Monday, 31 August 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot James Ledger

 This month we acknowledge the loss to the musical world of Roger Smalley and it seemed timely to feature another outstanding composer James Ledger. Once a student of Smalley's, Ledger now carries on Smalley's legacy as lecturer of composition at the University of Western Australia. He has been resident composer with many institutions and orchestras including the Australian National Academy of Music, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the WA Symphony Orchestras. Ledger is one of Australia's most commissioned composers and on September 4th WASO will premiere Ledger's newest work Simpler Times.

What music gets your heart racing?

I’m not sure any music gets my heart racing, but there is music that gets my mind racing. I really enjoy discovering new pieces and composers. Just recently I’ve been getting into Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Etoiles” (From the canyons to the stars) - a piece of his I didn’t know, but it’s remarkable.

What calms you down?


You began studying at the Universityof Western Australia on French horn. Why did you move across to composition?

It took me a little while to figure out what aspect of music I wanted to pursue. I graduated with a music degree in performance but always had a hankering to write. It was only after graduating that I gave composition a go. The French horn and I are now both moving on with our lives.

You are in a rare and privileged position where you are earning an income as a full time professional composer. Where did you learn the skills that enabled you to carve out a niche as a professional Australian composer?

It was studying music of the 20th century in my third year at UWA that really captivated me. Charting the course of music in that century is something I find endlessly fascinating. After graduating, I moved to London and got a job at a classical record company, which was also incredibly informative.

Your song cycle Conversations With Ghosts co-written with Paul Kelly won an Aria award. What was it like working with Paul Kelly?

Paul is incredibly down to earth, and working with him was a lot of fun. It was surprisingly inspirational to meld our two different musical worlds together. 

You are currently lecturer in composition at UWA. Do you have a particular methodology or process for teaching composition? 

Obviously, there are aspects to composition that can’t be taught. All I try to do is offer advice on various technical aspects.

On September 4th your orchestral work Simpler Times will be premiered by the WA Symphony Orchestra. How did this commission come about and what is the piece like?

This work was commissioned by WASO through the generous patronage of Geoff Stearn. He commissioned a violin concerto from me in 2013, and so this is our second work. Simpler Times is a bit of an ironic title – the piece is a reflection of how we perceive time; that is, we sense that it speeds up as we get older – but of course it doesn’t. The piece probably isn’t that simple though.

You also wrote War Music which was premiered in April as part of the ANZAC commemorations. There has been a lot of commissions given out over the past 18 months to recognise Australia’s involvement in war. How do you find an angle you are comfortable with in this ‘war genre’?

You’re right, there have been a lot of ANZAC commissions over the past 18 months. It is an uncomfortable subject, and in way, perhaps that helped the composition. I deliberately chose the more broader aspects of war rather than focus on specific events at Gallipoli. I worked with Paul Kelly on this project too. He wrote an incredibly moving text for the choir.

You have a soft spot for orchestral music – an amazing 17 orchestral works since 1996. What is the appeal of this repertoire?

I didn’t realise there were that many. Yes, I do enjoy writing for orchestra, and feel incredibly lucky to have been given so many opportunities. The appeal for me is the amount of colour that is available, both in terms of instrumental sonorities, and the vast dynamic range. I love the energy that can come from of an orchestra – it can be like a juggernaut.

I often marvel when listening to your compositions at the detail of the writing and complexity of ideas. What is your writing process to arrive at that point?

Each piece evolves in a different way, there is no set process. I might start out by improvising on the piano, or I might have a sonority in mind. I tend to ‘see’ a score more than I ‘hear’ it. For example, with Simpler Times, I knew that the piece was going to speed up over its entire length. I imagined huge waves of energy for the final section, even though early on, I didn’t have a clue what the notes were going to be.

What is it you would hope audiences experience when they hear your music?

When I write music, I try to be as honest as possible. If what I write resonates with someone on any level then that’s a very satisfying thing.

How would you advise young musicians wanting to pursue a career in composition?

There is no set career-path to be a composer. You just have to keep your eye out for any opportunity, as well as have extremely good time management skills.

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

I like to play music, and just recently I bought a guitar to learn. It’s a very blurred line as to where a pastime ends and work begins though.

Evan Kennea interviews James Ledger in 2012 after the premiere of Two Memorials, a composition inspired by John Lennon and Anton Webern.

Thank you James Ledger for making the time for Celebrity Soft Spot. For more info on our famous local composer go to To buy tickets to hear Simple Times on September 4th & 5th go here.

Monday, 24 August 2015

WASO Brahms Festival

 Perth audiences have heard the London Philharmonic’s pristine version of Brahms’ First Symphony (2009) and the Berlin Philharmonic’s lush Second Symphony (2010). Most recently the WA Symphony Orchestra gave a perfunctory, rather aimless performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony (2013). Brahms' music can be so bleak and as WASO's two week Brahms Festival began I wondered would it be grim or glorious?

