Wednesday, 25 November 2015

December Gig Guide

The festive season kicks off with the Australian Chamber Orchestra bringing a fascinating East meets West concert to Perth on December 2nd. The orchestra will collaborate with brothers Joseph Tawadros (oud) and James Tawadros (percussion) who will bring a fresh perspective to a program that includes Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Trumpet legend James Morrison returns to Perth on 3rd December to perform with the WA Symphony Orchestra and on December 6th superstar violinst Maxim Vengerov will give a recital for Musica Viva with Roustem Saitkolov on piano.

The home grown fair is where things get really festive: WASO bring their music to thousands at the annual free Symphony in the City  on 12th December and the Best of British is back again on December 22nd (note the change of date) conducted by Ian Westrip and in the style of Last Night at the Proms. Voyces present Noel, a mix of traditional and modern carols on December 18th with Sara Macliver and Fiona Campbell. The Perth Symphony Orchestra presents the magical Christmas story The Snowman screened with live orchestral accompaniment including the famous song Walking in the Air on 19th December.

On the sacred front Collegium Symphonic Chorus perform their annual Messiah on December 19th and on Tuesday 8th (note date change here too) St George's Cathedral present their much anticipated concert version of Handel's neglected opera Judas Maccabeus with Paul Wright leading the Baroque orchestra The Musician's Table. Book quickly as this is expected to sell out by end of November.
And of course the year wouldn't be complete without the annual Vienna Pops on New Year's Eve. After his successful debut last year Mark Coughlan will be directing again, sharing the stage with Fiona Campbell and jazz diva Ali Bodycoat for an evening of Viennese classics and champagne.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Melba opera premiere

Australia’s first opera star is revealed up close and personal in a racy, intimate and heart-rending new opera. Nellie Melba ruled supreme over the world’s opera stages in the late 19th and early 20th century and was worshipped by millions of fans. The opera Melba composed by Johannes Luebbers was given its premiere by post-graduate students from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts on the weekend. Further seasons are being planned for Sydney and New York.

Librettist Nicholas Christo used as his source Ann Blainey’s revelatory biography I Am Melba. His focus it is not the recordings, tours and writing achievements of this self-made business woman, nor her tireless fundraising during the Great War for which she was bestowed the title Dame. Instead her glittering successes are the frame for an intimate domestic story.

Dame Melba (Priscilla Cornelius). Photos Jon Green.
The opera, directed by Christo, opened with Melba at the height of her career asking an adoring Melbourne audience “Have I done you proud?”  The story unfolded retrospectively with the older Dame Melba watching and contributing arias from Puccini, Verdi and Bizet along the way. The tension was apparent from the opening where a young Nellie argued with her husband and father over her career prospects in Europe. Themes of money and ambition were introduced and most prominently the theme of motherhood. Melba was portrayed as a devoted mother torn between her career, her son and her lover. “Why are we always torn, why must we always choose?” she sang as she battled for custody of her son. It is a courageous topic for Luebbers and Christo and one left conspicuously silent by many biographers although it may be the epicentre of every woman who has juggled a career and a family.

Nellie (Esther Counsel) arguing with Charlie (Lachlann Lawton) and father (Jake Bigwood)

The opera moved at thrilling speed with rare (perhaps too few) pauses for a love scene or a tender mother-son moment. The action was framed by Matthew Dibbs’ lighting and set designer Rozina Suliman’s use of simple props such as a table, chaise and revolving door. The storytelling was clear thanks to excellent diction from the cast and Christo’s lucid libretto, although there were several moments where reducing the text would’ve allowed the music a more poetic role.

Nellie with son George (Monica Brierley-Hay)

Luebbers’ lyrical and restless score was realised brilliantly on piano by David Wickham who was adept at both the jazz-inflected music theatre moments and the 19th century operatic arias woven into the music. When given opportunity Luebbers built a thrilling climax such as the custodial court case where the thick harmony, rapid key changes and the additional vocalising of the chorus created an impressive orchestral density. In future productions with more able singers and an ensemble of musicians Luebbers’ music will take on greater prominence.

Melba was sung by Priscilla Cornelius, her collaratura soprano agile and bright as it was put through its paces during showstopping arias from Rigoletto, The Pearl Fishers and La Traviata. The younger Nellies were sung in more music-theatre style, the role shared between the sympathetic but vocally subdued Esther Counsel and the determined, smooth-voiced Eimar Foley.

