Friday, 30 December 2016

The Best of 2016

If you were to pick your favourite gig for the year what would it be?

It's been a privilege to attend so many concerts this year - often as a critic - where I've been delighted (and sometimes surprised!) by the quality of the shows. What a fabulous job I have! It's often a huge effort to extract small children from my legs and get out the door, but I have not yet been disappointed. Perhaps it is because I choose the best concerts! Or perhaps it is because Perth is producing increasingly high quality gigs.

Ileana Rinaldi, Emma Pettermerides, Emma Pearson, Harriet O'Shannessy,
Simon Morrison-Baldwin and Jun Zhang. Photo Eva Fernandez

The launch of Freeze Frame Opera in November was one of the surprises. I knew the cast would be excellent but I didn't expect the effort that had gone into the production; the lighting, choreography, props (a combi van!), the narration all communicated powerfully with the audience. It was an edgy and exciting combination of venue, performers and music. Due to popular demand a sequel is being planned for February 2017!

Another surprise was a venture into theatre reviewing for Limelight Magazine which introduced me to the satirical genius of Moliere's Tartuffe. I will long remember the glossy white set and fabulously comic performances from this Black Swan Theatre show.

Simon Tedeschi demonstrated the ultimate piano recital at the WA Academy of Performing Arts with his candid audience interactions and soulful performances of Gershwin.

There was a very enthusiastic audience response to a program of  Australian contemporary composers at a concert by Katie Noonan and the Brodsky Quartet. The many layers of artistic richness - Judith Wright's poems reinterpreted through composition and then shaped by the artistry of the musicians - resulted in an intensely beautiful concert.

The gong this year goes collectively to Perth's blossoming opera companies.  Brad Cohen's magic potion at work at WA Opera resulted in a hilarious Elixir of Love and a gripping production of Tim Winton's The Riders. Perth's operatic renaissance is also thanks to the grassroots company Opera Box who blew me away with an ambitious and very funny Ariadne auf Naxos, and my favourite this year: Lost & Found's Don Procopio with a bombshell cast and more layers of meaning than you would find in an onion.

That's my overview for 2016, but I didn't make it to everything so let me know what I might have missed and what your favourites were.

Cheers to all  involved in creating, producing and enjoying live music in Perth. THANK YOU for a fabulous year and toi toi toi for 2017

Monday, 19 December 2016

Christmas listening - something different

What are you listening to this Christmas?

James Morrison's grooving Christmas album has been filling our house and the delightful kids album Christmas in the Scrub is on repeat in the car. Andrew and I went to the WA Symphony Orchestra's Messiah earlier in the month so we have been listening to Handel too.

I just watched the Nutcracker ballet with my children and was so relieved to be swept away in the gentle magic of its imaginary Christmas world. The lavish production by the New York City Ballet had my children entranced and Tchaikovsky's music had us dancing around the lounge room. I much prefer this version of Christmas screen time to the many junky Christmas movies around.

But here is something different again. Katie Noonan has put me on to Thad Jones' beautiful jazz standard A Child is Born that contemplates the birth of Jesus and the miracle of new life.

Lyric by Alec Wilder
Now, out of the night, soft as the dawn, into the light,
This child, innocent child, soft as a fawn, this child is born
Here he lies, trusting and warm, blessed as the dawn
A child is born.
One small heart, one pair of eyes, one work of art, here in my arms
Here he lies, trusting and warm, blessed this morn.
A child is born.

 And finally a work by the great English composer Judith Weir. Her setting of the medieval carol Illuminare is performed here by the Choir of King's College, with an excerpt of the medieval lyrics below.

1. Jerusalem reioss for joy: 

Jesus the sterne of most bewte
In thee is rissin, as rychtous roy,
Fro dirknes to illumyne the. 
With glorius sound of angell gle 
Thy prince is borne in Baithlehem 
Quhilk sall thee mak of thraldome fre. 
Illuminare, Jerusalem.

We join with centuries of artists, composers, and musicians when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. May your festivities be rich with the joy, creativity and mystery that is Christmas.
Merry Christmas!

(If you are reading this in your inbox you may have to go to my blog to access the youtube clips. Happy listening!)

