Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Best of 2015

I was asked by The West Australian to compile my top five concerts for 2015 and I thought I'd share my list with online readers too. It was an interesting process. Turns out 2015 has been a big year for opera in Perth (or maybe my opera-bias is showing?!). It was also a good reminder of the diversity of Perth's classical scene. 

The list is below in no particular order and includes one disappointment too. 

Top Five Concerts
*PIAF The Rabbits: I loved this all-age opera. The Tan/Marsden allegory of rabbits colonising a land of marsupials was told with uncomfortable directness using a vibrant mix of art forms including pop artist Kate Miller-Heidke singing her own compositions.

*LOST & FOUND In the Shadow of Venus: I can still picture soprano Sara Macliver driving a convertible through Northbridge piazza with her FIFO husband. LOST & FOUND opera productions have become the subject of dinner-time conversation; this is how to keep the art form alive.

*Burt Bacharach: I will always remember watching this music legend perform songs that have become the soundtrack to our lives. The 87 year old closed the concert with a new song, his 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.’

*Decibel: After Julia: Eight women composers commissioned to ‘sound out’ a response to Julia Gillard’s tenure as prime minister. The result, performed by Decibel ensemble in April, was an incisive example of music as social commentary.

*WASO Brahms Festival: The genius of Asher Fisch as he contoured both the micro spaces between phrases and the macro sweep of Brahms’ symphonies creating music that was tender, life-affirming and majestic.

One Disappointment
*Australian Chamber Orchestra Reflections on Gallipoli:
This montage of horrific photographs, brutal storytelling and troubling music revealed how much the Australian art scene cashed in on ANZAC funding without pausing to culturally critique this dark part of our history. A black spot on the ACO’s normally outstanding concert series. 

What were your favourite gigs this year? Or your biggest disappointment?
Head to The West to see what other critics thought.

Happy New Year to everyone and see you at a show next year!


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Celebrity Soft Spot Mark Coughlan

He hosts stars like Piers Lane, collects fast cars and pianos has performed with most ensembles around town. He also runs his own medical services company and is on the board of most of Perth's musical organisations. Meet Mark Coughlan, one of Perth's most sociable and business-savvy musicians.

What music gets your heart racing?

I love a huge range of music but there is a special place in my heart for the great piano concertos especially when played by a pianist with a strong, bold musical personality and a great sense of structure and a commanding tonal presence. Brahms 1 or 2, Chopin 2, Beethoven 5 and Rachmaninov 3 are at the top of a long list.

What calms you down?

Music, of course, can also create intense feelings of peace and reflection and I love spending time at the piano with great, introspective works like the finale of Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op111, or the slow movements of Ravel’s concerto or Beethoven’s Emperor. Outside of music, it is important for me to spend time either among the trees of Kings Park or at the beach, jogging, resting, meditating, with my dogs at my side.

You have a soft spot for the piano. What is the appeal of the ivories?

According to my parents, I fell in love with a little piano in a toy shop when I was barely two, so I always felt that the piano chose me rather than the other way around. My auntie had a beautiful Ronisch grand piano and, even in my earliest memories, I was always entranced by this elegant instrument and I used to love hearing her play. I can’t remember a time when the piano didn’t hold a fascination for me. Before I started lessons I used to stand at the front fence and listen to my neighbour practising the piano.

Mark Coughlan with Pei-Yin Hsu in Paris.
After establishing your career as a concert pianist you spent eight years as Head of Music at UWA. Then you ventured into business in the medical sector, perhaps inspired by your partner Dr Pei-Yin Hsu, and also worked as a music critic for The Australian. What is your job description now?

I recently tried to have some new business cards printed that reflected all of my current activities and there was so much information on them it looked ridiculous so I gave up on the idea! My simplest job description would be musician and company director. I am a director of seven entities, six of which are in the arts or community sectors and one is my medical services company. In addition to these roles, I work as a pianist, artistic director, occasional conductor, music critic and as a teacher and mentor to young musicians. I am Chairman of the Government House Foundation and have been artistic director of the Music on the Terrace series since we started it 10 years ago. I am very proud of what we have achieved with this project and the strong support we have established. I am also excited by my role as Chairman of Lost and Found Opera which we started a couple of years ago. We had no money of course, just a vision and some talented people, but we raised funds, put on terrific shows and have built a strong reputation for this new enterprise. We have just heard that the Department of Culture and Arts is giving us some core funding for the next three years which is extremely rewarding and exciting and will allow us to take the company to the next level. I have been on the board of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for six years and this has been an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience. The orchestra has developed into a genuinely world-class ensemble in the last couple of years and its concerts often reach the highest international standard.

