Monday, 23 February 2015

WASO's El Sistema-inspired music education program

In 2000 I heard an impassioned colleague talk about the music education program in Venezuela. She had just returned from visiting the El Sistema music program which works with disadvantaged children using music as a transformational tool. The ground-breaking program emphasises intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping central the joy and fun of musical making.

"El Sistema's primary focus is to create a daily haven of safety, joy and fun that builds every child's self-esteem and sense of value."

The results  - both social and musical - are astounding. In Venezuela the program has changed the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of the country's neediest children. El Sistema graduates like Gustavo Dudamel and Edicson Ruiz are stunning the international music world with their talent and dynamism.

And now the El Sistema program has inspired the education team at the WA Symphony Orchestra to bring the joy of music to primary schools in Kwinana. This is fantastic news!

Oh and I forgot to say, the program is FREE!

What do you think, could music have the same transformational impact on West Aussie kids' lives?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Aled Jones 2015 Australian tour

“Well you are a small but beautifully formed audience,” Aled Jones said peering at the crowd of 130 or so who had gathered for the launch of the Welsh singer’s national tour. We were all surprised that the star of BBC’s Songs of Praise and Strictly Come Dancing had been relegated to Astor Theatre’s tiny upstairs Lounge. “I would say get up and dance, but don’t!” Jones quipped at the audience who were crammed knee to knee.

Competition with the Perth Festival had obviously affected ticket sales but Jones still had a few things going for him: an audience of die-hard fans, an excellent sound engineer and an endearing sense of humour.

Supported by his musical director Ian Tilley on keyboards and acoustic guitarist Mike Ferrar, Jones presented hymns, pop anthems, music theatre numbers plus pieces from his thirtieth album At the Heart. The musical accompaniment was sparse but Rosco Stewart’s sound engineering gave a cathedral-like resonance to Jones’ supple baritone. From the tenderness of Make Me a Channel of Your Peace to the surging power of You Raise Me Up Jones had the audience spell-bound. His vocal technique was impeccable under the scrutiny of an intimate venue and his warm personality even more apparent.

There were awkward moments - two underwhelming instrumental pieces in the first set, frequent guitar smudges and a rather lame version of Amazing Grace – but Jones seemed to be really enjoying himself. “This room suits my kind of music... I feel like I’m singing in your lounge room”. He indulged in extra stories, an unplanned a capella Welsh folk song and even a short rendition of his boy soprano signature tune “Walking in the Air” just to prove he could still sing falsetto. The Aled Jones charm worked its magic and we left utterly convinced we were perhaps the smallest but the most important audience in his career.

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper February 2015.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot launch

Brad Cohen 

Welcome to the inaugural Celebrity Soft Spot!

Each month an artist will be interviewed showcasing their exciting work in WA. To launch the series we get behind the scenes with Australian conductor Brad Cohen who has just snared the top job at WA Opera. Brad is energised and disarmingly honest, with a soft spot for bel canto and wind surfing among other things. Brad arrives in Perth on February 25th and it is easy to see why everyone at WA Opera is buzzing...

Why are you joining WA Opera? Be honest was it the beaches, the weather?
Well, I was born in Mauritius, probably the most beautiful place on earth, with plenty of beaches and lots of weather! So no, it wasnt that. Im taking up the role of Artistic Director with WAO because I love and respect the team there, I believe in the future of opera for the State and region, and the timing (with the National Opera Review and our 50th anniversary year in 2017) is perfect.

Audiences in Perth are protectively proud of our state opera company. But were also getting a little bored (not another Madam Butterfly...). What are your plans for the company?
WAO currently offers the operatic equivalent of a four-course meal to our audiences across each season - four productions, including Opera In The Park. Now steak frites is a delicious main course, and I love to eat it, but if I was offered it time after time, its appeal would pall. By extension, I want to create a balanced, diverse operatic menu for WAO. There are plenty of major, core repertoire operas which Perth has either never or not recently seen.