On Friday night under principal conductor Asher Fisch the densely packed First Symphony unfolded with clarity. The orchestra’s cohesion was breathtaking as they eased in and out of phrases and negotiated the gear changes where Brahms’ juxtaposing ideas dive, rush and halt. Fisch delineated between foreground and background layers to avoid muddy texture. His genius became apparent as he contoured both the micro spaces between phrases and the macro sweep of the symphony to shape Brahms that was tender, life-affirming and majestic. Add to this the golden sound of the strings, the heart warming horn solos and the organ-like wind section and the result was quite simply glorious.

Brahms’ Second Symphony the following night seemed less well-rehearsed. Entries were less coherent and the presto movement was not intact. But then there was the delicate pianissimo opening, the thrilling race to the end and in between the finely sculpted adagio where a fierce inhalation from Fisch summoned thick swells of sound from the violins. Neither perfunctory nor aimless, this was a lyrical and visceral performance revealing how much Fisch has shaped this orchestra.

Zukerman and Forsyth
Brahms’ Violin Concerto was performed by Pinchas Zukerman with an extraordinarily bold, flexible sound. The heart of the performance was his seemingly effortless cadenza with its smooth scales and feather-like high trills. He was joined by cellist Amanda Forsyth on Saturday night for Brahms’ Double Concerto. The husband and wife team were synchronised and Forsyth’s extroversion gave a dance-like energy to the work.

Brahms’ remaining two symphonies and two piano concertos will be performed this weekend; expect landmark performances that could sit proudly on any international platform.

This review copyright The West Australian 2015.

Monday, 17 August 2015

St George's Cathedral Brahms' Requiem

The St George’s Cathedral Consort gave an unsettling performance of Brahms’ German Requiem on Friday night; mostly I think it was intentional.

Brahms completed the Requiem in 1868 after the death of his mother. He constructed the text from the German bible rather than the Catholic mass and the minor tonality, fugal writing and densely chromatic harmonies give the work a luxurious Romantic bleakness. Conductor Joseph Nolan brought to this a restless intensity with quick tempos and only brief pauses between movements.

The choir has a prominent role in the Requiem, involved in every movement with brief appearances from a soprano (Sara Macliver singing with amber warmth) and baritone (a lyrical Andrew Foote). The Consort was augmented to 26 singers plus 17 trebles and produced an exciting, sometimes strident sound. The ensemble’s trademark dramatic contrast ranged from hushed mourning to a spitting accusatory “Death where is thy sting?” The sense of ensemble wasn’t always coherent but the trade-off was an impassioned resonant intensity.

Brahms’s piano duet arrangement was used to accompany the singers and while it lacks the lushness of Brahms’ orchestration the assiduous Mark Coughlan and Caroline Badnall played with thunderous volume at times. Nolan maintained the momentum even in the final movement so that the closing bars had a sense of resignation rather than peace.

The Rhapsody for alto and male choir delivered far more balm. Brahms’ favourite voice was the alto and Fiona Campbell demonstrated why with her rich depth and capacity for soaring radiance. With smooth leaps and controlled power she shaped an arresting opening and pleading middle section. As the tonality changed to major the male choir added their glowing harmonies for a comforting finale. Coughlan accompanied attentively from piano although he could have been more prominent to match Campbell’s volume.

This review copyright The West Australian 2015.

Friday, 14 August 2015

New Website for Fremantle Press

 My publisher Fremantle Press have updated their website to a flashy new user-friendly version.
They are celebrating with lots of deals and specials. If you are a subscriber to the enews you can get a 10% discount by using the code GOFREO when purchasing.

To go to the product page for Women of Note (and ME!) you now go to

 To go to ME! you now go to
There's even a button to press to "book" me :-)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Perth boys win APRA Performance of the Year

Perth clarinettist Ashley William-Smith and composer Lachlan Skipworth have been snapped holding a trophy at the APRA awards in Sydney tonight. We can confirm rumours that they have been awarded Performance of the Year!!!

Presented each year by APRA AMCOS and the Australian Music Centre, the Awards recognise achievement in the composition, performance, education and presentation of Australian art music. Art music covers activity across contemporary classical music, contemporary jazz and improvised music, experimental music and sound art.

Ashley's performance with WASO and conductor Baldur Bronnimann of Lachlan's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra has won Performance of the Year. The performance was part of WASO's popular Latitude new music series and was one of the most anticipated concerts of 2014.

 Other West Aussies featuring in the awards were the WA Symphony Orchestra in the category Excellence in a Regional Area for their WASO on the Road Touring and Onslow Kids Music Education. Also ex-West Aussie Iain Grandage won Vocal/Choral Work of the Year for The Riders, an opera based on the novel by Tim Winton.