Monday, 12 December 2016

Your 2017 Concert Calendar - a snapshot

The year is drawing to an end and the 2017 concert seasons have been launched. Here is my helpful shortcut to planning your 2017 concert calendar.

The WA Symphony Orchestra are heading into more German romantic territory in 2017, following the talents of conductor Asher Fisch.  They will premiere a work by composer-in-residence Lachlan Skipworth (as do most other organisations it seems!) but other than that a fairly dull contemporary program with NO women composers. (I am biased I know but you must agree that is pretty shocking gender representation.) Their full program is here. The orchestra is in peak form so any concert on the program should be a real treat.

In contrast Musica Viva will continue its Hildegard Project with national tours intentionally including works by 2 women composers in 2017. They will also include a Skipworth premiere (#composeroftheyear). Their program is here.

Perth International Arts Festival has launched their program (for February and March) with a fabulous theme of 'art without borders'. The classical program is quite comprehensive including an intriguing interpretation of Schubert's Wintereisse and an expanded version of the 2016 chamber music weekend featuring national and international ensembles, plus a premiere by - you guessed it - Lachlan Skipworth!!

And of course there is PIAF's sister event the Fringe WORLD, one of the fastest growing events in the southern hemisphere. The January - February festival program has just been released with its bags of burlesque and circus fun which invariably includes edgy and unusual music gigs. There is even a performance of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder in a program called Dream of Childhood's End.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra will bring five concerts to WA in 2017, check out the Perth program here.

The St George's Cathedral music series is always worth booking in. In 2017 the program includes Faure's Requiem and Handel's Solomon.

The West Australian Opera will celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2017 so expect lots of glitter at the opening Opera in the Park and a season that includes Tosca, The Merry Widow and Lucia di Lammermoor.

The music institutions haven't yet released their programs but keep an eye on the websites for WAAPA and UWA. And I will keep you up to date on the grass roots gigs (Freeze Frame Opera, Lost & Found Opera, Tura new music, Voyces) that will pop up as the year unfolds; they often contain the musical highlights of my year.

Hopefully that provides you with some inspiration for your Christmas shopping and the year ahead. 2017 without live music would be a bleak outlook indeed. Dive in!

Perth Festival 2017 highlights reel

Friday, 9 December 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Louise Devenish

Louise Devenish's impact on the Australian percussion scene can't be quantified in one blog post, but I thought I'd give it a go! Devenish is head of percussion at the University of Western Australian and her doctorate on the development of Australian percussion music will soon be published in book form. She is part of four nationwide ensembles and about to launch her fifth group Intercurrent this month. Best of all she is based in Perth and you can read about her contagious energy here, in this last Celebrity Soft Spot post for 2016.

Louise Devenish c Nik Babic

What music gets your heart racing?

I like a lot of different musics, anything that is played with passion and commitment is exciting to listen to. As far as playing goes, anything that I am learning for the first time and have almost memorised gets my heart racing! When something is almost but not quite memorised there is definitely adrenalin in those final run-throughs…

What calms you down?

In terms of calming music, I like Susumu Yokota, Oren Ambarchi, Toru Takemitsu and Erik Satie.

What do you sing along to?

I am a big car singer – and I love singing to pop music or anything instrumental I can figure out a way to sing to in the car! Snarky Puppy, Avishai Cohen, Flume and Bobby McFerrin are always in there.

What first drew you into percussion?

I can’t remember exactly why I chose percussion, but I can very clearly remember the form I filled out listing it as my first preference to learn at high school - it was an opportunity to try something new, my dad suggested percussion and that was it. Percussion was a natural progression from piano, and once I started I was hooked.

Performing David Pye's Rebana Loops

You have carved out a thriving international career as a freelance percussionist with The Sound Collectors, Decibel and Speak Percussion. Despite performing with orchestras including the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra you have chosen a freelance rather than an orchestral career. Is it the appeal of chamber music, the freedom, the repertoire or…?

