Saturday, 31 October 2015

Faust review

It’s a long flight to London’s Royal Opera House but save your dollars and instead visit His Majesty’s Theatre this month to see David McVicar’s famous production of Faust. The 2004 production of Gounod’s opera is presented by WA Opera and Opera Conference with an outstanding cast and creative team. In fact after seeing the show in London I’d suggest McVicar’s extravagant production packs more punch here where every detail is visible as it almost overflows the stage of our  intimate Theatre.

McVicar’s irreverent but chilling take on a man’s bargain with the devil is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1870 laden with gothic trappings. In the opening scene Mephistopheles arrives through a trapdoor, coughing as he waves away the sulphurous fumes. Scenes of hedonistic revelry unfold as Faust, an elderly bourgeois gentleman, exchanges his soul for promises of youth and love.

McVicar takes us to Paris’ famous Cabaret L’Enfer with dancing Can-can girls and to Saint-Severin church where Faust plays the organ and candles are scattered everywhere a la Phantom of the Opera. The production (revived by director Bruno Ravella) is dripping with eye candy from the decadent costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and splendid lighting by Paule Constable to Charles Edwards’ ingenious set design which frames each scene within theatre stalls from which we watch Mephistopheles direct events.

And it is Mephistopheles’ show. On opening night Teddy Tahu Rhodes gave the best performance I’ve seen from him, insolent and imposing whether dressed in drag or a dinner suit. His bass baritone alternated between seductive caress and terrifying stentorian authority as he doomed the love of Faust and Marguerite.

Natalie Aroyan captured Marguerite’s purity with delightful bubbliness, reaching creamy top notes with ease in the Jewel Song. In a production high on visual effects her endlessly beautiful soprano and Rhodes’ golden-hued bass baritone brought the attention back to the music.

American tenor Patrick O’Halloran transformed convincingly from tottering professor to young libertine and ultimately a heroin addict burdened with regret. His voice sounded tired though, the strain thinly masked by vibrato. Baritone Samuel Dundas (the Count in Marriage of Figaro earlier this year) gave a richly coloured portrayal of Marguerite’s brother Valentin. Fiona Campbell gave an impressive performance in a pants role as a frumpy Siebel with a voice of musky sweetness.

The WA Symphony Orchestra conducted by WA Opera artistic director Brad Cohen provided secure support to the action and the full-voiced WA Opera Chorus moved with slick choreography (Shane Placentino), creating rowdy crowd scenes with support from an excellent dance troupe and actors. This is another unmissable show from WA Opera this year, one you may need to see more than once to absorb all the details.

This review copyright The West Australian 2015.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Burt Bacharach review

Burt Bacharach is frail now. He is 87 and he looked it as he hobbled on stage at the Crown Theatre. But sitting at the piano he exuded authority and freshness, every inch the world’s ‘greatest living composer’ as he was proclaimed at the 2008 Grammy Awards. 

Backed by his band (a slick group including five keyboards, violin, trumpet and reeds plus a rhythm section) he revealed his legacy: hit after hit from a catalogue of over 500 songs. For an impressive two uninterrupted hours the sound track of our lives unfolded, songs that will forever be associated with someone’s graduation night, that wedding, funeral, or movie.

Bacharach and band at the Crown Theatre
The opening medley featured iconic collaborations with Hal David including the bouncy Do You know the Way to San Jose, Say A Little Prayer and a breathy Anyone Who Had a Heart. The vocals were shared between the sassy Josie James, the elegant Donna Taylor and the versatile, smooth John Pagano.

Bacharach’s songs are predominantly but not exclusively breezy and buoyant; the time signature changes and chromatic melody line in What’s New Pussycat? were a reminder that Bacharach studied composition with modernists Darius Milhaud and Henry Cowell. And a set of movie classics became darkly intimate when Bacharach sang solo from his piano. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head lacked sparkle, but in the more introverted Alfie a stillness descended on the audience as the octogenarian mused ‘what’s it all about?’.

The pin drop moment came when Bacharach closed the concert with the first performance of an unnamed new song with lyrics by Tim Nichols. The melody was haunting and Bacharach’s voice thick with emotion as he sang: ‘The day will come when I will have to leave you/ But I will leave the best of me with you.’