For the full list of awards go to

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot Joseph Nolan

It was a fortuitous day for Perth when Joseph Nolan arrived from the UK to take up the role of Organist and Master of Choristers at St George's Cathedral. He established the Cathedral Consort as one of Australia's most elite singing groups and musicians from around Australia have been enticed to perform at his critically acclaimed concert series. Now settled in Inglewood as an Australian permanent resident Nolan continues to expand the cathedral's music program and maintain his overseas touring and recording career.

What music gets your heart racing? 
Poly choral works by any great renaissance composer when sung supremely well. 

What calms you down? 
Jonathan Agnew or Henry Blofield on Test Match Special. 

Why the organ? 
As a young man, the sheer power was the thrill of course! Like most very young musicians I began life on the piano, but as the organ came so easily to me it was not a hard decision to switch. 

What motivated you to move from playing for the Queen on the Buckingham Palace Ballroom organ to sunny Perth at St George’s Cathedral in 2008?

Nolan at the organ of St James Palace London
The silver tongue of the former Dean of Perth, Dr John Shepherd. He promised me, and delivered, fantastic moral and financial support whilst expecting great things of me in return. I am delighted that our very new Dean, the Very Reverend Richard Pengelley, is already proving to be a great supporter of the music here.

Having said that, it was an enormous wrench and a real risk to move here in terms of my career. I was advised against it at every turn in the UK and during my first year in Perth I certainly found myself questioning the wisdom of such a big move. However, something magical happened on Easter Day in 2009 when I chose a very demanding and controversial mass setting by Naji Hakim. It went spectacularly well and from that moment I realised my dream of building something from the ground up that could become of genuine international standard was possible.

I would add that I was fortunate to move here with a lot of contacts around the USA and Europe and I invest a lot of time maintaining these contacts via email/Skype. Travelling abroad to perform and record is really important to keep your focus and a sense of perspective of what’s going on in the wider world. 

August is going to be a Brahms extravaganza in Perth with WASO presenting four concerts of Brahms’ concertos and symphonies and the Cathedral musicians presenting Brahms’ Requiem on August 14th. Have you conducted this before? Where does this work fit in Brahms’ output?

I think it is wonderful that this is all happening in Perth and the timing is indeed most fortuitous. I have not conducted the Requiem before, and I always find conducting something for the first time truly exhilarating. The Requiem is extremely profound and powerful, providing a complete picture of Brahms‘ compositional techniques, as well as his inner beliefs. Brahms’ was quoted saying he would be happy with the Requiem being called a ”human requiem”.
You are also performing Brahms’ rarely heard Alto Rhapsody with Fiona Campbell. How did this idea come about? 
The Alto Rhapsody is seemingly very seldom performed, even internationally. It’s an incredible piece of music and we have the best mezzo in Australia, Fiona Campbell, residing here in Perth to perform it.

What is your job description at the Cathedral? 
My role is a very varied one and no day is the same.  I am required to be able to play the organ to an international standard, train both the Cathedral Choir and Consort to the highest standards, choose a great deal of attractive music for the year and devise a fiscally sound but very innovative season for the Cathedral Consort Series. With meetings, emails (dealing with around seventy people now involved in the department) and fundraising for the Concert Series, preparation time for international concert and recording tours has to be carefully organised.

Where did you learn the skills that have enabled you to straddle the politics of the church and the professional music world? 
The only significant road humps I have encountered have been outside the realm of church politics. In those cases, all I can say is if you encounter a toxic work environment, you resign - and quickly. No artist can afford either to be tainted or drained of energy because of less than ideal circumstances.

JS Bach wrote in his bible margin “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” What do you believe is the role of music when you perform in church services and concerts? Or another way of putting it, what do you hope listeners will experience? 
There is no doubt in my mind that when sacred works of genius (i.e. Bach, Palestrina, Mozart etc) are performed to a very high standard even a hardened non believer feels something or is elevated at least spiritually. I have lost count of the times my body has tingled being involved with music in a sacred space, it’s so very different a sensation to the excitement of the Concert Hall or the Opera House.

The Concert Series (and Cathedral Consort), which I founded in 2009, has provided for those people who might not normally want to come into the Cathedral to experience great choral music in a spiritual place. Concert newcomers often email or write to me describing with wonder that they had experienced ‘something transcendent’ or a ‘new spiritual experience’.
Crucial to this experience is both the quality of music and the performance and personally, I believe God deserves the very best. If we are ‘elitist’ then I am proud of it. Elite sport is worn as a badge of honour within Australia and it bewilders me when this charge is occasionally leveled at the music here and other cathedrals with very high quality music programmes.