You mention your role at the Government House Foundation. What is the story of the Government House Ballroom – I believe it was designed by Percy Grainger’s father?

The Ballroom is one of Western Australia’s great gems. It was built in 1899 under the supervision of John Grainger (Percy’s father) who was State Government Architect at the time. The room has a stunning acoustic and a warm, welcoming vibe. It is a great privilege to be involved there, to program and perform a wide array of concerts and to also create opportunities for young musicians to perform in this very special space. We have so few spaces like this in Perth, it needs to be treasured and nurtured for future generations.

There seems to be a loyal audience for the Music on the Terrace series as it has survived the economic downturn where many others haven’t. What is the appeal to audiences?

It’s always hard to explain why some concerts do well and others don’t but for Music on the Terrace we have concentrated on creating a sense of community with our subscribers and supporters. We have a governing committee who volunteer their time to be ushers and to pour drinks at interval (free drinks!) and this helps people connect with each other.  The programs feature a lot of young musicians, rising stars, as well as established artists and the occasional international star. We like to create a strong interaction between the performers and the audience and hopefully this makes a difference.

What is on the program for 2016?

In 2016 we are once again presenting some exciting collaborations, including with the National Academy of Music in Melbourne, with UWA and WAAPA. Our Rising Stars program is very important to us and will include a stronger educational element next year. Our extremely popular cabaret show, Music of the Night, will also return due to popular demand. The full program will be released in January.

You have inherited the directorship of the Vienna Pops New Years Eve concert from John Christmass. This concert sells out the entire Concert Hall every year. What is it about light classics and New Years Eve that has such stupendous appeal?

John Christmass did an outstanding job in establishing and leading this important event for 25 years. When they asked me to take over from him three years ago I was delighted to do so. There are wonderful traditions in the northern hemisphere for New Year’s concerts, the most famous one being the Vienna Philharmonic’s. In Australia, New Year falls during our summer holidays, the concert season has finished and many people are travelling or chilling out at the beach so we tend to celebrate differently. I think the success of our Vienna Pops event is that it connects with the European tradition of celebrating New Years with a musical gala but we program it in a more eclectic and popular way that appeals to the broadest range of people. Certainly we present some of the best-loved Viennese works, including the Blue Danube and other Strauss favourites, but we also include popular pieces from opera, operetta and concerto repertoire. I think the secret to any concert is to have performances of the highest quality. Our orchestra is always excellent and we feature the best soloists we can find, most of whom are from WA! We also include every year a talented young performer. This year it will be an 18 year old local pianist who has just spent several months studying overseas. We also have two of the best singers you will ever hear, Fiona Campbell and Ali Bodycoat. Ali is one of Australia’s great jazz divas and she is going to recreate a little Viennese cabaret scene for us this year to stretch the musical boundaries a little more than usual. Fiona is, of course, an outstanding opera singer and will sing a range of pieces including a little bit from the Sound of Music! The other great thing about this event is that we raise money for the Perth Rotary Club’s charities so it’s not just about having fun and enjoying the beautiful music, there is a community benefit too.

You are a recent addition to the WA Symphony Orchestra board of directors. Give us a clue what the meetings are like when high profile business people come together and discuss the arts.

WASO is an outstanding arts company and being a director is a great privilege. We have a great mix of skills and experience on the board, from corporate, Government, private enterprise and the arts. Of course the role of any company board is to ensure the organisation is well run, is financially viable and has a good business strategy. With an arts company, the board must also ensure that the organisation is serving its community as well as possible and will continue to exist for at least the next 100 years! Of course we spend a lot of time discussing financial matters, raising funds and ensuring that the company is in good shape but one of the most exciting recent developments is the way all board members have become so engaged in the quest for artistic excellence and the vital importance of this aspiration to the orchestra’s reputation and well being.

Where did you learn the skills that have enabled you to straddle business and the world of music performance?

I was very fortunate during my years as Head of the UWA School of Music that I served on a number of boards, including Musica Viva Australia and also as Chairman of the Australian Music Examinations Board. Through these activities and in my role managing the school’s budgets, I gained quite a bit of experience in financial management which was a great help for my step into private enterprise. Once I left UWA, I undertook further training through private courses and then just jumped in. One important lesson I learnt was that it’s sometimes best to learn on the job and if I always waited until I was totally prepared, I might never do anything new!

I believe you and Pei Yin share your Shenton Park home with Davis and Molly?

Yes we have two beautiful German shorthaired pointers, Davis and Molly, aged 6 and 3 respectively. They bring us love, laughter and companionship every day as well as ensuring that we get lots of exercise! We also have a number of cars and pianos, two of my weaknesses!

