Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Georges' Cathedral Consort in Fremantle

 It is rare to hear the St Georges’ Cathedral Consort outside its cathedral home and singing secular repertoire. The Fremantle Arts Centre courtyard’s relaxed setting was an inspired choice and an icy wind didn’t keep away the sell-out crowd. In fact the wind caused barely a rustle in the intimate courtyard and the choir’s renowned technique was beautifully showcased across a program of Negro spirituals, popular classics and madrigals.

Fremantle Arts Centre

Mozart’s Laudate Dominum might be familiar territory for cathedral singers but The Lion Sleeps Tonight certainly isn’t. The 16-voice choir pulled off the African classic convincingly with tenors and basses chanting ‘Awimbawe’ while countertenor Adam Boyt crooned the lullaby over the top. Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals was equally successful with resonant pedal notes from bass singers, a warm broadening of vibrato and thankfully no over-exuberant ‘ethnic’ appropriations. 

St Geroges' Cathedral Consort

I’d hazard a guess that this choir could make anything sound good, but conductor Joseph Nolan has a knack for sourcing outstanding repertoire and arrangements. Guest soloist Sara Macliver mellowed her silvery soprano for a Barbershop-style arrangement of Summertime and a hushed Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer she sang with sweet pleading while the choir delivered the dramatic extremes of the accompaniment. Nolan led from an electronic keyboard - a sad substitute for a pipe organ – in an immaculate performance. A moment of exquisite beauty was provided by Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. The American composer, described by Nolan as ‘like Rutter but better’, would have been delighted to hear his restful melodies sung with such delicate purity.

Sara Macliver

Three 17th century madrigals (by Bennett, Gibbons and Dowland) were sung by just 10 singers and sounded exposed in the open-air venue. It made an underwhelming start to the concert, the only weak point in the program.

Macliver compered the concert and included a revealing interview with Nolan whose ambition has been driving the choir to great success since its formation in 2008. This was a rare opportunity to hear the group and its leader up close and personal.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Betty Beath on Victims of War

While the federal government debates whether to send Australia troops to fight IS in the middle east our composers and artists are also engaging the issue.

Brisbane composer Betty Beath's iconic work Lament for Victims of War has just been re-created for YouTube, with paintings and drawings by artist David Cox. The heart-aching work speaks as deeply as it did when it was written in 1999 in response to the Kosovo conflict. The performance here is by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada.

The work has a directness and pathos similar to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but
with Betty’s distinctive and unexpected pentatonic twists (Indonesian harmonic language pervades all her music). A doleful melody pregnant with repeated notes is interrupted by passages of heavy bowing and dark energy. Sobbing string phrases are cut short at just four notes and each phrase reaches higher and higher towards an anguished climax.

Betty says "(Since the Kosovo conflict) we have witnessed the horror of more and more innocent victims of war, people of many, many races and religions who are forced to endure hardships that we can hardly imagine. David Cox has illustrated this video in response to the music. He too is filled with repugnance at the violence that causes so much suffering across the world and hopes that his paintings express some of that anger and sorrow."

The Lament has been performed in many countries in both its forms - for piano, mandolin orchestra or string orchestra. It's next 'outing' will be December 6th at the Vienna Concerthouse. The Frauen-Kamemrorchester von Osterreich Vienna have programmed the work in a concert dedicated to the life and work of Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Betty says, "It is an honour that the piece will be performed in this program which also features works by Nancy Van de Vate, Honegger and Shostakovich."

Betty Beath

It is a fitting recognition of this distinguished Australian composer, who will be celebrating her 81st birthday on Wednesday (19th December).

Betty's 80th birthday was celebrated on Noted last year in Happy Birthday Betty Beath and more information on her can be found on an earlier post on her work Transience.

Betty is one of the trailblazing composers featured in my book Women of Note.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Il Trovatore

At one moment during the opening night of Il Trovatore there was as much noise coming from the audience as from the stage. In Act Three Manrico roused his band of gypsy fighters to rescue his mother from execution and the West Australian Opera male chorus flooded His Majesty’s Theatre with hot-blooded singing. The audience reacted with an equally zealous shout of approval.

The pursuit of vengeance drives Verdi’s Il Trovatore relentlessly. We are introduced to the theme in the first scene as soldiers are spooked by the story of a gypsy woman burned to death who was avenged when her daughter tossed the Count di Luna’s brother into the fire. The story gets more sordid as we hear the daughter Azucena’s version: in her distress Azucena accidently threw her own baby into the fire. She brought up Manrico as her son instead and he promises to avenge her. Enter Leonora, the love interest of both Manrico and the Count di Luna, and the opera begins to really explode with emotions.

Azucena (Elizabeth Campbell) demands revenge from
 Manrico (Rosario La Spina)

Elke Neidhardt's 2007 production (revived by Matthew Barclay) gives political clout to the action by relocating it from 15th century Spain to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s penchant for the spectacular is evident in gallon drums of real fire, an onstage army vehicle and in the final act an elevated prison cage flooded with glaring fluorescent light (Nick Schlieper) as a stark symbol of the entrapment resulting from vengeance.

The famous Anvil Chorus is set in the aftermath of a battle scene and sung by the soldiers rather than the gypsies as they load bodies into the vehicle and assault the gypsy women. There are no anvils but the revenge theme is hammered in deeply.

Soldiers ravage the gypsy women during the Anvil Chorus

Neidhardt also highlights the humour: the love struck Leonora is teased playfully by Ines and newly enlisted soldiers enact ‘the full monty’ as they exchange their civvies for army uniform.

Soldier's enact 'the full monty'

American soprano Jennifer Rowley sang Leonora’s impossibly long phrases with unhurried beauty, revealing a glorious top end as she evolved from sensual girl to grimly resolute lover. She was well-matched by Rosario La Spina who seems to grow ever more resplendent. His Manrico was every inch the troubadour and he navigated the extremes of ‘Ah si, ben mio’ and ‘Di quella pira’ as though the role were written for him.

La Spina sings 'Ah si, ben mio' to Leonora (Jennifer Rowley)
as Ines (Fiona Campbell) watches.

James Clayton’s whole-hearted commitment painted a villainous Count di Luna even while his voice lacked the sonority of a Verdi baritone. Elizabeth Campbell was a tormented Azucena, exploiting the conflicting roles of loving mother and vengeful daughter. Fiona Campbell was an expressive Ines and David Parkin a stoic Ferrando.

The company’s artistic director Joseph Colaneri led the WA Symphony Orchestra in a vivid account of Verdi’s score always closely connected to the singers. Colaneri and head of chorus Joseph Nolan have been a revitalising combination and it is unfortunate this is the last season with the company for both of them. It is worth a ticket to Il Trovatore to witness the vocal and instrumental freshness they bring to this production. WA Opera must consider how to better retain artists of this talent. 

This review copyright The West Australian 2014.