“The drums of Africa are powerful,” says Hope, the narrator
of Umoja. “They speak with your blood, your heart and your soul.” As he
reflects on his life as a musician he recounts the story of South African music
from girls in grass skirts to African hip hop via jazz, gumboot dancing and
gospel. It is a story of a peoples’ struggle and the irrepressible power of
As the drums begin to pound on stage men dressed in skins
and feathers crash spears onto shields as they dance. Multiple costume-changes
later the stage is strewn with beads and drum stick splinters and the
high-energy pace hasn’t slowed. The singing is gutsy and soulful and when they break
into harmony spine-tinglingly good. The dancing isn’t graceful but it is
whole-hearted, tightly choreographed and infectious. High kicks and somersaults
punctuate a sexy belly-dance style of gyrating. The performers are all ages,
shapes and sizes and they can all dance the house down; they come mostly from
the townships of South Africa and this is their own story.
Dark themes including the brutality of apartheid, the
exploitation of the mine workers and the threat of HIV sit alongside idyllic
songs from village life and church meetings. The boot slapping gumboot dance (a
method of communicating while mining) rivals Tap Dogs in its masculine athleticism.
Equally impressive is the technical skill of the marimba players and the centipede-like
use of long lines of arms and legs in the Venda Snake Dance.
A five-piece jazz band sets the scene for the illegal
drinking bars of Sophiatown and Soweto. Tribal clothes are swapped for sneakers
and bikini tops for Kwaito, the African version of hip hop which became popular
around the time Nelson Mandela took office as president. The joyful exuberance
of the performers as they danced to it was the greatest testimony that this
music and its history is in their blood and heart and soul.
Umoja runs Tuesday 19th - Sunday 24th June at Burswood. Tickets through Ticketek.
This article is copyright The West Australian 2012.
(The article reproduced below is copyright The West Australian June 2012)
When conductor Vladimir Verbitsky and his wife Nelly are met
at the Perth airport their first question is what is news? The car trip to the
hotel is spent catching up on the orchestra gossip – who are the new players,
has anyone had a baby?
After twenty-five years of commuting between Russia and
Perth the Verbitsky’s say the WA Symphony Orchestra feel like family. This
month the orchestra will celebrate their relationship with Verbitsky with a
gala concert recreating his first appearance with them in 1987. Verbitsky was
invited to conduct the orchestra after touring Australia with the USSR State
Symphony Orchestra in 1986.
“It was unforgettable, my first two or three visits to
Perth,” Verbitsky says with a husky Russian accent. “It was every time a present,
something special, like a festival. I found this orchestra special - I don’t
know why. It is a beautiful city and there are beautiful people in the
“The orchestra probably like me too,” he adds with a twinkle
in his blue eyes. “They invited me to be guest conductor and they gave me
status of conductor laureate.”
With his impressive physique, blonde hair and heartfelt
broken English, Verbitsky has become a much-loved figure with orchestra and
audience alike. He became the orchestra’s principal guest conductor in 1992 and
conductor laureate in 1998. In 2009 he became an Australian citizen in a unique
public ceremony held with the orchestra at the Perth Concert Hall.
The Verbitsky’s own an apartment in Perth but it is being
tenanted so they are dropped off at a hotel. They will be in Perth for six
weeks, which will include a concert with the WA Youth Orchestra and two
concerts with WASO. If there is time Vladimir will try to visit an art
exhibition, “I love painting very much, I think it is very close to music”, and
do some fishing, “for me the best way to relax”.
Over the decades Verbitsky has introduced to WA the jewels
of Russian repertoire and countless Russian soloists. He has seen many changes
at WASO including three chief conductors come and go.
“The level of the orchestra has extraordinarily changed. Twenty-five
years ago it was a very good orchestra, now it is a really fantastic orchestra.
It is a professional orchestra on a world scale.”
Verbitsky began his career working as assistant to Yevgeny
Mravinsky, the renowned conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic.
“It was one of the best orchestras around the world in his
time,” remembers Verbitsky, who was a graduate of the St Petersburg
Conservatory. “I was the only one allowed in rehearsals and I learnt his
precise style, his technical skills. It was a great method.”
Mrvainsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic for fifty
years, an achievement matched by only five other conductors worldwide.
Verbitsky has inherited his mentor’s loyalty (he has been chief conductor of
the Voronezh Philharmonic Orchestra for forty years), fastidious rehearsal
technique and fondness for dynamic extremes.