Lachlann Lawton’s singing lacked projection but he endeavoured to portray Melba’s husband Charlie as both the rough alcoholic and the man struggling to connect with an assertive wife and disconnected son. Melba’s lover Prince Philippe was sung by Robin Fletcher with husky charisma and polished French accent. Belinda Cox was warm, fresh and comical as a Melba’s staunch friend, gossip and advisor on contraception. Chelsea Burns also deserves mention for her burnished voice and stern presence as the vocal teacher Madame. Monica Brierley-Haye was endearing but vocally unsure as Melba’s son George.

The outcome wasn’t good for Melba, who continued her career with neither lover nor son at her side. The opera ended as it started with a glittering aria and more bouquets for Melba but this time the gilding was brittle; fame had come at great cost.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the founder and director of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. In her previous life in the UK she was a viola player in the electronic string quartet Bond. She has music degrees from Oxford University and the Royal College of Music plus a Masters in Business from UWA. Since arriving in Perth fifteen years ago she has made transformational changes to our classical music scene including forming the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Last year Bourby was a winner in the prestigious 40 under 40 business entrepreneur awards. 

What music gets your heart racing?

Massive symphonies from Bruckner’s 9th to Mahler’s 10th. The power of a full symphony orchestra in concert is utterly unique in the world. In the right place, you can feel the ground shake beneath you as over 100 musicians use every ounce of technique and emotion to bring the music to life. It can drown me with emotion. Not even the world’s best sub woofer can do that.

What calms you down?

Again music – and usually an orchestra. Baroque instrumental music can have an almost spiritual effect on me. But I also love ambient electronic dance music and internet radio stations like Groove Salad on Soma FM. And then there’s the ocean …

What drew you to move to Perth in 2000 when you had a successful career in the UK?

Two main reasons: a music project I was working on didn’t work out and my heart and soul had been in it, so I needed to get away – far away. My boyfriend at the time was from a city called Perth, in a country called Australia. On the map it was in the middle of nowhere. And he wanted to move home. So it all happened together.

You started North Street Music (NSM) in 2008. What was your vision?

I wanted to make a difference for music and musicians in WA. I’d gone into the corporate world, got myself an MBA and risen to the ranks of senior management. But I wanted to do something with that knowledge to work with the people and industry I love most: music. I wanted to create a go-to company for both the music industry and artists that would have a lasting impact on the industry in WA: a place where I could offer advice, create opportunities and generate more amazing experiences for performers and audiences. Part of this vision was to create a Symphony Orchestra …

Perth had just one professional orchestra for decades until you founded Perth Symphony Orchestra in 2011. What made you think there was room for something new?

When I arrived in Perth in 2000 I was blown away by the talent in WA, and the quality of the WA Symphony Orchestra. But I was also very surprised that there was only one professional orchestra. In London I’d been a part of baroque concerts in the vaults under the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ church lit by candles, or been part of a touring version of a gothic opera show, or done full costumed Mozart concerts in town squares, or appeared on Top of the Pops with boy bands – such a diverse and massive range of music using classical musicians that can be enjoyed by an incredibly wide audience. So I wanted to add to the tapestry of what was on offer. I also developed a huge respect for the many freelance musicians I met here, their talent is phenomenal, and they were so keen to have more playing opportunities. We had a huge talent pool. So it was all about ‘when’ not ‘if’.
PSO supporting Diana Krall at the 2014 Leeuwin Estate Concert

You have a soft spot for connecting classical music with ordinary people. What is your inspiration?

Classical music has no boundaries. The moods it can create in me, the feelings, are so diverse, so powerful. If I could find a way to give another 10% of the population access to experience what I experience through music, I’d be very happy. I love pop and rock too, and a huge percentage of what I do involves using contemporary music to show what classical musicians can bring to a tune. My inspiration is seeing how the music I love can change people. Hearing the words “I didn’t know music could make me feel that way” is all the inspiration I need. And we get that a lot at Perth Symphony concerts!

Vivaldi by Candlelight
Your shows are fun, popular, different, accessible. In 2013 your event Beer Beethoven and Bratwurst made The West Australian’s Top Ten Events list. How do you manage this in an industry renowned for being somewhat stuffy?!