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2015.

Monday, 26 October 2015

November Gig Guide

Concerts this month kick off with a delightful old wizard (actor Doug McKeag) hosting a concert hall of Harry Potter fans on Sunday 1st November as the WA Symphony Orchestra performs the soundtrack to Harry Potter

It's a creative month for the orchestra who will also be celebrating Back to the Future in a screening of the film with live soundtrack on 13/14th. The concert will feature new music written by Alan Silvestri especially for the 30th anniversary - Great Scott has it been thirty years already? Where did the time go?

In a return to more traditional fare Asher Fisch conducts Mahler's colossal Symphony No 1 with the orchestra on November 20/21, followed by a Spanish-themed program including Ravel's Bolero November 26/27/28. 

Chamber music is looking good this month with the Australian String Quartet arriving November 3rd for a concert featuring Brett Dean's latest work and Schubert's Death and the Maiden and the Eggner Trio (touring with Musica Viva) giving a rare performance of Clara Schumann's Trio in G minor on November 17th.
On November 8th the UWA Choral Society are returning to St Patrick's Basilica to perform Haydn's Nelson Mass and Mozart's Te Deum.

And Christmas is already coming (!) with St George's Cathedral Consort singing a condensed Messiah and Christmas songs under the stars in the Fremantle Arts Centre courtyard on 12/13th November.

On another note, it is the time of year where most arts companies are launching their 2016 programs. WA Opera's program is looking surprisingly organic and Australian, and check out WASO's new season here. The Perth International Arts Festival launches its 2016 program on November 4th so stay tuned.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot Kelly Lovelady

Kelly Lovelady is a Perth girl now based in London where she is founder and artistic director of the Australian orchestra Ruthless Jabiru. She drinks tea with Sir Colin Davis, conducts concerts for Greenpeace and lives in a house boat on a canal. This is someone you need to know about!

What music gets your heart racing?

I do a lot of different types of listening these days. Sometimes Im listening to the musicians, sometimes the repertoire, the interpretation, the program, the chemistry, the venue, the sound of a composer, the sound of an instrument, the strength of a piece, the impact of a conductor, the list goes on. My ear responds differently to music I know well compared to something Im hearing for the first time. I do get excited about discovering new composers and their music. At the moment I cant get enough of Counterstream Radio which is the online broadcast of New Music USA. I also love Late Junction (BBC Radio 3) and FIP (Radio France) for eclectic cross-genre programming.

What calms you down?

I wish I knew!

What do you sing along to?

Usually whatever score I happen to be studying until I manage to lodge it as an earworm - bit by bit in increments of about 5 seconds at a time..
Lovelady conducting Ruthless Jabiru

What inspired you to start Ruthless Jabiru, the all-Australian chamber orchestra?

Id noticed every orchestra in London and Europe I came into contact with had at least one if not several Australians in the ranks. It struck me as an interesting social experiment to bring them together and there was interest in a chamber orchestra as many of them spent their days within larger sections. I was planning to perform some Australian music but always within the context of an international program - doing my bit to bring Australian composition onto the mainstage here in London but not to the exclusion of building a local audience. I also try to include female composers, Canadian composers and electronic music in my programs where possible. Yes our membership is Australian but beyond that Id like to think were on the way to building an identity as a globally-relevant New music ensemble.

Why the Jabiru?

The jabiru is a nod to Peter Sculthorpe. I spent my formative years around a lot of wind music but Peters 11th quartet Jabiru Dreaming was something from the string repertoire that came onto my radar pretty early on and made a big impact. For me the jabiru has a huge personality which probably gave my imagination something to latch onto.  

It has been fifteen years since we were undergraduate music students at the University of Western Australia. What has happened since then?

Ive reinvented myself in a few different places around the world: Ann Arbor, Winnipeg, Ann Arbor again, Perugia, London, Montreal, Edinburgh, and now London again. Different lifestyles gave rise to different types of musical exploration. Last time I felt the urge to move I bought a boat instead so now Im in fresh surroundings every few weeks without having to rebuild from scratch. Ive been on the waterways for almost 6 years now and think Ive finally managed to synthesise all the reinventions into one version of myself.

