Monday, 24 September 2012

Vienna Boys Choir review

Thanks to Anthea for her company on Saturday night, looking amazing in her hot red coat. We were both imagining our 18 month old boys on the stage singing like angels,  then realised we were being a little premature as they're not even talking yet! Here's my review:

If you were playing close attention you would have seen the wink that passed between one boy and another, or the occasional wry smile when a singer mispitched his note. It was a reminder that despite the professional focus and golden singing these were boys after all, between the ages of 10 and 14. We were witnessing the modern incarnation of the centuries-old Vienna Boys Choir.

The 20-piece choir sang with angelic sound, as expected. There was also warmth and graininess from the alto voices and an impressive range of timbre, from the purity required to sing Renaissance works by Palestrina and De Victoria to the swinging gusto of gospel and popular ballads. Soloists with bird-like accuracy and sureness of pitch during complex harmonies revealed the virtuosity for which the choir is renowned. The range of repertoire and intense concentration of the boys over two hours of performing was also impressive.

 Impressive but to be expected; this is one of the world’s best children’s choirs. So it was a surprise to discover the choir’s tendency to rush the end of phrases. When conductor Manolo Cagnin led from piano the standard of singing dropped markedly and the rhythmic precision of conductor and choir suffered. A capella works were consistently steadier, with blended tone and phrases more carefully shaped.

Songs by contemporary composers Raymond Murray Schafer and Gerald Wirth (the choir’s artistic director) involved the use of percussion, clapping and vocal effects. Schafer’s Miniwanka was particularly effective in its onomatopoeic depiction of water. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Land of Sweeping Plains was melodic with engrossing layering of voices. The choir’s uninhibited enthusiasm for these new pieces and techniques was refreshing. Ultimately it was this unsuppressed youthful engagement that satisfied most, despite the inconsistent musical standards.

This review copyright The West Australian 2012.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Percussion Birthday

"Many thanks for your wonderful article about Defying Gravity and percussion in today's West. I'm really thrilled with it; you managed to fit absolutely everything into your article; it read beautifully, and the photo is lovely too. Thank you so much from all of us in Defying Gravity!!"

Tim White, director Defying Gravity

A piece of fence, a battered wheel hub or some conch shells could all be part of the music when Defying Gravity head north for Sounds Outback. Making music from junk is all part of the training for the eighteen student percussionists from Defying Gravity. The WA Academy of Performing Arts ensemble will celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday this month with a series of concerts, the inaugural WA Day of Percussion and a tour to the Ningaloo Reef.

The student ensemble has a devoted following and their three concerts at WAAPA have already sold out. Ensemble director Tim White says the attraction to percussion comes from deep in our DNA.  

“Percussion is so clearly from the earth and our distant past. There is something primal about playing it – you whack it with your hands. It is so natural, everyone can do it.”

The percussionists will be scouting instruments from Exmouth station junk for their Sounds Outback tour which will include a concert at Shothole Canyon and on a glass bottom boat.

“I’m thinking John Cage’s Second Improvisation ‘Inlets’ for amplified conch shells will be a good piece to program,” says White. “The exciting thing about Sounds Outback is that it is heading back to nature. Percussion is a great instrument for outdoors and for exploring boundaries. It is the most exciting instrument in new music because it has helped open the doors in the exploration of rhythm and timbre as equal building blocks to melody and harmony.”

The tour will be a combined birthday party with Tura new music who also celebrate 25 years of music making. The organisations have worked together closely over the years and White is delighted to be participating in another Sounds Outback.

“I am very much a Tos Mahoney (Tura director) fan. He has put that much of his heart and time and money into new music in WA and I think he is a heroic figure.”

White, who is also principal percussionist with the WA Symphony Orchestra, has been directing Defying Gravity since 1994 when he inherited the ensemble from founder Gary France. Since then the ensemble, which includes students from both the University of WA and WAAPA, has produced 53 graduates. 75 percent are still working full time in the music industry including Marcus Perrozzi (Cirque du Soleil), Genevieve Wilkins (London’s ensemblebash) and the many percussionists who have played with WASO and Tetrafide Percussion.

Gary France is contributing a birthday present in the form of a piece of music he has written for Defying Gravity. France will also perform at the concerts and present sessions at the WA Day of Percussion alongside other high profile guest artists including Iain Robbie, Joshua Webster and Japanese percussion superstar Kuniko Kato.

“Kato has astounding virtuosity and skill as a musician. She is a sensational marimba player. Watching her perform is like watching the best of Taiko drumming and western classical music combined.”