The thing with freelancing is that sometimes it chooses the direction that you go in! I love orchestral music and chamber music, but in different ways, and I’m certain that the skills I learned in an orchestra benefited my chamber ensemble skills. New chamber music is really great for a percussionist - the ever-evolving role of percussion in new music can lead to so many different things. Last week, my instruments were built using fluros, LEDs and strobe lights, this week it’s marimba and vibraphone. It changes week to week because we don’t really even know where the boundaries of percussion actually lie yet, and it is really exciting to explore that. I also love the close collaborative relationships that develop in making chamber music, and that chamber music can really be performed anywhere (anywhere with a reasonable load-in, that is!).

Exploring the boundaries of percussion in 2015 Sound Collectors:Confluence Project

What inspired the formation of your new group Intercurrent?

Friendship in music. Lachlan, Ashley, Emily and I have known each other a long time and have worked together in various combinations over the years. We decided it was time to do something together and there truly is nothing like making good music with great friends.

How are you preparing for the launch on December 14th?

At the moment, a lot of marimba practice! Lachlan has composed a new work for this concert and there are a fair few notes to learn. We will be rehearsing at the UWA School of Music, along with guest percussionist Adam Tan.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

Mark Applebaum is one of my favourite composers, and he certainly makes interesting music! One of the great things about music is the way it connects you to other people, and can challenge or change your perspective on the world.

You dedicate a lot of time to teaching – you are head of percussion at the University of WA where you are regularly nominated for excellence in teaching awards. What inspires you? 

My students inspire me – I have some truly wonderful students at UWA who are full of ideas and questions and it is part of what keeps me questioning and learning too. Plus it is heaps of fun! I love teaching at UWA and feel lucky to be able to teach across a wide range of areas that I really enjoy, including performance, listening, world music and music research. We have a really cool season of concerts with Pinata Percussion lined up for 2017 that I’m looking forward to.

Devenish performing a work she commissioned from Kate Moore

You have a soft spot for the music of Australian composers – you’ve commissioned over 40 new works and completed a Doctor of Musical Arts researching the development of Australian contemporary percussion music. What is the appeal of this repertoire?

It’s really good. Sometimes when you are close to something, it can be hard to see it clearly and I think that sometimes happens with Australian music. There are some world-leading composers living and working in Australia (and there have been for decades), making unique music unlike what is coming out of other cultural hotspots around the world, and there are some truly astounding performers like Vanessa Tomlinson, Genevieve Lacey and Marshall Maguire championing this music. As far as making my own projects goes, it just makes sense to me to work with the excellent Australian artists surrounding me, because it can done in person!

You have a super supportive music teacher husband – where do you two call home?

Luke is super supportive – not only does he come to all the concerts, but he is such a legend with helping move percussion gear and any logistics on gigs when help is needed. Without his help I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near as much done! We are happy to call Bayswater home, especially when the sun is out.

Where did you learn the skills to build your own career?

I think I’m still learning that! My strategy is to try anything that might be interesting because it usually is.

Devenish with Steve Reich

What is your favourite place in Perth?

Our back yard.

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

Music is certainly a big part of my life, but I am also into yoga and chatting with friends and family in cafes.

Many thanks to Louise Devenish for participating in the final Celebrity Soft Spot for the year. You can watch Louise perform at the launch of Intercurrent as part of the final Scale Variable concert for the year on 14th December. For more information on Louise go to her website There is also a fabulous ABC Classic FM podcast on Louise and her research into Australian percussion music here.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Handel's Messiah review

It’s a long way from Bruckner and Wagner to Handel. But such is the life of orchestral players and with the help of English choral specialist Stephen Layton the WA Symphony Orchestra made the leap from last week’s Germanic romanticism to this weekend’s Messiah.

conductor Stephen Layton
On Friday 2nd December a 25 piece orchestra and the WASO chorus joined with Layton and four English vocalists for a Messiah that, despite some untidy moments, had enthralling dramatic clarity.

From the opening Sinfony Layton revealed his flair for crafting through dynamics, particularly the use of restraint. Repeated phrases became whisper soft echoes while exciting crescendos were built from repeated sequences. Layton’s sense of dramatic direction was applied to the megastructure of Messiah too. The outer sections were performed with joyful vigour (although the fugues revealed a vulnerable chorus tenor section) while Part Two was the dramatic epicentre with pianissimo fragility and drawn out harmonic suspensions.

