelled beneath her achingly sweet melody line, and when she hesitated the audience took over. “It just shows the power of singing,” she explained afterwards. “Some things are cleverly hidden within and don’t come out unless you sing”.
Pictured top: Perth Symphony Orchestra bring a spirit of celebration and inspiration. Photo: Angelyne Wolf.
2 August @ His Majesty’s Theatre ·
Presented by Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
“Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…”
The Doors: one of the highest selling rock bands of all time. Jim Morrison: An American Poet. Controversial counterculture giants, together they changed music forever.
Taking their name from Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-infused book The Doors of Perception, from 1967 they released eight albums in five years to become as important and influential as greats of the era such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones.
Perth Symphony Orchestra invites you to a very special concert set to capture the very essence of Morrison and The Doors at the height of their powers, in full psychedelic glory via the trippiest orchestral show you will ever see. Witness as strings, woodwind, horns, percussion – an entire orchestra – set His Majesty’s Theatre on fire, for one night only on Friday, August 2.
When was the last time you saw a woman on the podium?
The Perth Symphony Orchestra is tackling gender imbalance in the world of conducting, with a free, three-day workshop for aspiring women conductors. This weekend selected applicants will gather for the inaugural Women on the Podium program to develop skills in orchestral conducting, musicianship and leadership under the tutelage of PSO’s chief conductor Jessica Gethin.
“I hope that in providing a platform for emerging female conductors right here in WA, we can encourage even more diversity and fostering of talent on home grounds,” says Gethin, who sat down with Seesaw for a Q&A about the new venture.
Seesaw: What inspired the Perth Symphony Orchestra to create a program to encourage future women leaders and conductors? Jessica Gethin: Perth Symphony has a mission to support and develop local West Australian talent across all areas of our industry. Over the past decade, much has been discussed globally about the lack of women conductors on the podium. It is such a difficult career to forge; there is often no obvious path to follow and rarely opportunities for podium time and proper conducting training. Our executive team identified this as an issue here in WA, when looking for conductors to assist the orchestra or cover when I am working overseas. We talked about ways we could give young leaders more visibility and possibilities to try new things. We wanted to offer a program open to all young female musicians to show them that conducting may be an option they hadn’t considered within their music training.
S: What are the essential skills young women will be learning from the workshops and masterclasses? JG: Conducting requires so many different skills, it’s impossible to cover everything in a weekend, or in a year or even in a degree! Many of these early skills are related to conducting technique on the podium, some are in the more detailed elements of musicianship and others are generic leadership skills. We wanted to touch on as many of these as we could, exploring basic stick technique and beat patterns, some score interpretation and also leading discussions about what it means to be a leader from some well respected women in the industry. We hope at the end of the weekend, the participants will have a better grasp on what may lie ahead and what opportunities they can look for if they decide to move into conducting or even creating their own ensembles.
S: Were you interested in conducting as a child? At what point did you decide to pursue a career in conducting? JG: I always knew I wanted to be a musician… from the age of seven I was convinced that is all I wanted to do! However, I had never really considered conducting as a career option. I guess I had never actually seen a women conductor at the helm until I discovered Simone Young in my late teens, the idea just hadn’t really ever occurred to me. My parents recall me waving to old recordings of the great violin concertos in my bedroom as a child, but becoming a conductor really evolved organically for me in my early twenties. As a violinist I was often in a leadership position, fascinated by the symphonic score and a natural communicator with strong ideas about phrasing and sound. I guess one thing led to another and I found myself getting more work on the podium so decided to throw myself into scores and pursue it as a full time career.
S: British conductor Alice Farnham has been part of several new initiatives in the UK designed to support and encourage women to take up roles in music leadership. What will she bring to Women on the Podium? JG: We are so thrilled that Alice is coming to Perth to drive this program, as she has a wealth of experience not just as a superb conductor, but as a conducting educator and mentor. Alice has been instrumental in identifying young musicians that have what it takes to conduct. PSO Executive Director Bourby Webster met with Alice in London and was so inspired by the work she was doing to encourage women conductors in the UK, she invited her to Perth so our local musicians could have the same level of expertise as those anywhere in the world. I was familiar with Alice’s work from the Dallas Opera’s Institute for Women Conductor’s where she was on the faculty and I was an inaugural fellow, so very excited to be working alongside her for the program.
S: Does it require a special skill set to be a conductor? What is it that prevents so many women from pursuing a vocation in this profession? JG: Yes, I believe it does require a very unique skill set, one that is demanding mentally, physically and emotionally. It requires many hours of score study, stellar musicianship and a strong sense of leadership. It has taken me years to develop the confidence to communicate what I want in the music, to be able to shape and mould a phrase, articulate it through my movements and communicate efficiently to the orchestra across a variety of genres and styles. I believe lack of opportunity, support and visibility is an issue for all conductors, with a strong male tradition making it even harder for women to get that break that they need to pursue a career internationally as a conductor.
S: It’s clear you love your job. Why should future generations of women put their hands up for conducting? JG: We have a enormous amount of musical talent here in WA; I see and hear it first hand in my work with university level music students. What we don’t have is enough opportunity and support for them to see what is really possible on a global stage; to really know what is out there, to realise how hard you need to work but also what incredible possibilities lie ahead for them. I hope this program plants the seed for some of these musicians so they can realise the impact they can have on our industry as leaders.
30 May @ The Astor Theatre ·
Presented by Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
It’s time to get some Girl Power in your life as Perth Symphony Orchestra teams up with WA’s foremost powerhouse singers for Girls Night Out. With an all-female orchestra, all-female composers and under the baton of our phenomenal Chief Conductor, Jessica Gethin, you will likely never have seen this many incredible women in one place before!