The view from Lovelady's boat at time of interview

 How did you build the skill base to become a freelance conductor?

I used to spend a lot of time watching great conductors and orchestras rehearse - it must have been hundreds and hundreds of hours over the years. I think that helped me lock in a sense of the rehearsal room as my home territory. Ive seen a myriad of different conducting styles and approaches with varying results. Ive also had interesting encounters with many of the greats of our time! One sweet moment was with Sir Colin Davis - I’d been discreetly watching a session from the gallery. There were 100+ LSO players buzzing around but he carried his teacup and saucer all the way upstairs during the break to sit next to me and ask about my own work. 

Something I would definitely include in my conductor education is having a Proms pass for a few years. Seeing the top international orchestras in their signature rep every night for three months straight is a baptism by fire. Ive also had several teachers over the years whose philosophies have put down roots in my mind. Having said all that, Ive now developed my own unique way of doing things that is completely individual to me and the way I understand music. I think early career conductors just need to get their hands as dirty as possible until they figure out what makes them original.

I know there are loads of Aussies performing in Europe and the UK. Who do you have in Ruthless Jabiru, any West Aussies? And what is the appeal of working with Australians?

I have had some West Aussies in Ruthless Jabiru - most recently Marina Gillam, Coral Lancaster, Bree Enemark, Sam Wickramasinghe, others on the sidelines until schedules fall into place. Im looking forward to playing some music by Liza Lim in this next program and by Cat Hope in the program after that. The Australian element adds a social dimension to the project alongside the music. It sets us up for solidarity which in my opinion is a good starting point.

What sort of concerts do you give?

I like to perform my program as a continuous sequence without applause. I think this encourages the ear to make sonic connections across the program and gives the imagination space to run wild. Id like to think this style of presentation puts the audience on equal terms regardless of their concertgoing or musical background. Everyone is forced into the moment to make sense of what they hear but they also feel the shape of a program as a gesture which is whole in itself.  

You have a soft spot for musical activism. What is the appeal of using music to champion a cause?

I realise not everyone has the luxury of choosing their own programs or choosing how they present but for me the commercial fad for cheap themes with tenuous links by title is one of the most effective ways to keep audiences stale. So many ensembles have a full-time marketing department dedicated to bringing public awareness to a concert event. I like the idea of using this machine as a force for good to bring visibility to an idea or issue that deserves our consideration. One of my recent programs paid tribute to the damaged landscape of Maralinga, another to poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. I really think we need to treat our audiences with much more sophistication - we need to be specific with the level of intelligence and imagination we expect from them. I try to invite a dialogue well beyond the music in the leadup to a concert - exploring situations and histories Im also learning about as we go along. I get artist-Activists to tell these stories, spark some ideas, lend us their passions, uncover the hidden details that unbalance the world as we know it through the mass media. When it comes down to it though the marketing is all just a precursor - people come out to concerts for all different reasons and ticketholders may or may not be invested in the particular story a program carries for me. Theres no propaganda, no speeches, we just turn down the house lights and let the music go to work. 

Your next concert features Peter Sculthorpes final, unfinished work, commissioned by Ruthless Jabiru in 2012. It seems a perfect match, pairing Ruthless Jabiru with a composer who was so passionate about Australian culture. How tragic he was unable to complete the work before his death last year. What is required to bring this piece to the stage?

My decision to perform the sketches for Postcards from Jabiru is obviously as symbolic as it is musical but Im confident I can make it work. My challenge is to deliver a meaningful program for a London audience probably unfamiliar with Peters music. The broadness of the brushstrokes at this early stage of composition allows for some creative license which I think is a good fit for us. What is required now is the last bit of finance to bring it into production.

What do you hope audiences will experience?