The soloists sang with the purity of the English choral tradition, sometimes barely audible over the orchestra but effective in their use of light and shade. Mezzo soprano Helen Charlston’s langorous ‘He was despised’ had stillness and intimacy while Tenor Gwilym Bowen’s tremulous performance of ‘Thy rebuke has broken His heart’ over extremely soft string accompaniment brought to the foreground a section of Messiah I’d never previously given much attention to. Robert Davies sang with a clean, smooth baritone bringing stateliness to ‘The trumpet shall sound’ with resplendent trumpet contributions from Brent Grapes. Soprano Eleanor Dennis ushered in Part Three with a shimmering ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ although her wide vibrato clouded her diction.

The dramatic clarity was interrupted by moments of disparity between the chorus, who were following the precise downbeat of Layton’s conducting, and the orchestra who tended to play behind the beat. Stewart Smith’s crisp contributions on harpsichord were an important anchor.

The work moved into hope and resurrection helped by the chorus’s assertive, agile fugue ‘Let us break their bonds’. The Amen, perhaps the greatest ever composed, was an unleashing of radiant splendour helped by the dense organ chords from Jonathon Bradley who had moved from the orchestral keyboard to the pipe organ loft for the finale.

In the program notes Layton, who will soon notch up 200 performances of Messiah, described the final moments of the work as a ‘vision of what heaven may be like’. His dramatic conviction made Handel’s musical centrepiece of the Christian faith a powerful testimony. It’s no wonder that a work of such intense spirituality remains banned in places like China. The enthusiastic response of the capacity audience indicated the ongoing appeal of Handel’s Messiah – perhaps especially during a season that can be so easily overwhelmed by consumer chaos.

This review was first published in Limelight magazine.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

December Gig Guide

December tends to be a quieter month musically. The university music programs have finished for the year, the national tours have ceased and organisations are winding up and preparing for next year. 

Fortunately Tura New Music doesn't follow these rules and have two major events this month! The first is the Keith Tippet residency. Tippet is a UK based pianist described as one of the most radical pioneers in improvisation and contemporary jazz. He will perform a solo concert Rehearsal Room on December 1st at the State Theatre and Mujician Mosaic on the 7th featuring the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra, iMprov and the specially formed Mujician Mosaic ensemble.

Tura will also host the final Scale Variable Concert for the year featuring the debut of Intercurrent, a group including Louise Devenish, Ashley William-Smith and Emily Green-Armytage. The stunning Darkened Descent program on the 14th at the State Theatre includes works by Lachlan Skipworth, Mortan Feldman and John Luther Adams.

The WA Symphony Orchestra are also going strong, with a concert with Missy Higgins in Kings Park on the 3rd December plus a performance of Handel's Messiah on the 2/3rd with English conductor Stephen Layton (City of London Sinfonia). WASO concludes their year with the popular free performance Symphony in the Park on the 10th at Langley Park.

To get us into the Christmas spirit there is what looks like a beautiful choral concert on the 16th by Voyces featuring Emma Matthews singing traditional and new carols at St Joseph's Subiaco.

And that's the year wrapped up!

I'll soon be reflecting back on all the gigs that have been and picking out some favourites... do you have any standout shows I should include in my 2016 highlights?

And stay tuned because I'll soon be posting all the programs for 2017 so you can start booking your concert diary.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Andrew Batt-Rawden

Three years ago a Sydney composer in his twenties purchased Australia's long-established but struggling arts magazine Limelight. The magazine was verging on bankruptcy (again!) but Andrew Batt-Rawden had a vision. Limelight is now a profitable business with a significant presence in the national art scene and Batt-Rawden has become one of Australia's leading arts entrepreneurs. Batt-Rawden has been based in Perth for the past six months as artist-in-residence at Gallop House in Nedlands, and has recently decided to stay permanently in Western Australia.

Andrew Batt-Rawden

What music gets your heart racing?

Bjork - Mutual Core
Saariaho - D’om le Vrai Sens
Reich - Music for 18 Musicians
Meredith - Jet Black Raider (Unicorn)
Stromae - Racine Caree
The Presets - Apocalypso

What calms you down?

Part - Fratres
Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrtjun
Carla Bruni - Comme si de rien n’était
Massive Attack - Collected
Laurie Anderson - Big Science
Pleq & Segue - The Seed
Zoe Keating - Into the Trees

What do you sing along to?

