Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Kelemen Quartet review


Musica Viva has a tradition of encouraging young quartets. Their latest ‘discovery’ is the Kelemen Quartet, winners of the Musica Viva prize at the 2011 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. The Hungarian group began their Australian tour in Perth with an intriguing program which paired quartets with fugal finales by Haydn and Beethoven alongside a world premiere by Ross Edwards and a work by their compatriot Bartok.

As you would expect the group gave an engrossing performance of Bartok’s Fourth Quartet with graceful melodiousness and muscled interjections. The extended string techniques of the second movement were well executed to create smears and sprays of sound; the nocturnal atmosphere of the third movement was also effectively conveyed.


Ross Edwards was present for the premiere of his String Quartet No 3 Summer Dances which blended an interest  in the Australian environment, mysticism, medieval plainsong and rhythmic patterns inspired by insects with, as the composer put it, ‘radically eccentric eclecticism’. Perhaps most striking was the similarities with Bartok’s quartet. Both had five movements with a central nocturne and both layered vivid patterns to construct compelling emotional tableaus. The (I think unintentional) pairing of the two emphasised the folk nature of Edwards’ accented offbeats and the organic origins in Bartok. In the hands of the Hungarian musicians Edwards’ delicate textures had a dark intensity and there was a gypsy twist to his rhythms.


 Beethoven and Haydn came off less successfully. Haydn’s Opus 20 Quartet in C major suffered from intonation issues and the quartet struggled to find the more subtle but vital rhythmic poise of the classical string quartet. In the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth String Quartet the opposing themes were contrasted with great antagonism but the andante movement was laboriously slow. Momentum was regained for a bristling finale where the fugue was constructed with manic frenzy. The inconsistencies of this ensemble will, I think, be ironed out as they expand their repertoire further. Their inventiveness and powerful unity - the essence of string quartet playing - will remain.

This review copyright The West Australian Newspaper 2014

Monday, 10 February 2014

Ludovico Einaudi review

It’s the first time I’ve seen so many people turn out for a new music concert. Ludovico Einaudi’s reputation had extended beyond classical music fans to fill the Perth Concert Hall with rock, pop, film music fans and patriotic Italians! The house lights dimmed to full blackout and a drum began to thud. Gentle chords on the piano grew into a soothing melody. After a few minutes the ears and eyes adjusted to the sparse sounds and dimly-lit stage and the stress of life began to fall away.
Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s ambition is for his music to illuminate thoughts and emotions. The self-effacing composer led the hypnotic two hour set from grand piano with barely a word. A six-piece band accompanied him using guitars, percussion, a string quartet and electronics. The versatile group showed impressive depth of talent, swapping instruments and creating a web of sound around the piano riffs.
Most of the pieces came from Einaudi’s latest album In A Time Lapse. Long slow crescendos were constructed from a delicate layering of rhythm and melody. Einaudi explored barely audible sounds on piano, just ghosts of notes, with an emphasis on decay; notes were allowed to linger. Pieces like Waterways, Walk and Underwood explored Einaudi’s love of nature. Orbits was particularly stunning with a lighting display involving spotlights and disco balls sending refracted light to the far corners of the concert hall while wailing electric cello and atonal harmonies added an ethereal feel.
The contemplative sounds gave way to something darker in Brothers and Newtons Cradle, revealing Einaudi’s compositional chops (he studied with Luciano Berio). Eerie harmonics on the cello grew into a storm of sound and blinding flashes of light added to the sensory assault. Fly conjured images of The Intouchables – the movie for which it was composed - while Tower was otherworldly and cartoon-like with its multiple glockenspiels sounding like a music box.
The earthy, penetrating vibe of Nightbook and Eros with the strings players vamping like gypsies was an energised conclusion. I was waiting to hear Einaudi share some words about his compositions – it was much too rock-concert for program notes - but all he did was introduce the band. A shame, really, because a glimpse into the philosophies behind this thoughtful superstar of classical composition would have been fascinating.
This review copyright The West Australian newspaper February 2014.
 (sorry about the lack of photos, my picture uploader is malfunctioning!)