I hope Ive come up with a program which acknowledges one of our great Australian elders but does so through a collection of music which is truly international. Of course youre absolutely right in saying Peter was passionate about both Australia and its arts culture but I think he also deserves a hearing beyond the scope of being Australian. By setting him against Kaija Saariaho, Liza Lim, John Luther Adams and a new work for us by Eugene Birman I hope people will hear some of the things typically associated with European and American music in Peters work - and equally vice versa. I guess Im trying to invite a hearing of Peters music first and foremost as sound before source.

At what age did you start learning music?

I started taking piano lessons when I was 4 or 5 but safe to say that time was more about tools and sociomusicology 101 than being musical - the beginnings of an ear, developing a memory, learning how it feels to perform in front of other people, to practice, how it feels to be ready for a performance. Opinions about tempo, expression, rubato etc probably started appearing when I was around 11 or 12. Looking back I guess my ideas became bolder, started gathering some momentum - by this time I was also holding a flute. My first forays into real musical risktaking were a few years after that, probably around 14 or 15. It was a subtle shift which went unnoticed at the time but this is when I would say I really got started on the music.  

When did you become involved in activism?

Ive been around a lot of artist-Activists and Im really inspired by their energy. My friends Jessie Boylan and Alex Kelly are both doing exceptional work with arts and social change in Australia and internationally. I also had the privilege of recently connecting here in London with two heroes: Peter Sellars and John Pilger. Theyre passionate about what they believe in 24 hours a day, it doesnt switch off. I think we need to be that persistent if we want to get the whole truth about social justice and sustainability issues because there are a lot of people making money off the fact that the public only has half the story. A few months ago I was invited to guest conduct a pretty high profile gig for Greenpeace to promote their Save the Arctic campaign. We played to hundreds of paparazzi and protesters under a rail bridge in howling winds and horizontal rain, the perfect setting to champion the elements. I realised it was exactly the sort of listening environment Im trying to culture in my own audiences - some raw information to set the scene beforehand but once were in situ its about triggering the imagination through the ear.

Will we ever be able to entice you back to Australia?

I would love to get some projects and/or collaborations happening in Australia. Ive been abroad for nearly 15 years now and it would be great to reconnect with the artists back home on the ground. Im also really interested in devising some programs for Australian audiences. I think the way I use Australian music in my programs at the moment is very much from a birds eye view. It would be great to explore how my ideas about tone, pace, narrative etc in programming, which are probably the things which define me as a musician at the moment here in London, would need to adapt to a home crowd.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

For me internalising a score is a decoding process. Ive noticed my best work happens when Im in motion - however much stress I think Im under, eventually the cogs of my mind and imagination will start to turn when Im on the move and thats when things start getting creative and the solutions begin to appear. Although tempting to lock eyes with a score for 15 hours straight, I have to keep reminding myself that running, cycling, walking, cruising are also a big part of my score study process. I live and study in a tiny space - good for focusing on details but without the time away there is no perspective, no epiphany.

Thank you Kelly Lovelady for your thought-provoking interview. For more details on Kelly and her orchestra go to the Ruthless Jabiru website. For details on how to lend a hand financing the premiere of Peter Sculthorpe's last work check out the Australian Cultural Fund.

And here's another feature on Kelly Lovelady that ran in Limelight magazine recently:

Friday, 2 October 2015

October Gig Guide

If you can survive the football Grand Final this weekend you will be rewarded with some great gigs in October!

Two operas this month - hooray - including the students at the WA Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) presenting Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream opening October 5th and WA Opera's Faust opening October 29th starring American tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Faust.

On Monday 5th Musica Viva present the Modigliani Quartet playing Haydn, Shostakovich, Schubert and Dvorak. Perth Symphonic Chorus are putting on a spring concert of rare repertoire including Mendelssohn's First Walpurgis Night and Lars-Erik Larsson's A God Disguised.

The piano gets a workout from WAAPA students in recital on the 15th and at the University of Western Australia on 25th when Graeme Gilling and Geoffrey Lancaster perform the works of Mozart and CPE Bach while Gosia Wlodarczak creates a work of art in response to the music.

The WA Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Alexander Lazarev this weekend (2nd/3rd Oct) playing Tchaikovsky's First Symphony and on 16/17th Jennifer Koh will perform Bernstein's Serenade with Dvorak's Symphony No 9 also on the program.