What music gets your heart racing?
Music fills my waking life (and quite of a few of my sleeping dreams as well). At the moment Im listening a great deal to Richter playing Schubert piano sonatas. But Uptown Funk is also on my playlist

What calms you down?
I balance myself through exercise, particularly swimming and cycling. I love to read when time allows, and baking (sourdough breads in particular) is a passion.

What do you sing along to?
I sing non-stop in my head, to all sorts of things. When I hear music in my head, I am always singing. But my choirboy days are far behind me. And my singer friends take pleasure in mocking me when I sing their lines in rehearsal.

Composer Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
I think no-one fully understands why we make music - its source must lie deep in our limbic brains. I have often wondered why music took possession of my life in the way it has, and I dont have a neat answer. But there are clearly emotional, healing, and fantasy elements to music, beneath the sounds. Something in it compels many of us to embrace it.

You have a soft spot for bel canto opera what is the appeal of this repertoire?
The singing voice lies at the core of opera - it is its power. That vibrating throat is the basis of everything I do in music, and I believe all musical expression ultimately originates in the voice. The bel canto approach, where the singing voice is extended, refined and polished to create the most beautiful line possible, is a touchstone to which I constantly return.
There is no school for conductors. How did you learn your trade?
On the contrary, there are many schools for conductors, and I went to most of them! But your question hints at the real learning, which (unfortunately for many orchestral musicians) only really takes place on the podium. The music, in a way, is the easy bit. Bernstein said conducting was 5% music, 95% management. All the elements - rehearsal technique, stick (baton) technique, emotional intelligence, motivating, inspiring and leading - are what take a long time to learn. And - honestly - Im still at the foothills.

Conductors are meant to be confident, assured, brimming with authority. How do you cope with nerves?
Thats the Mills & Boon version of the conductor. We all have self-doubt, anxieties, and frustrations. I dont suffer from nerves much, and I thank my early days as a boy chorister for professionalising me before I was aware it was happening!

You were a mentor on the BBC2 TV series Maestrowhat sort of tips you give to young conductors? What makes a good conductor?
Good conductors simply encourage and co-ordinate the energy of their colleagues and performers. The advice I would give to young conductors is the same as Simon Rattle gave to me: Keep going!

Watch Brad Cohen in Air Studios, London, rehearsing Jonathon Dove's TV opera Man on the Moon.

Do you ever get into arguments with people who say opera is outdated and exclusive? What do you say?
I dont argue in those situations. The classical music industry needs to acknowledge its own part in both patronising and alienating its audiences over the past century. If we make our offering distant, uncommunicative and unlovable, whose fault is that?

Your first gig with WA Opera is Faust in October but you will be sitting in on rehearsals this month for Madama Butterfly. What will you be doing?
Lots and LOTS of meetings. Planning, introductions, auditions, meetings over meals. Plus rehearsals and performances themselves.

Where will you be living while in Perth? Where (and who) do you normally call home?
Ill be in the CBD, close to the theatre, for my Perth periods this year. Home is where my wife and son are - currently Oxford, UK.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I get enthusiasms. I love tech, cycling, movies, baking, travel, new experiences. Ive done paper-making courses, Ive recently started wind-surfing.


Big thanks to Mr Cohen for making time for Celebrity Soft Spot. For more info on the conductor go to You may get to meet him for yourself if you head to Madama Butterfly (24 Feb - 7th March) or The Barber of Seville (Opera in the Park) on March 6th.

This post is our first Celebrity Soft Spot session for 2015. Do you have a suggestion of who we should include on the list? Is there an artist you know doing something exciting in WA?

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A pianist, a beat boxer and ten Perth musicians

It’s 10am in Helsinki and Tuomo Prattala has just woken up. The sun has only been up for an hour and it will set at 3:30pm. Outside the snow has melted into grey sludge. It’s the time of year when the singer/pianist prefers to be holed up in his studio making music.