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Otello Review - WA Opera

Roughly every two years Perth Festival programs an opera with West Australian Opera and the result inevitably exceeds expectations. This year  the collaboration broadened to include 5 other opera companies - New Zealand Opera, Cape Town Opera, Opera Victoria, State Opera of South Australia, Queensland Opera - in a massive tri-nation extravaganza.

Verdi's Otello was given a reworking by director Simon Phillips. The action was set below deck on an aircraft carrier - hooray for fresh ideas - with walls dropping open to reveal the ocean or a helicopter arriving or the pier crowded with people. The cold light (Nick Schlieper) and clean lines (designer Dale Ferguson) of this claustrophobic man's world was an effective backdrop to the hot-blooded emotions of Boito's characters and Verdi's music.

Otello was sung by Italian tenor Antonello Palombi with a magisterial voice that lingered tenderly in his love duets and grew ever more explosive until his final shattered aria. The malleable Otello was contrasted with a marble Iago, powerfully sung by James Clayton, grim and menacing under red flouro lights as he declared his devilish 'credo'.

Cheryl Barker sang Desdemona with utter conviction although her 'Willow Song' drooped in pitch. Fiona Campbell was an attentive Emilia and Henry Choo's bright tenor was well suited to Cassio.

The WA Opera  Chorus under new Head of Chorus Joseph Nolan and with additional members from Cape Town Opera Chorus sung with a power and conviction I haven't heard for years. WA Opera director Joseph Colaneri proved why Otello is his favourite opera, leading the WA Symphony Orchestra in a polished and secure performance from the stormy opening to the poignant instrumental solos. (Although I must mention the awful pitch problems in the cello section!) I think Colaneri may have converted some new Otello fans in Perth, and I am very excited about the rest of the WA Opera season under his helm.

More reviews:

One show to go on Feb 11th, book here.

(Apologies for the lack of photos, my picture uploader is proving faulty!)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

FREE Classroom Activity - Women of Note

Women of Note is hitting the schools!

Fremantle Press has put together a teaching activity resource to accompany my book Women of Note.

The Teaching Activity targets secondary school music and history students and gives an overview of Women of Note with suggested activities and links to the Australian Curriculum. Students listen to compositions from Australian women composers and investigate aspects of the works using perspectives such as history, culture, meaning and interpretation. The investigation helps students to make meaning of their own world and to understand the world views of others.

It's all very professional but the gist of it I hope is that students get to listen to some of the music and read some of the stories from the amazing women I met while writing Women of Note. It is all so varied and fascinating, sometimes scandalous, sometimes inspiring. I have also been presenting seminars/author talks to English and Music students and I love watching them get engrossed in the music and consider the notion of a career in the arts.

If you are interested please go ahead and use the Teaching Activity, or pass on to those you think might be.


... complete it for yourself!!

I will post the details in my next blog.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Think refined British elegance and lush classical sound. This is the reputation that precedes the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the iconic British orchestra founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958. The orchestra’s mission is to take their interpretation of classical music to all parts of the world and they travel widely with fifteen tours a season and over 100 concerts a year. But they haven’t been to Perth for at least twenty years and the sun-deprived Brits are relishing a chance to exchange London’s winter for some of Perth’s glorious February sunshine.

“It will be pretty bleak in London in February and the Perth Festival is so beautiful,” says Gabriel van Aalst, director of artistic planning and operations.

The Australian-born van Aalst was orchestral manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra before relocating to London in 2011 and is the perfect person to quiz on the unique aspects of the Academy.

Gabriel van Aalst
“I get to see them play most – more than anyone else in the world!” he quips.

One of the distinctive aspects of the ensemble is that it functions without a conductor. Marriner established the Academy as a chamber orchestra and it remains conductor-less, even when performing large-scale works like Elgar’s Enigma Variations with 70 musicians on stage.  