Everything we do is focused on our audience. What do you want to hear, how do you want to hear it, where, when, in what setting? We’ve changed the concert format in so many ways. It is not simply a ‘listening’ activity – it is an immersive, engaging, stimulating, exciting experience. So even if the music isn’t familiar, the experience is so unique, and compelling, you go away uplifted and inspired.

The music of Queen - a rock and symphonic spectacular
Classical musicians can be cool too! Where did the idea for Chamber Jam come about, and what can we expect this month at the Ellington Jazz Club?

Chamber Jam is a monthly showcase that we run at the Ellington Jazz Club. It began before the Perth Symphony, and was my first foray into engaging a new audience to classical and chamber music. It was a cellist friend of mine, Emma Vanderwal, who said "why can’t we play chamber music in a jazz club”. And I thought, why not?

This month (Nov 15) is the final for 2015, and we go out with a bang. We showcase three eclectic and diverse acts: Just Sax – a brilliant, fun, saxophone quartet that showcases some of the most talented young WA sax players; Caitlin Huxtable Trio  featuring young violinist Caitlin and friends, and iSQ which is a rock and pop string quartet plus rock drummer performing brilliant arrangements of music from Radiohead to Nirvana to Amy Winehouse. I have to offer disclosure at this point: I play in iSQ so I get to be on stage for our final show for the year.

What is the next instalment from PSO and where can we hear it?

I am beyond excited to be bringing Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman to Perth. This was originally an illustrated story about a young boy who builds a snowman, but it has since been turned into an animated film with a score to be played by a live orchestra, written by Howard Blake. I played it in London when I was 15 years old under the baton of Howard Blake himself. I have wanted to bring it to Perth since I began thinking about forming an orchestra. So finally that dream comes true. We play two shows on Saturday 19th December, and I can’t express enough how everyone should come and experience it. The story is so beautiful and moving, and the music sublime.

You have an MBA from UWA and experience working in marketing and business development. The marriage between business and the arts is more important than people often realize – and not always a happy marriage! How do you balance the tension between the pursuit of creativity and the need for money?

I was aware I was going to have to do something very brave, somewhat crazy, and incredibly astutely if I was to start – and sustain – a symphony orchestra. I had no illusion that funding would be incredibly hard to get, and am very committed to finding a sustainable business model. Sometimes I have to make decisions that compromise my artistic aspirations: we cannot perform as often as I would like. If the audience enjoys Metallica, I see it as an honour to be able to play a Metallica tune alongside a Mozart one for them on an epic scale, knowing our musicians also enjoy the variety. I have a brilliant relationship with our Chief Conductor, Jessica Gethin, and we will argue about pieces, venues, artists, composers sometimes, as Jessica holds the music in the highest esteem. So there can be a healthy discussion, but I don’t think either of us feel we have to compromise to be commercially successful as well as artistically brilliant. And neither should we have to.

Conductor Jessica Gethin
You hold a unique position in Australia as a female director of an orchestra that has another outstanding woman (Jessica Gethin ) as chief conductor. Is it still a battle for women to be accepted in these elite roles?

I think I’m a little naïve on this one, as I just keep moving forward without a thought about gender. There are lots of amazing women in the arts particularly, and I’ve been very very grateful for the respect and support I’ve received. I know it has been harder for Jessica as she is very visible in her role, and conductor is definitely perceived as a man’s domain. Someone I greatly respect, Kathryn McDowall, runs the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras – so I am not alone.

You have a tall, dark, handsome electronic music producer in your life. How did you first cross paths?

We met on tour. Oh, so clichéd! I wanted to know what was involved in massive-scale productions, so when Jeff Wayne toured his epic album ‘The War of the Worlds’ in Australia, and I was in the string section, I approached Jeff and asked could I join the tour to learn more. He invited me on the UK / European Tour in 2009. On stage near me was Gaetan Schurrer triggering sounds, playing keys and doing lots of other cool things I didn’t understand at the time, and we found ourselves as the last pair in the bar every night, chatting, laughing and building a relationship. Whoever said ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour' got it wrong. He is an amazing man.

Is it true you that for a time you were also a high level rower trying out for the Sydney and Athens Olypmics?