The Irrepressibles - Nude
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Laurie Andersen - From the Air
Royksopp & Robyn - Monument
Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear & This is Acting
The Presets - Pacifica & Apocalypso

What are your first impressions on Perth’s arts scene?

What astounded me when I first got here about Perth’s arts scene was how easy it is to create and experiment here. It is a very open-minded scene, and I felt very welcomed immediately as I just picked up the phone and started speaking to people. From an industry perspective, there’s a lot of people willing to have a go and see what happens.

From an audience perspective, there’s a heap of diversity, both easily accessible and a bit “underground” (where, to even know an event is happening, you need to know the artists already). There’s heaps of pockets of Perth I’m yet to discover, and I love it. The quality of work I’ve seen has been very high.

I also LOVE the Department of Culture and the Arts, and I have to say, the Chamber for Culture and the Arts is a unique industry structure not found in other states; I’m very impressed WA created that infrastructure.

Philanthropy on this side of Australia is a bit different to Sydney and Melbourne; it’s nice to see those differences, and learning so much nuance nationally is delightful.

What have you been working on while artist in residence at Gallop House?

I’m working on building three new big projects at the moment. I’m workshopping with groups and individual artists, and building new skills for new expressions of composition and performance. 

Recently I had a workshop between two life models/dancers who created forms and movements of varying tempi to a narrative I’d written whilst a quartet of harp, piano, violin and flute played a text-based improvisation score I’d prepared and six visual artists created visual interpretations of the experience - “Connect/Disconnect”. The workshop was to nut out some of the technical problems between amalgamating the three art forms… we’ll continue onto a development and a showing, possibly even the premiere next year.

I’m about to go into a workshop period with Strut Dance and the much acclaimed Maxine Doyle from Punchdrunk Theatre (UK) in collaboration with a bunch of very talented local dance and theatre artists in early December. There will be a showing advertised on the Strut website. 

I’m currently in the middle of writing new music for The Song Company, Canberra Symphony/Roger Woodward, as well as a few new songs for me to perform (whenever I get the opportunity) and a number of grant applications!!!

What drew you into composition? Who have been your teachers/influences?

Score for the song Les Mots
I got into music because I heard Ennio Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission soundtrack. I was 8 and it put tingles over my entire body - I remember still how powerful that experience was for me, transcendent. 

It moved me so much because I’d been living in a very depressive world as a child - bullied, no friends, suicidal… and this piece; the forlorn sound of the oboe, the message of hope and connection with spirit I got through the music - it expressed to me everything I needed to hear at that moment and changed my life.

At the Sydney Con I learnt the basics. When I graduated I started producing my own events outside a university context, first in France (I was working at Maccas in Cannes whilst producing contemporary electroacoustic string quartet concerts and writing for ensembles in Sydney), then back in Australia I started a company Chronology Arts and wrote heaps of music over the years for heaps of different people/instrumentations, whilst also producing events and writing grants and fostering audiences. 

Composition for me is not just dots on a page, it encompasses an understanding of and engagement in the whole process of creating. Although I’ve been called a “Composer” a lot, I’d say I’m more of the broader term “creator” or “creative artist”.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

“Interesting” is an ambiguous term for a good reason; music can be interesting in a variety of ways. Before my residency at Gallop House I was often focussing on an exploration of technique, narrative and technology in my music, but now I’m more interested in allowing my music to express deeply held and protected emotions to offer a space for cathartic experiences for listeners. I aim to express, without filtering, my core (#nofilter ?). I think my most successful work in that paradigm was a song I wrote about meth addiction, which I’ll be recording next year. 

You have a soft spot for being a still life model, how did this come about?

When I came to Perth, I got off the plane, dumped my stuff at Gallop House and then went to my first life modelling session. I was doing it to prepare for an event in August where I would be life modelling for Wendy Sharpe whilst the Australian Art Quartet premiered one of my quartets (“27”). We sold out the event (3 times) so it was just as well that I had some preparation!