Percussionist Tim White has been in the orchestra since
Verbitsky’s first rehearsal, where the translator stepped aside and let
Verbitsky’s baton and expressive face do the communicating.
“Rehearsals are slow, meticulous, demanding and
astonishingly thorough,” White says. “He often asks us for extreme softness in
rehearsals – our lower strings sometimes just pretend to play! When we next
play the piece Vladimir’s interpretation of it has stayed with us. Vladimir has
shaped the sound and musicianship of WASO more than any other conductor in its
Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is legendary. After the
technical rigour of rehearsals the concerts are about communicating emotion and
the effect is dazzling, full of energy and surprises.
“I love this orchestra very much,” Verbitsky says. “I feel a
very good support and response and I feel with every concert very satisfied.”
The night of the concert involves a special regime. Nelly (a
retired professor of mathematics who now acts as general manager to her
husband) will cook a special meal.
“He likes fish before the concert. And two hours after the
concert he is very hungry and has a big meal. The orchestra give a special
treat; after the concert they bring a dozen fresh oysters to his room.”
Will they keep coming back?
Nelly looks at me in surprise. “Conductor laureate means the
orchestra are for life. Yes we will keep coming back!”
Vladimir quietly agrees.
“I am very happy with this orchestra. My life is here but my
heart is also here.”
There’s nothing more important for aspiring performers than
having an inspiring role model. When Lucy Durack arrived on stage in a
sparkling dress singing I Am What I Am from the musical La Cage
aux Folles it must have been a dream come true for the
young performers sharing the stage with her.
Durack, best known for her role as Glinda in Wicked, paid
warm tribute to her hometown as she starred in the Australian Performing Arts Network showcase. The singing, dancing extravaganza featured over 200 young
performers from Albany to Kalgoorlie taking up the training opportunity provided
by APAN directors Marina Del Basso and Hamish Mcsporran.
High-energy teenage dance routines from Chicago, Capacabana
and Footloose were interspersed with tiny tots belting out numbers from Annie
and Mary Poppins. Ballads from Les Miserables and Wicked put the spotlight on
talented young singers whose excellent diction and beautiful vocal control
would rival any professional. Managing 200 child-divas has nightmare potential
but stage production was slick with entertaining choreography and impressive
Durack’s solo sets with a three-piece band gave a platform
for her diverse talent. Her star quality package included girl-next-door warmth
(“Mum will be furious when she finds out I’ve invited you all to Friday drinks
at our house”), sparkling good looks and a versatile voice.
She drew on her music theatre chops for a big, glamorous
sound in Don’t Rain on My Parade (Funny Girl) and Popular (Wicked), adding
breathy sweetness for Rainbow Connection and Someone to Watch Over Me (Oh,
Kay!). Her low notes were rich and her high end - a little brittle in the music
theatre numbers - expanded with operatic richness in Time to Say Goodbye.In duets with Christopher Horsey (ex-Tap
Dogs) she stole the show, strapping on tap shoes for Slow Boat to China. With a
sold-out cabaret season next week at His Majesty’s Theatre and the lead role in
the musical Legally Blonde opening in Sydney in October Durack is blazing a
path for future WA talent.
Now I know how Vladimir Verbitsky has lasted 25 years. He is a mix of quiet charm, inner conviction and strong work ethic. He is also the protege of maestro Yevgeny Mravinskywho conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic for 50 years (!) and Verbitsky has inherited that old-school professional loyalty.
Then there is something about the instant connection he had 25 years ago with the WA Symphony Orchestra that even he can't explain.
Vladimir Verbitsky (with deep Russian throatiness): I found this orchestra special, I don’t know why... a beautiful
city, beautiful people in the orchestra. I felt very good with the
orchestra, very comfortable. It was unforgettable, my first two
or three visits to Perth. It was every time a present, something special, like
a festival. Now Perth is for me a second home.
Has WASO changed over the decades?
Oh the level of the orchestra has extraordinarily changed. 25
years ago it was a very good orchestra, now it is a really fantastic orchestra, very
professional. It is a professional orchestra on a world scale.
I tried to convince him to retire here with his wife Nelly, and spend more time pursuing his favourite hobby - fishing. He smiled and gave nothing away. But he promises to keep coming back.
Yes we will keep coming back! Conductor Laureate means the orchestra are for life. I am very happy with
this orchestra. It is like some sort of family. My life is here but my heart is also
To celebrate his anniversary with WASO Verbitsky will recreate the program he conducted with them 25 years ago. The concert is July 23rd. Click here for more details.