I’m going to throw in a tricky one – life highlight so far??

I find it difficult to identify a single highlight as I tend to view my life in chapters. My student days at UWA, then my time studying in London, the period when I was working for UWA, and my current phase as a board member and freelance musician. Each chapter has had wonderful highlights as well as lots of challenges. I have met and worked with extraordinary people and had the privilege to bring the gift of music to so many people. I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to help and encourage the next generation of musicians to find their own life path.

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

Oh no, not at all! I have a huge soft spot for many things in life including excellent wine, fast cars, grand pianos, visual arts, travel, healthy living, dogs, personal development and mentoring the next generation.

Thank you Mark Coughlan for being a part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For more information on the New Years Eve concert go here. The Government House Ballroom Music on the Terrace series will be launched here in January.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Symphony in the City review

The WA Symphony Orchestra concluded the 2015 season with their biggest concert of the year. The Symphony in the City is growing in popularity and attracted over 20 000 people to Langley Park plus those gathered at the Northbridge Piazza and around the state watching the live broadcast.

The free event was narrated by Stephen Curry (Dale Kerrigan from The Castle fame) who declared he was ‘tickled pink’ to be there. For the first time in its nine year history the concert was conducted by principal conductor Asher Fisch who has recently signed on for another three year term. Four screens and sound rigs arrayed through the park ensured picnicking concertgoers could see and hear the orchestra in the beautifully lit sound shell.

Curry's humourous lowbrow commentary included the relaying of Twitter updates and banter about Fisch’s hair: “Do people ever say you look like celebrity chef Marco Pierre White... or Lionel Ritchie?”

But it was Fisch and his orchestra who stole the show with repertoire well chosen to provide contrasting moods plus some sneak previews of the 2016 concert calendar. The orchestra played Strauss’ lilting Blue Danube waltz and children danced in the aisles as the last rays of sun faded over the river. A preview of the 2016 Baroque series featured the luxuriant sounds of the WASO Chorus in Vivaldi’s Gloria followed by excerpts from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 2. Andrew Nicholson delivered Bach’s sparkling solo flute line with an incredibly warm sound, especially given the open air venue and gusting sea breeze.

Things got a bit fiery for Mars from Holst’s The Planets before the energy wound down for Mozart’s Lacrimosa and Bottesini’s Elegy where Andrew Sinclair’s wistfully singing double bass solo was captured on camera with an intimacy hard to beat even in a concert hall.

Just as the children quieted and the audience relaxed into contemplation Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture literally exploded off the stage. The chorus impressed again with their deep blended Russian sound while the orchestra played the finale with remarkable coherence given the fireworks exploding over their heads!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Judas Maccabaeus review

How indulgent to listen to two hours of Handel – and no it wasn’t Messiah. It was a rare performance of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, the final concert in the music series at St George’s Cathedral. As the spine-tingling yearning intensity of Baroque counterpoint filled the Cathedral I wondered where else you could go to hear this music in Perth or in Australia for that matter?

Judas Maccabaeus, composed 1747, is rarely performed despite the fact in Handel’s day it was one of his most popular oratorios. The oratorio is based on the apocryphal biblical account of one of Israel’s greatest military heroes. Joseph Nolan conducted the Cathedral Consort and Paul Wright was concertmaster of The Musician’s Table in a performance which unfolded with dramatic clarity and faultless pacing. 

Sydney-based tenor Richard Butler sang the role of Judas with heroic aggression which occasionally compromised his pitch and tone. Baritone Andrew Foote gave an imposing, accurate and gleaming account of Judas’ brother Simon. Soprano soloist Sara Macliver sang the Israelite Woman with crystalline sound and needle-sharp melismatic runs while mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell sang the Israelite Man with creamy sustained warmth.

Handel’s stunning four-part choral writing provided opportunity to appreciate the unique soundworld Nolan has built with the Consort. The basses in particular were impressive for their nimbleness and resplendent tone while the clarion youthfulness of the sopranos was well-contrasted with the syrupy warmth of the altos and the restrained ardour of the tenors.

The highlight, as is often the case for me, was Fiona Campbell’s lament Ah wretched, wretched Israel, where her lingering phrases duetted sweetly with Noeleen Wright’s cello to create heart-wrenching pathos.

There were plenty of other moments too: Macliver’s shimmering cadenza in So Shall the lute; or Stewart Smith’s organ chords straining through the orchestral texture and creating shivering harmonic tension. And of course the famous See, the conqu’ring hero comes with the glorious sound of treble chorus and brass given such buoyancy by Nolan and his team.

This review copyright The West Australian 2015.