Batt Rawden's string quartet "27" with the composer as life model. Artist Wendy Sharpe

After the event I didn’t stop - I’d lined up a bunch of life modelling gigs and I discovered there was something in it that I really enjoyed - the expression of my body - and I could use my body to express a variety of things in a variety of ways. Nudity creates a space of openness, vulnerability, and when you’re with a receptive audience who are conscious of the nudity (as opposed to objectifying the model as a sex-toy), you’re able to feel safe to explore form, expression, tension, beauty, gender, exhaustion - so many things. I don’t always pose still, I have been working on movement poses and incorporating dance of different speeds with visual art.

I’m using my posing for the research/development of three major shows next year where I’ll be doing some posing, singing, dancing, vocal performance, piano performance. “Connect/Disconnect” is one I’m collaborating on with a bunch of local Perth artists and I’ll definitely let you know when we have a showing early next year.

You had an almost prophetic vision of the role Limelight could play as one of the few remaining sources of print arts journalism in Australia. The magazine has now established a strong and growing digital readership. What are your plans for Limelight in 2017?

In 2017 I am taking a major leap; making a digital financial model available to our readers. We’ll be putting up all articles from each issue, but under a paywall, which can be lifted through a monthly supporter subscription or pay-per read system. I’m increasing digital content through a variety of partnerships around the country, and improving the website/mobile site.

We’re also, for the first time, negotiating contracts with non-performing arts clients that involve experiential marketing; making new composition/performance, touring it and marketing it through Limelight. That’s a dream come true for me, and not one I expected to achieve to be honest!

The print mag has a very loyal audience, and it will continue in 2017. We are developing new plans for marketing it better because the opportunity to market print media has been decreasing over the past years (as newsagents shut down).

As newspapers around the world continue to cut arts journalism leading to a major decline in music criticism what is your vision for how we can continue to champion the arts in Australia?

Arts Illuminated is an arts company that publishes Limelight magazine… sure it happened to be for-profit and I’m the sole director, but my approach is that it is an arts company. I think that arts journalism has to be accepted as part of the arts ecosystem.

In saying that, we need more people stepping up who will take risks, put in crazy hours, accept responsibility, be brave, be smart about it, ask for help… and more people willing to step up and put their money/time where their mouth is when it comes to supporting the arts and arts media.

Where did you learn the skills to be a magazine owner?

Mum and dad are both publishers as well… but they work in the business to business area (they both have corporate events mags). Dad is strong in finance and people management and mum is strong in sales and a different style of people management to dad.

But the real skills were learnt on the job. Limelight is a business to consumer magazine which means it’s totally different revenue model to my parent’s mags and hence different company structures and motivations.

I’d been running businesses for about 8 years before buying Limelight; a production company, a few festivals, admin for various arts companies… so I’d accumulated a lot of skills over time.

The relationship between Clive and I is like one between an Artistic Director and General Manager, and that relationship is one I’ve been on both sides of and, well, it’s the same stuff as all businesses really, just different content.

Are rumours true that a significant new relationship might be one of the major drawcards to you remaining in Perth!?

My personal relationships would exist despite my career but honestly I am staying in Perth because of the art!

Love Spiral by Batt-Rawden. Pianist Jocelyn Ho performs 
to her live heart beat, and fibre optic attire responds.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

North Swanbourne nude beach - love being natural in nature! It's a great place to go replenish/relax, be alone with some music, reconnect with and be comfortable in my own skin.

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

Music is a way of expressing my soft spots for everything else. Younger emerging artists, victims of child sex abuse, people unable to express themselves, marginalised people, nature that hasn't been transformed by humanity's greed. I have a lot of empathy and a huge heart. I guess the shorter answer to that question for me would be what riles me up - and that'd be greed.

Thank you Andrew Batt-Rawden for taking part in Celebrity Soft Spot. For more details go to Andrew's website. and check out his soundcloud -

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Stuart Skelton and Asher Fisch perform Wagner

Asher Fisch’s three years as principal conductor with the WA Symphony Orchestra seem to have been building - via a series of Beethoven and Brahms festivals – towards a Wagnerian goal. The orchestra’s recent international tour included an all-Wagner program in Abu Dhabi and the 2017 season has two programs dedicatedto Wagner with concert performances of Tristan und Isolde planned for 2018. The concert on the weekend featured what was billed as the Wagnerian dream team: heldentenor Stuart Skelton and conductor Asher Fisch in a program of Wagner opera excerpts.
Asher Fisch and Stuart Skelton

So what does Asher Fisch and WASO’s version of Wagner sound like? On Friday 26th WASO was sounding the most Germanic I’ve heard with vibrato-less woodwind embedded in the strings and warmed by a thick glossy brass sound.  There was also - somewhat surprisingly - a sense of restraint, of lingering until the last moment so that when the swells of volume finally arrived they were simply sublime. And thirdly Fisch created a smooth roundedness through his restful contouring and carefully placed phrase ends.