This is the first time WA has hosted a Day of Percussion, a phenomenon made popular in America. White hopes a day jammed with workshops, masterclasses and concerts will help profile what most people already know: Perth is alive and kicking in the world of percussion.

Sounds Outback ( Reef) runs from October 5-9. Details:

This article copyright The West Australian 2012.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Free Ticket!

Elena Kats Chernin says they sound like angels.

If anyone is interested in attending the Vienna Boys Choir (see blog below) at Perth Concert Hall on Saturday night and hasn't yet got a ticket then this could be your lucky day!

Make a quick comment about which is your fav post on my blog and you'll go in the running to get a free ticket. I'll get back to the winner by Friday.

Hope you can join me, it is going to be a stunning concert!

I Love a Sunburnt Country

Composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s favourite landscape is the Australian bush with its contrasting textures of grass and trees. She has vivid memories of her impressions of the Blue Mountains shortly after arriving in New South Wales as a teenage Russian migrant.

‘The mountains were scary; they were so high and I closed my eyes as we were driving because the walls seemed so close.’

The ‘sunburnt country’ has since become her beloved home and it is fitting Kats-Chernin has been commissioned to set to music the iconic Dorothea MacKellar poem My Country.

‘I love the poem and I’m touched that I was asked as I wasn’t born here. But I feel at home here and it is part of my heart to be in this country.’

The a capella piece will be premiered by the Vienna Boys Choir on their national tour which visits Western Australia on September 22nd. The choristers – aged between 10 and 14 – may not be able to identify with the ‘sapphire-misted mountains/ The hot gold hush of noon’ in MacKellar’s poem, but Kats-Chernin found plenty in common when she visited Vienna earlier this year.

‘The boys are great, they are so fun and alive. They have a big range and they sing wonderfully in tune. Their sound is more silvery than girls, it feels like they have a thickness to the timbre. We workshopped some ideas together and they are smart, they learn so fast.’

Initially it seemed impossible to add music to words already so powerfully and beautifully conceived. Instead of attempting to evoke landscape in the music (‘Other composers write bird and insect sounds but that is not what I do, it would sound contrived’), she chose an irregular time-signature with five beats in a bar and opted for a non-sentimental tribute.

Within a few weeks she had written Core of My Heart layering favourite phrases from the poem to create contrasting textures much like the bush landscape she loves.  ‘I love a sunburnt country’ and ‘opal-hearted country’ are repeated by altos and then sopranos and ‘core of my heart, my country!’ is declared with a sweeping melody line.

The composer says Core of My Heart’s combination of an ancient landscape and new music is well-suited to the Vienna Boys Choir, who will also sing Viennese classics by Schubert, Mozart and Strauss on their Australian tour.

‘This is a world class choir, an unbelievably great choir. It is a very old tradition but very young voices, I think it is amazing. They make a special sound; it is so pure, so angelic and very direct, it moves you to tears.’

Kats-Chernin’s music typically bubbles with enthusiasm, driven by buoyant rhythms and colourful melodies. It is also intensely autobiographical and mostly written in minor keys gently laced with melancholy.  Core of My Heart is one of the few works Kats-Chernin has set in a major key signature.

‘This is not a piece for a minor key, it is too positive, too optimistic. I chose F major and G major which are keys of fun for me, sunny yellow and orange colours.’

Kats-Chernin’s effervescent music has won her fans around the world. She is superstar of Australian composers and the subject of multiple television documentaries, with an exclusive photographer and several personal copyists. She is regularly commissioned by the world’s leading orchestras and the song Eliza’s Aria from her Wild Swans ballet made it to number one on the UK Classical Charts and has been remixed by several DJ’s.

Most recently Kats-Chernin has been residing in Berlin working on a commission from the Komische Opera to arrange Monteverdi’s operas Orpheus, Odysseus and Poppea. The complete trilogy will be premiered on September 16th to mark the beginning of Australian director Barrie Kosky at the helm of the Komishe Opera. The twelve hour performance will feature Kats-Chernin’s unique instrumentation of Monteverdi’s orchestral sketches and will involve 200 performers.

Travel is becoming increasingly difficult for the composer who is suffering from a slipped disk. When possible she prefers to be composing at her piano in the Sydney suburb of Coogee. Not far from her house is the ‘jewel –sea’ described in MacKellar’s poem.  ‘Her beauty and her terror -/ The wide brown land for me!’

Vienna Boys Choir Perth Concert Hall Saturday 8pm, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre September Sunday 2pm.

Watch this space for your free ticket!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Music Monday September 2

A bit quieter in the music world these next two weeks. Unless you're into percussion in which case it is the pinnacle of the year!

The slightly crazy Austrian Brass septet Mnozil Brass begin their Australian tour on Wednesday 19th at the Perth Concert Hall.