 Lully Lulla (Leighton) St George's Cathedral Consort
You have a soft spot for the organ works of Widor (you recorded his complete organ works for Signum Records). 
Bach and Widor (and maybe Messiaen) are really the only composers that are associated with the organ in terms of world recognition. I first heard Widor’s ubiquitous Toccata from Symphony No 5 when I was 15. I was immensely fortunate, due to the generosity of the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and Hattori Foundation, to study gratis with Marie Claire Alain in Paris for two years, so naturally the French repertoire has always called to me. With Widor, I do feel a particularly close affinity to his music, and I am pleased that the critics obviously agree with my decision to record all his organ music. Widor, unlike any other, had a feel for the organic whole of the organ and how it works, whilst writing music that could appeal to everyone. The organ and its music all too often fails in this regard, having a negative image of being a funeral or church instrument, often played poorly.

Nolan discusses the organ works of Widor with Andrew Ford in this podcast from The Music Show

In your concerts I often marvel at the precise diction and pitch you draw from your singers. How do you shape a choir to this kind of level? 
I will not pretend it has been easy. It takes a long time to build a choirs’ sound and it requires total professional discipline from everyone involved. This starts from the preparation of the music by a singer before the rehearsal and their being ready to start ten minutes before the call time. Without a doubt, instilling this culture here in the first two years proved my biggest challenge and I knew without these elements the right results could not be found.

Happily, the professional and singing culture at the Cathedral is now absolutely fantastic and the music making is relaxed but very focused and disciplined. Of course you have to choose the right team and that’s a huge part of getting ‘the sound’.  From there I almost treat the choir as if they are an organ, constantly drawing on blending the sounds and using certain timbres at the right times.
A fundamental aspect and character of my organ playing is based on absolute rhythmic discipline or appropriate amounts of elasticity. These two elements are very important parts of my technique with the choir. Mutual trust plays a part and this might sound obvious, but that the choir and conductor look at each other. So many, on either side, don’t! If you don’t look at each other, it sounds and looks dull! You would be surprised how often this occurs though.

Finally, and most importantly, it all comes down to the ears and instinctive musicianship of the conductor. Degrees and diplomas in choral conducting are perhaps all well and good, but if you don’t have great ears, the ability to communicate and fix the problem quickly and then motivate your singers to the highest standards, no degree on earth or conducting tuition can help you.

The beat and gestures that matter are important too, but the real secret is the mutual preparation, mutual respect and the eyes of all concerned communicating what can’t be said.

 A Spotless Rose (Howells) St George's Cathedral Consort

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music? 
I do enjoy fine dining and big, powerful red wines!  Watching Wimbledon obsessively and in particular Federer (imagine he was a musician-he would be the epitome of musical expression and control). Above all else, I value time with my son, Alexander. He has made me realise what life is really all about.

Thank you Joseph Nolan for making time for the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For tickets to Brahms' Requiem and Alto Rhapsody on August 14th go here. More information on Nolan can be found at and

Monday, 3 August 2015

WASO and Diana Doherty

The WA Symphony Orchestra delivers a lush concert experience these days, consistently high on the satisfaction stakes. Over the weekend we heard one of Australia’s finest instrumentalists Diana Doherty on the program alongside the effervescent joy of a Haydn symphony and the grandeur of Elgar.

WASO is typically less successful in Baroque/early classical repertoire but on Friday night Nicholas Carter, recently appointed principal conductor at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, crafted the opening of Haydn’s symphony with elegant serenity. Carter contoured transparent sighing phrases from the violins over a graceful (not plodding as it can often sound) walking bass accompaniment. The second movement suffered from an unsettled tempo but the finale was breathtaking, taken so fast the six beats in each bar became one pulse per bar in an exhilarating and technically dazzling gallop.

Doherty joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C. Her creamy sound and ornamental elaboration of the oboe line was exquisite and she emphasised the work’s operatic melodrama with eyebrow-raising comic timing. There was also a sense of classical restraint that unfortunately left much of the detail of her playing inaudible. Perhaps there were too many string players onstage but perhaps too a more penetrating oboe sound would have allowed the audience full of oboe fans to bask a little more in her talent.

A weighty performance of Elgar’s Symphony No 3 Elaborated by Anthony Payne concluded the program. This was WASO’s second encounter with Payne’s 1998 reconstruction of Elgar’s unfinished symphony and the brass were in fine form for Elgar’s gloriously romantic fanfares. The raw vigour of the opening with its fleetingly beautiful second subject melody opened up a vast and majestic horizon while Carter’s almost pulse-less approach to the grief-laden adagio moved into a motionless, interior world. Carter and orchestra delivered a luxurious but cleanly contained performance, unlike anything heard previously on the program and deeply satisfying.

This review copyright The West Australian 2015.