 “The eye contact and musicianship required to perform big works without a conductor is noticed by the audience, they can feel the extra frisson,” says van Aalst. “The chamber ensemble feel permeates our concerts and puts a sparkle in the air. It all starts with the rehearsals which involve lots of discussion. The musicians are listened to.”

The orchestra’s management structure is also democratic, operating without a CEO or manager. Van Aalst works with music director Joshua Bell, Marriner, guest conductor Murray Perahia and a committee of players to shape the orchestra’s repertoire. He also liaises with sponsors and booking agents to plan each touring season. It is a lot of stakeholders to balance and must require a large amount of diplomacy.

“Diplomacy is very important,” he agrees, “And my diplomacy skills say don’t talk about it!”

Van Aalst recalls a card he received from Marriner’s wife Molly, who in the early days ran the orchestra from her kitchen table.

“When I joined the team she sent me a card saying, ‘Sometimes you play for love, sometimes you play for money, but you never jeopardise artistic value’. That core value is what unites and gives the orchestra stability.”

                                                                                                                    Sir Neville and Lady Molly
The Academy was established early on as a recording as well as touring orchestra. They have made 500 recordings to date including award-winning soundtracks to films such as Amadeus and The English Patient. The orchestra also operates entirely commercially without any government funding which is rare in the UK. And while orchestras worldwide have suffered from slashed government funding, the Academy’s commercial model has withstood the financial crisis. Three quarters of their income is from generated from artistic activity and one quarter or about £500 000 from corporate sponsors, donors and friends.

The Academy prioritises investing in young talent and has nurtured the early careers of among others the violinists Joshua Bell and Julia Fisher. The Perth tour will be the orchestra’s first concert with rising star Michael Barenboim, the son of conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim. For the past ten years the 27 year old violinist has been concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and his 2013 debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won rave reviews.

“Everything I’ve heard him do has blown me away. It is doubly hard when you carry a name like that because you have to be doubly as good. And I think he is.”

Michael Barenboim
Barenboim will perform the Mozart’s Fourth and Fifth Violin Concertos in two concerts on February 21 and 23. The program will also include Mozart and Haydn symphonies – standard classical fare which will showcase the orchestra’s famous classical era sound. Van Aalst is keen to challenge the stereotype and showcase the orchestra’s versatility so he has also programmed Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings and a bassoon concerto by English composer Judith Bingham.

At nearly 90 years of age Marriner is still involved but Joshua Bell was appointed director of the orchestra in 2011. His first album with the orchestra (performing Beethoven’s Seventh and Fourth Symphonies) debuted at #1 on the Billboard Classical Chart. Van Aalst describes the virtuoso violinist as a near-perfect fit.

                                                                       Joshua Bell

“He has that amazing lush string sound but also a vibrancy; not many are able to straddle both. His Beethoven recordings have lit a fire in the UK music scene. In some ways he and the Academy are like Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in that both are led by a dynamic, engaging violinist.”

The orchestras have a very different sound but Van Aalst says Perth audiences will hear similarities to the ACO. “The ACO is fiery and passionate. The academy is more about long glamorous lines and beautiful full sound. The ACO also makes a beautiful sound, and the Academy can also be robust. The orchestras achieve the same things but in opposite ways.”

Perth International Arts Festival

Program 1
Fri 21 Feb, 7.30pm
1hr 50min including interval
BRITTEN Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 4
STRAVINSKY Concerto in D
HAYDN Symphony No. 45 Farewell
Artist Talk: Fri 21 Feb, pre-show at 6.30pm in foyer

Program 2
Sun 23 Feb, 2pm
2hrs including interval
ELGAR Introduction and Allegro
BINGHAM Bassoon Concerto
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 5
BARTOK Divertimento for Strings
MOZART Symphony No. 29
Artist Talk: Sun 23 Feb, pre-show at 1pm in foyer