On Saturday 22nd we get to hear Elena Kats-Chernin's new piece performed by the Vienna Boys Choir. More on that in tomorrow's blog. The same weekend is also a series of concerts by Defying Gravity (WAAPA'S student percussion ensemble) who are celebrating their 25th birthday with concerts, the inaugural WA Day of Percussion and a tour to Ningaloo Reef as part of the Sounds Outback festival. I will post more on this popular percussion ensemble on Wednesday.

 On Monday 24th Musica Viva bring us Berlin's Kuss Quartet and Naoko Shimizu performing a program of Kurtag, Mozart, Kerry and Smetana.
If you hear anything I've missed for the month of September let me know.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Early Signs of a Happy Marriage

It’s like a new marriage, but with three partners. Australia’s newest string trio Swan Virtuosi got to know each other a little better on the weekend. It was their second concert and Margaret Blades, Sally Boud and Louise McKay had the help of chamber music experts Mozart, Schubert and Kodaly.

Schubert’s unfinished Trio D471 was a poised concert opener. Blades is normally heard fronting the WA Symphony Orchestra but here the crystalline lyricism and dark glow of her 1710 Cappa violin could be heard to full advantage. Boud’s empathic viola playing, familiar from her previous role in the Australian String Quartet, took on a more conversational role while the muscular, plaintive cello of McKay formed the foundation of the trio. Schubert’s ménage of elegant melodies revealed the lyrical potential of the group, although phrasing was not always uniform.

Kodaly’s Duo for violin and cello Op 7 had more coherence, with Blades and McKay passing musical ideas back and forth and exploring the whispers and sobbing of Kodaly’s rhapsodic folk tunes. The intimacy of just two instruments meant the players’ carefully crafted nuances could be appreciated.

The virtuosic writing in Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio exposed each instrument in turn. The trio had the extroversion and empathy required with exciting passagework in the Allegro movements (although the first movement was a little unsettled) and blended warmth in the Adagio. This was Mozart where cleanness was substituted for freedom and vehemence. The musical boldness, combined with beauty of sound, are traits that promise much for Swan Virtuosi’s future life together.

This review copyright The West Australian 2012.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Pecan Summer

You're in the minority if you're a woman composer. But an Aboriginal woman composer is a very rare thing. Deborah Cheetham has written her first opera and it opened in Perth at the State Theatre this week.

While opera houses around the world are battling bankruptcy soprano Cheetham has been establishing a new one. Short Black Opera is Australia’s first indigenous opera company. Cheetham reasons that opera - story told through song and dance - is what Aboriginals have been doing for centuries in corroboree. With the backing of industry heavyweights like Jonathon Welch (Choir of Hard Knocks), Australian soprano Rosamund Illing, the Dame NellieMelba Opera Trust and a swag of sponsors, Cheetham’s dream has become reality.

Pecan Summer is written, scored and directed by Cheetham. The opera recounts the 1939 story of the 200 Yorta Yorta people who left Cummeragunja Mission and crossed the Dhungala (Murray) river into Victoria as a protest against the withholding of wages and abuse of Aboriginal people. The opera opens with the Dreamtime creation of the Dhungala and closes with Kevin Rudd’s apology speech, but Cheetham condenses the epic story around the fictitious nine year old character Alice, a member of the stolen generation.  

The cast included indigenous singers Cheetham scouted from around Australia including the sonorous John Wayne Parsons as Alice’s father James, Eddie Bryant as Alice’s brother Jimmy and the magnificent bass baritone Tiriki Onus as Uncle Bill. Cheetham sang Alice’s mother Ella with sustained lyrical beauty. Sydney soprano Jessica Hitchcock was endearing as the young Alice and the connection between the mother and daughter made the imminent separation heartbreaking.

Dhungala locals including the newly formed Dhungala Children’s Choir were supplemented by WA indigenous singers Michael Smith, Billie Court, Tori Oakley, Patricia Oakley, Jub Clerc, Vonda Last and Michael Smith.

The singers were impressive: raw talent honed by Cheetham’s intensive Wilin summer school program. Cheetham’s neo-romantic music (orchestrated by Jessica Wells) was well-written for voice, building to a sweeping Puccini-esque climax and interspersed with comic cameo moments. The river theme, the lyrical lullaby and the musical commentary underscoring the church scene were particularly effective.

Theatrical moments were flawed: a clunky set, awkward silence between set pieces and lack of stage direction for singers. The Perth SymphonyOrchestra (conductor David Kram) often overwhelmed the dialogue.