“In summer I go to festivals and listen to music or socialise with friends in the park,” he says. “But in winter I like to curl up and make music; it is time for creative thinking.”

Prattala is interrupting his winter hibernation to bring his soulful grooves to the Perth Festival where he will be appearing with beatbox artist Felix Zenger. The Finnish duo will collaborate with classical musicians at the Fremantle Arts Centre in an unusual fusion as part of the Soft Soft Loud new music series.

A selection of Prattala’s songs will be arranged into a through composed 70 minute work by Australian composer Tilman Robinson, who will also incorporate works from other Scandinavian composers. Playing with a chamber orchestra will be an artistic plunge in the deep end for Prattala whose home territory is RnB, jazz and electronics.

“This is a very interesting new concept for me but I think it will work. It is basically a reimagining of my songs using a mix of synthesiser, electronics and classical musicians.”

Prattala began learning classical and jazz piano as a child and studied music at a technical college in Helsinki. At the age of 21 the bands he was playing in (Ilmiliekki Quartet, Quintessence and Q-Continuum) started to find success so he quit formal studies and spent four years in an intense musical apprenticeship recording 10 albums with seven different groups. In 2007 he released his debut solo album My Thing which won an Emma Award (Finnish Grammy) for RnB & Hip Hop album of the year. His fourth album The New Mystique was released last year and heralded a move to a more modern sound.

“For my first albums I was songwriting in a classic 70s retro style. Then I wanted something that sounded more like this era so I listened to a lot of new stuff and started getting more into the synthesiser. I discovered that electronic music often has great sound production but empty lyrics. I want to create RnB music that has really touching lyrics as well as interesting sounds from drum machines and computer software.”

The most remarkable aspect to Prattala’s sound production is his human drum machine Felix Zenger. The beatboxer accompanies Prattala using vocal sounds to mimic drum and electronic effects. Zenger’s skills have made him a YouTube sensation with his ‘Beatbox’ clip attracting more than 30 million viewers. The quirky performer studied at the Helsinki Pop and Jazz Conservatory where he completed his final thesis in beatboxing. 

Here is Zenger in a super cute beatbox and vibes duet under a bridge in Helsinki.

The diverse musical history shared by Zenger and Prattala made them ideal choices for Matthew Hoy, artistic director of the Fremantle Art Centre’s Soft Soft Loud series. Hoy was was looking for ways to create a through-composed piece that would reflect the diversity of 21st century composition when he stumbled over Prattala’s music on internet radio.

“(Tuomo’s tunes were) the package deal: infectious melodic lines, compelling lyrics, great harmonic colours and crafty orchestration,” explains Hoy. “His reputation and experience as a jazz side-man and solo artist in his own right clearly illustrated that he and beat-boxing extraordinaire Felix Zenger would be ideal choices as highly adept collaborative artists.”

With the help of mutual friends Hoy made contact and without even meeting each other the collaboration was initiated. The first time the Finnish and Australian artists meet will be in the week before the concert and Hoy says the creative spark will be palpable. 

“There are challenges in this approach - distance, limited time or being less well-known on a personal level - but these are quickly surpassed by the inherent dynamism emanating from the intensity from when all performers finally meet in the one room! It will create a unique experience for listeners.”

Fremantle Arts Centre
Friday 27th Feb 7:30pm

Thursday, 12 February 2015

PIAF Ross Edwards premiere

Ross Edwards is walking and listening. This has been his tradition since the seventies when he first developed his unique compositional voice. The 71 year old composer is walking the streets of Balmain, the west Sydney suburb where he lives with his wife Helen. It’s not the harbour views that he sees but Gallipoli Cove at first light. A sorrowful drone begins to play in his head and as he turns for home he decides yes, he will take the commission.

“I always go for a walk after I get a commission and if I get excited by the ideas that come I phone back and commit,” Edwards explains over the phone from Sydney. “I leapt at the opportunity to commemorate Gallipoli; it is such tragic and significant event in our history.”