Rowing was, and still is, a massive passion for me. The synchronicity of oarsmen and women in a boat is the same as a perfectly together ensemble. It is pure joy when it comes together. I started rowing at Oxford University where I studied my undergraduate degree. My hands got shredded from the oar but I was hooked. My solution was to shrink myself and become a coxswain. Because I understood what it was like to row, I was able to relate to people in my crew. I won women’s Henley Royal Regatta Open VIIIs gold medal in 1997, trained with the British Women’s Squad in 1998/9 before moving to Australia. In 2002 I was the first woman to cox the WA Men’s Kings Cup (the State Men’s Crew) at the National Championships winning the silver medal. In 2003 I was invited to the AIS to try for the Australian National Women’s crew, but by that point, working full time, meant it was harder for me to keep my weight down, so I made the decision to keep rowing as a passion. I can still occasionally be found on the river today.

Any regrets that you aren’t still playing in Bond, the best selling string quartet of all time, after the first album Born?

I have so often wondered what life would be like had I continued with the group. What the band went on to achieve was just remarkable. They were gorgeous girls and they transformed the perception of classical musicians forever. If I were still doing it, I’d not be doing what I am now. And I can honestly say I have my dream job. Since I started North Street Music and Perth Symphony I have had only a fleeting moment of ‘this is too hard’. Every day I look forward to work, find it hard to stop at night, and continue to feel incredibly privileged to do what I do. So no. No regrets.

You’ve had several incarnations during your diverse career – what can we expect next?

I have a different job every day with Perth Symphony – script writer, programmer, proof reader, sponsorship director, education presenter. I’m certain my future is in music and will be associated with the orchestra and musicians. But we are on the hunt for volunteers to be Christmas Elves for our performance of The Snowman, so I think Elf could be my next job role!

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

My life wouldn’t be complete without Gaetan. Nothing I do would be possible without his incredible support and belief in me. But if we are talking things other than partners, my other ‘thing’ would be cooking. I utterly LOVE looking through recipe books, creating new concoctions (Gaetan and I ‘invented’ coconut, apricot, brandy and ginger balls last night – yum!). I rarely switch off, and there is never a day when I am not searching for people and companies to help the orchestra grow, but coming home with fresh ingredients to make an amazing dinner for friends is something I love.

Thank you Bourby for being part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For tickets to the Snowman on 19th December visit You can follow the orchestra on twitter @perthsymphony and instagram.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Perth Festival 2016

Perth International Arts Festival Artistic Director Wendy Martin launches her first program tonight. It is the first of four programs to be rolled out during her tenure director and the word is to expect a program full of "visionaries, mavericks and dreamers".

"It's through the lens of their imaginations that we get to see, understand and re-imagine our world, Martin says. "Dive into the program and discover daring projects made by some of the world’s most brilliant creative minds."

800 of the world's visionaries will descend on Perth for a festival designed for arts lovers of all ages and tastes. As usual the festival will be spread across a variety of venues including the Festival's new home at Elizabeth Quay.

My wrap of the classical music events is below, or go here for the full program.

The classical musical program ranges enticingly from ancient choral delights to glorious baroque, spirited ragtime, bebop and contemporary orchestral jazz. The centrepiece is Wynton Marsalis who is bringing his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orcchestra to Perth to perform Swing Symphony with the WA Symphony Orchestra.

A dedicated Chamber Music Weekend in and around Winthorp Hall includes Mozart, Messiaen, Bartok, Liszt and Ligeti, with a day dedicated to Schubert.

The popular contemporary classical series Soft Soft Loud is back with the premiere of an intricate chamber version of Marc-Anthony Turnage's masterpiece Blood on the Floor.

In an Australian exclusive, the all-male Corsican sextet A Filetta perform original compositions full of soaring vocals and ehavenly harmonies influenced by their island's strong vocal traditions.Sitting alongside this is Italy's Concerto Italiano, one of the world's most revered early music ensembles playing Moteverdi's 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine on 17th century instruments.

I am excited about the variety of local and big name artists, and the span of music accoss both centuries and genres. I'll leave you with a taster of Turnage's Blood on the Floor performed by the Orkest de Ereprijs to whet your appetite.

The Festival runs 12 Feb to 6 March 2016. For more details and to book tickets go to