 Still, the power of the story was persuasive and the opening night audience reacted (as did the Victorian audience at the premiere) with a standing ovation. This is one of the world’s oldest musical art forms performed by a cast of people belonging to the world’s oldest living culture. The story belongs to all Australians and Cheetham has found a fresh way of telling it.

Pecan Summer closes Saturday 8th. For tickets go to BOCS.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Swan Virtuosi

I just got off the phone to Margaret Blades. She is jetlagged and excited. She’s just toured Europe as associate concertmaster with the Asia Pacific United Orchestra and is returning to Perth for a concert with her new ensemble Swan Virtuosi. All this between her full time job as Associate Concertmaster with the WA SymphonyOrchestra.

‘You find the energy to make it happen because the chance to play this music makes it worthwhile,’ Blades said with typical enthusiasm.  

The forty-five year old has been a loyal anchor for the WASO string section for six years, adding much-needed stability during transitions between concertmasters John Harding and Giulio Plotino and principal conductors Matthias Bamert, Paul Daniel and (incoming) Asher Fisch. More recently Blades has been a mentor figure for the influx of new young string players including twenty-five year old Louise McKay.

McKay’s appointment as associate principal cello and the return of ex-Australian String Quartet viola player Sally Boud to Western Australia is what prompted Blades to form Swan Virtuosi.

‘When I heard Sally Boud was back in town I thought ‘My gosh I’m going to just jump’. Sally and Louise both play with such passion and energy and it just seemed to fit. I’m so thrilled to find players who work together so well.”

The ensemble members may have high calibre pedigree but their vision is remarkably down-to-earth.

“We want to try and play to the community, to bring music back to where it should be and give people a sense of involvement.”

Instead of performing in ballrooms and concert halls the trio’s first concert was held at the Leederville Town Hall and the free tickets were - unsurprisingly - gone within days. Their next concert, featuring Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio and Kodaly’s Duo for cello and violin, is at the Subiaco Arts Centre on Sunday.

Blades originally hails from South Australia where she studied violin at the Adelaide Elder Conservatorium and the University of Tasmania Conservatorium. She followed her sister Mary-Anne Blades (associate principal flute) to WASO in 2006 following stints with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony and ten years as associate concertmaster with the Adelaide Symphony.

Blades’ passion for music includes teaching and she has established a private string studio from her home in Leederville. Her interest in pedagogy inspired a recent trip to the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg to attend classes with the giants of French and Russian violin teaching Pierre Amoyal and Dora Schwarzberg.

“It is important living in Australia to check out what is happening around the world. Pierre Amoyal would tell anecdotes of being taught by the great Jascha Heifetz, it was great.”

Blades’ European trip concluded with the Chinese-initiated Asia Pacific United Orchestra tour. Musicians from over twenty countries met to perform in Vienna, Prague, Estonia and Helsinki and to her surprise Blades found herself sitting alongside concertmaster John Harding again.

“It was great to see him again, he is still in great form as a concertmaster. The tour was incredibly well organised with near-capacity audiences. China is a world super power and they are making things happen in the arts too. The philosophy of cultural exchange was fantastic, especially since the Asia-Pacific region is becoming so crucial to the world economy.”

With all her experience is it tempting to look for a role as concertmaster?

“I’m genuinely happy in my position as associate concertmaster. It allows more energy for chamber music and teaching. And Perth is a place where creativity can flourish if you have the support. It is an exciting place to be.”

Swan Virtuosi Subiaco Arts Centre Sunday 2pm

Monday, 3 September 2012

Music Monday September 1

Remember Jon Rose? He turned 60 this year and he also won the presitigous Don Banks award for lifetime achievement and contribution to Australian music. He features in a previous blog with a photo of the bunch of flowers he ended up giving to me. They are still in my office :-)
Anyway, he is the subject of Decibel's tribute concert on Monday night at PICA.

On Wednesday 5th Steve Reich (better known but far too predictable in comparison to Jon!) is the feature of UWA's Percussion Purity Festival, which concludes on Friday with Xentenary! celebrating the 90th birthday and 100th anniversary of Xenakis' death. Of particular interest to fans of percussionist Paul Tanner is the premiere at the Xentenary concert of one of his own compositions.

Thursday 6th is the opening of Australia's first indigenous opera Pecan Summer. Can't wait for this, will post my review afterwards.

 Sunday 9th is the second Swan Virtuosi concert - more info on this in Tuesday's blog.

Friday 14th the Australian String Quartet will team with Paul Dean to play clarinet quintets by Weber and Lehmann - time for my nerdy clarinet brain to get over-excited! Or if piano is more your thing wait till Sunday 16th for the Keyed Up concert with Sylvia Wang.

That's all for this Monday. Enjoy the music!