Monday, 25 March 2013

WASO and Piers Lane

There seems to be a school of English (or UK based) pianists who have earned their reputation for assured thoughtfulness rather than heart-on-sleeve showiness. Stephen Hough and Paul Lewis are two who are regular performers on Australian shores. Piers Lane is another and moments of his performance with the WA Symphony Orchestra on Friday had an almost abstract clinical accuracy. But it was an intellectualism that traversed emotional extremes.

The 24 variations in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini gave every opportunity to savour Lane’s exceptional tonal palette. A Debussian haze of spread chords and velvet arpeggios contrasted with glittering cadenzas and muscular octaves. Conductor Paul Daniel directed with precision and the teamwork between soloist and orchestra was impressive. At times the piano sound was embedded in the orchestra then moments later it would sparkle in the foreground or duet poetically with the woodwind. In the 18th variation Lane teased the ears by stretching the famed melody ahead and behind the left hand accompaniment with romantic yearning. The support from low brass and strings added rich power.

Lane took the audience to a deeper place with Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D, an encore which became the soul of the program. In Lane’s hands the simple melody intensified into a stern climax then melted in a tender conclusion where audience, orchestra – nursing instruments - and soloist lingered together in a moment of profound introspection.

Excerpts from Wagner’s Tannhauser and Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 completed the program. The lack of blend in the high strings and untidy attack – not helped by concertmaster Giulio Plotino over-anticipating entries – marred Daniel’s attempts at musical architecture. But the horn section was impressive in both and the weighty emphasis of low strings and brass produced some throbbing romantic moments.

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2013.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Orchestral Controversy

Limelight magazine have done a blind test of Australian orchestras. Fifteen critics and musicians were sent unlabelled recordings of performances during 2012 and the results were both predictable and surprising.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra came in first, which was as it should be.
Second place went to Adelaide, which is surprising but pleasing as the orchestra is brave in its programming and deserves more recognition than it gets.
Queensland Symphony came next which means they must have improved since I heard them last, although that was years ago.
The shock was Melbourne Symphony Orchestra coming in at fourth place - this will put noses out of joint! According to judges it was 'consistently placed in the bottom half of the ranking'.
Sadly WASO came second last; it seems that being the richest orchestra doesn't make it the greatest!
Tasmania trailed in last position.

The online article with more details is here:,who-is-australia8217s-best-orchestra.aspx?eid=35&edate=20130321&utm_source=20130321&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=weekly_newsletter

What do you think, is this how you would rank Australia's orchestras?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

New-look ASQ

This was my first chance to hear the Australian String Quartet since the change-over of first violin and viola. Hearing the dramatic flair and maturity of the new combination made me realise how unadventurous the previous line-up were. Below is my review published in the West Australian newspaper on Wednesday.
It is probably too early to expect the current Australian String Quartet line-up to have established their ‘sound’. The group has welcomed a new viola and first violin in the past twelve months and suffered a further shake up to their first program for the year with injured cellist Rachel Johnston withdrawing at the last minute. Despite this the quartet, with replacement cellist Michelle Wood, seemed comfortably gelled when they reached Perth, the final stop in the national tour. A combination of youthful zealousness and discerning musical interpretation helped create vivid sound worlds from the three works on the program.

Mozart’s String Quartet in D major K 499 was delivered with poise, shaped by delicate phrase endings and melodic inflection. Kristian Winther led from first violin with shining sound and fluid bowing, supported with astute  precision by Anne Horton on second violin and Stephen King on viola. Michelle Wood’s self-effacing cello contributions meant the ensemble balance was a little top-heavy at times.

The gloves were off for Louis Andriessen’s Charlie Parker tribute Facing Death. (check out the version on Youtube, much slower and less exciting.) The quartet took a fast, abrasive approach to the jazz riffs with a swinging be-bop drive (despite the absence of a rhythm section). Winther and King in particular played with idiomatic jazz groove. Andriessen’s heavy-handed jazz mannerisms become relentless around the twelve minute mark and despite the quartet’s virtuosic pace the piece seemed over-long.