27 March @ Perth Town Hall ·
Presented by Perth Symphony Orchestra ·
Immerse yourself in the beautiful WA landscape with a concert inspired by nature. Perth Symphony Orchestra brings together the scent of Eucalyptus, a stunning array of indoor native plants and leading WA experts who will discuss the four themes of the concert; “Thriving Oceans”, “Drought Mitigation”, “Renewable Energy” and “Protecting Diversity”.
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 TheNature 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.
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.
April 9 – 22 @ Regal Theatre ·
Presented by Orana Productions ·
A West Australian original production, featuring Mirusia Louwerse as Mimma, Holly Meegan as Sarah and a wonderful interstate and local cast and crew. Directed by Adam Mitchell and featuring the Perth Symphony Orchestra under musical direction of Sean O’Boyle. Blending jazz, opera and musical theatre, ‘Mimma’ is a musical that bridges continents and cultures.
English conductor Charles Hazlewood will be in Perth in February with the British Paraorchestra. He talks with Rosalind Appleby about disabilities, the haptic baton and disrupting classical music.
When was the last time you saw a stage with disability access? Or a professional orchestra that included musicians with disabilities? In 25 years of conducting the world’s top orchestras, English conductor Charles Hazlewood had seen neither.
“If music is the great universal language how can it be that an orchestra – which is the beautiful large evidence of that – how can it be it doesn’t have people of disability in it? It’s a no brainer,” says Hazlewood.
We are talking over the phone ahead of Hazlewood’s visit to Perth with the British Paraorchestra as part of the Perth Festival. In 2010, inspired by his daughter who has cerebral palsy, Hazlewood founded the world’s first large-scale professional ensemble for virtuoso musicians with disabilities. The British Paraorchestra made their debut at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.
“Most people don’t put disability and musical excellence in the same sentence,” Hazlewood says. “We need to take the same seismic leap in music that has happened in world class sport. Look at what the Paralympics has achieved.”
But Hazlewood’s dream is not just to provide musicians with disabilities the opportunity to play in orchestras. He wants to disrupt the barriers around our experiences of traditional orchestral music.
Hazlewood and the Paraorchestra are bringing to Perth their adventurous dance and music theatre work The Nature of Why. The immersive all-age experience involves four dancers and the Paraorchestra musicians supplemented by the string players of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. The work was created in 2018 in collaboration with Australian choreographer Caroline Bowditch with music composed by keyboardist Will Gregory from the electro-pop duo Goldfrapp. Their inspiration came from the Novel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and audio excerpts from his lecture Why underpin the work. The Nature of Why erases the boundaries between audience, music and movement with musicians and dancers performing in and around the audience.
“I wanted to create one space where the performers and the audience are immersed in the piece,” Hazlewood explains. “We are putting everyone in a glorious pit together, with sound bombarding you at every side. It is a deeply exciting environment to be in.”
It was exactly this kind of immersive experience that first inspired Hazlewood to pursue a life in music. “When I was seven I was a choir boy watching an orchestra rehearse in Cheltenham town hall. The conductor said ‘You look lonely, come and sit with us’. I sat in the middle of the orchestra and there were sounds fired at me from all directions. At that moment my life shifted in its axis. It was a tremendous and addictive moment to understand and experience this large team working in an astoundingly evolved way, working together but with each individual having freedom and flexibility.”
The blurring of genres and boundaries in The Nature of Why reflects the British Paraorchestra’s goal to re-invent the orchestra for the 21st century.
“The orchestra is the guardian of a great and noble tradition; Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven are our birthright on this planet. But as an artform it has stood still for a long time. It still has the same instrumental make up of a century ago which is incredibly unadventurous especially in the light of the new musical worlds we’ve uncovered through technology.”
The makeup of the Paraorchestra includes a Baroque lute, a Celtic harp, lap steel guitar and conventional instruments. The performers are people with hearing impairment, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other disabilities, often using technology assisted devices to enable them to play their instruments. Hazlewood says the recent invention of the Haptic Baton means for the first time in history vision impaired musicians will soon be able to perform in an orchestra. Wireless transmissions from the conductor’s baton will transmit to a radio pack worn by the performer and the buzzes on their body will indicate the beat plus the space between the beat, enabling the performer to follow the ebb and flow of the music.
Hazlewood’s dream of a level playing field is one step closer.
“One day it will not be surprising for world class orchestras to include people of disability. These are musicians who play brilliantly, at the top of their game. It is the most thrilling journey.”
Seesaw is delighted to share this short film documenting the journey of 13 year old singer and songwriter Anastacia Dawes. The video follows her experience performing her original song ‘Catastrophe’ with the Perth Symphony Orchestra in front of more than 8000 people.
PSO Chief conductor Jessica Gethin fell in love with Anastacia Dawes last month after watching her story on the ABC TV documentary ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. Gethin invited Anastacia to perform at their next concert which was just a week away. In a whirlwind seven days PSO spoke to Anastacia and Micheál McCarthy transcribed and harmonised the song which was arranged for orchestra by WAAPA students Corey Murphy & Callum O’Reilly then rehearsed and performed by Anastacia to over 8000 people!
Pictured top: Anastacia Dawes with arrangers Corey Murphy and Callum O’Reilly, music teacher Scott Blanchard and Micheál McCarthy and Jessica Gethin conducting in the background. Photo: Rosalind Appleby