In the background his wife Helen is sending me emails with information about the Ian Potter Cultural Trust commission. The piece will be premiered by the Australian String Quartet in Albany and Perth as part of the PerthFestival’s commemorations for the centenary of ANZAC Day.

At first glance the war theme is unusual for Edwards, who is best known for his dance-like music depicting Australian bush and wildlife. His concertos (for oboe, shakuhachi, saxophone) are theatrical rituals involving choreography and lighting effects. Many of his pieces incorporate didgeridoo and evoke the sounds of insects and birds.

But the ethos behind his music is in fact well-suited to the Gallipoli topic. Edwards wants his music to act as an agent of healing and ritual – its age-old universal function.

“I want my music to help facilitate our capacity to heal ourselves through spiritual connectedness with the earth,” he says.

And so Edwards’ ANZAC commemoration is a prayer for peace - albeit a very sombre one. The composer requires the four string players to use mutes to veil the sound and they will play in the dark with just pit lights to illuminate the music.

“It is a very inward and fragile work,” Edwards describes. “There are lighter moments but not many. The piece begins with a depiction of ANZAC Cove at first light. There is a sorrowful drone that underpins the work and outbursts of anguish. It is about questioning what it was about and why it happened. I have written it in quite an archaic manner, like an ancient viol ensemble. Towards the end the first violin wanders heavenwards over a prayer for peace from the Agnus Dei of my ‘Mass of the Dreaming’.”

The work, called Gallipoli, was recorded last year [2014] by the ASQ with Kristian Winther playing the ethereal first violin part. Since then Winther and second violinist Ionna Tache have left the ensemble and the work will be premiered by violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper with the replacement violin players yet to be announced. Gallipoli is being premiered during the first tour of the 2015 season which marks the 30th anniversary of the ASQ.

Gallipoli is Edwards’ fourth string quartet; he wrote his first in 2006. Unofficially there are several more including one from his student days at Adelaide University where he studied with Richard Meale, but they were scrapped along with all the works written before Edwards found his own musical language.

The search for his own voice began on his return from Europe in the seventies and while teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. The dominating model of post-war European art music had left Edwards feeling quite lost. While living in Pearl Bay (ninety kilometres north of Sydney) he began to listen to the sounds in the landscape and used the insects and bird sounds heard on his walks as the skeleton of his new musical style.

“I welcomed back my previous learning and technique but now it was hanging on scaffolding that was me. And now people tell me all my music sounds distinctively like me, either for good or bad I suppose!”

Writing music continues to be a very natural process for him.

“Yes it is a spiritual thing, there is a sense of being in touch with something mysterious. It is also very joyful. I do a lot of sitting to see what comes and I hold onto the good and discard the bad. It is a very trusting experience, especially when there is a deadline!”

Edwards has been awarded both orchestral (2005) and instrumental (2007) work of the year at the Art Music Awards for his works Arafura Dances and Piano Trio. In 1997 he was recognised with an Order of Australia for services to music as a composer.

Some people have suggested Edwards has inherited the mantle of leadership in Australian composition since the death in August of Peter Sculthorpe, regarded as the father figure of Australian music. Edwards is quick to downplay this.

“We are all just composers. Peter was my teacher but I was also taught by Richard Meale and Peter Maxwell Davies. And then one has to be oneself.”

He muses quietly on his friendship with Sculthorpe.

“I knew Peter since I was 19. It is just very sad. He was my best friend with Anne Boyd for 51 years. It is slowly sinking in that I can’t pick up the phone and talk to him about the titles of my works; we used to try out our titles on each other. But his music is still here. He will be remembered.”

And remembering is important. It is why Edwards wrote Gallipoli.

“I want the audience to be transfixed by it. To think deeply about peace. It would be so wonderful if war never happened again. But what can we do? Write music – that’s all I can do.”

Australian String Quartet performing Ross Edwards’ Gallipoli:
Government House Ballroom 20th Feb