The dramatic flair in Brahms’ Quartet in A minor Op 51 No 2 was appropriately understated and made a sharp contrast. The group made the most of Brahms’ ever-changing textures and each meandering phrase was an intriguing journey. The gentle transparency of the andante movement and the ghostly menuet were highlights.

The quartet continues to impress, even with last-minute changes. Let’s hope it makes the same good impression on the audience, which is dropping in subscription numbers and could do with an injection of youthful energy.


This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2013.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Orla Boylan dramatic soprano

Orla Boylan and her singing teacher sat laughing in disbelief in the La Scala opera house waiting room. It is 1995 and the Irish cell biologist had just won Milan’s prestigious ASLICO singing competition.

“I had never imagined a career as a singer,” the down to earth diva say\\SLs. “It was only a hobby that suddenly became more serious. I’m only just now believing it possible.”

Now in her forties, Boylan is relaxing in front of the fire enjoying a moment at home in Skerrie, north of Dublin. Despite her lack of institutional training as a singer (her university degree is in science) Boylan has achieved impressive results as a lyric soprano and is now moving into the vocal fach of a dramatic soprano. Her hectic freelance schedule this year involves reprising Senta (The Flying Dutchman) in various corners of the globe including Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Russia and Taiwan. This week she is in Perth for a lieder recital and orchestral performance with the WA Symphony Orchestra.
Borlan’s first visit to Perth was for La Boheme with WA Opera in 2002 and she returned as Procne in Love of the Nightingale (which won her a Helpmann Award), soloist in Britten’s War Requiem, Ellen in Peter Grimes and Chrysothemis in Elektra. Borlan’s penchant for hefty roles and dark subject matters comes as a surprise given her bubbly personality. 

“I like the dark characters,” she admits. “It is about expressing things everyone has inside but you don’t usually get to show. It’s quite cathartic.”

Boylan will perform in a more intimate setting when she launches WASO’s new international recital series at the Government House Ballroom on Monday. The recital will give Perth audiences a chance to see principal conductor Paul Daniel performing on piano, an instrument he studied parallel with conducting at the Guildhall School of Music. Boylan and Daniel often worked together during Daniel’s tenure at the English National Opera but this is their first time together in recital. The repertoire includes songs by Sibelius, Barber, Richard Strauss, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

The Masters Series orchestral concert this weekend will feature Boylan singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs, pieces she has been singing since she was 23.
“I heard the Four Last Songs on CD and took the music to my singing teacher and said ‘I want to learn this’. How precocious wanting to sing Strauss in my early twenties! But that was how I learned the repertoire, by finding recordings I liked.”

Her first performance of the songs with orchestra was in 1995 for Ireland’s VeronicaDunne Singing Competition with Joan Sutherland as one of the judges. Boylan won the competition and afterwards met Sutherland.

“She was this major megastar talking to me like she was my grandmother. She said, ‘Marvellous breath control, how do you manage it?’ and I said, ‘You’re asking me?’”

Boylan has since performed the songs with La Verdi under Xian Zhang, the Sinfonieorchester St Gallen under Jiri Kout and the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder.

“It is beautiful music to sing, like floating on honey. The orchestra is like supportive air beneath, keeping you buoyant. I am so grateful to Richard Strauss for writing so beautifully for voice and I’m so grateful to be a soprano.”

Boylan’s gradual transition into the dramatic repertoire of Wagner and Strauss has met with critical acclaim. The Times reported a “radiance and warmth in Strauss’ lines that is matched by tender insight in the word-painting”.

Boylan says the repertoire is a constant challenge. “It takes all my strength, energy and focus. It is a challenge to technique and to stamina; you are singing with your entire body and there is no settling for mediocrity.”

This article copyright The West Australian 2013