With these aspects at work the Prelude to Parsifal was an exquisitely tailored masterpiece. The operatic excerpts were also excellent although given the through-composed nature of Wagner’s operas it was problematic expecting small excerpts to stand alone; the endings were abrupt and the motivic development only just underway.

It was worth it though to hear Stuart Skelton’s artistry. In the orchestral introduction to Allmacht’ger Vater (Rienzi) the melody was introduced in the cello section with some gold dust from harps and horns and when Skelton joined his tenor gleamed like a ray of light. He sang with rounded vowels, a centred glow throughout his range and seemingly endless streams of cushioned air. In Nur eine Waffe taugt (Parsifal) he moved easily between Wagner’s lyrical writing and more animated Sprechstimme, while in Wintersturme (Walkure) his portamentos had an ardent fervour. The dream team was most evident in Parsifal where the orchestra played equal partner to Skelton with Fisch and Skelton dovetailing with great attentiveness.

The second half of the program was taken up with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a weighty sixty minute work even with the fourth incomplete movement left off.  Bruckner’s love of counterpoint was manifest everywhere with his long melodies supported and sometimes overrun by countermelodies and various permutations of the theme. From the opening bars with the languorous climbing phrases Fisch brought a breadth and vehemence to the orchestral dialogue.

Bruckner’s organist background was also evident in his sectional treatment of the orchestra. Fisch emphasised Bruckner’s different ‘organ manual’ approach to orchestration, allowing space for intimate cameos within the sprawling landscape.  The contrasts between the pizzicato dance and the pounding chase of the third movement were thrilling. When the full contingent of blazing brass (including the Wagner tubas) was unleashed you could hear Bruckner literally pulling out all the stops.

In the third movement Fisch built a dark intensity into the slow descending phrases but Bruckner’s wintry Romanticism was starting to wear thin and heads were nodding in the audience. A full program of late-German romanticism may have been a bit too much on a hot Perth evening. Still the memory of the magnificent blended orchestral sound and Skelton’s gleaming tenor will stay with me a long time.

This review was first published in Limelight magazine 2016.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Freeze Frame Opera - giving opera a good name!

The launch of Freeze Frame Opera on Thursday night was everything they promised it would be: affordable, accessible, appealing and #noboringbits!!!  Opera at the Movies was my first review for Australian Book Review. You can read an excerpt below and for the full review go to the ABR Arts Update.
Harriet O'Shannessy, founder of Freeze Frame Opera. Photo Eva Fernandez
Opera is dead, the scare-mongers have been warning us for years. Yet Perth is witnessing an operatic renaissance with the launch this week of the third new company in six years. The emergence of the organic, grassroots organisations is all the more miraculous given the devastation inflicted on the small to medium arts sector by government funding cuts in May. 

The new opera companies are distinctive for their flexibility, open-mindedness and their ability - despite Perth’s post-boom economic downturn – to attract a diverse and enthusiastic audience. How has it happened? Is it the quality of the singers, the compact well-networked art scene, a nose for where to find money or the WA entrepreneurial spirit?

At the Movies set. Photo Rosalind Appleby

The launch of Freeze Frame Opera involved all of the above. ‘Opera at the Movies’ opened on November 17th and was sold out across four nights. Audience members collected their free popcorn on arrival at Pakenham Street Art Space (a converted Fremantle warehouse). Children on beanbags formed the front row around a stage built from a kombi-van, a staircase and an upright piano. The van was obviously chosen for the first number on the program, the infamous scene from Priscilla Queen of the Desert featuring Verdi’s “Sempre libera... Follie!” belted from the top of a bus. The drag queen was enacted by performance artist Lady Diamond (Simon Morrison-Baldwin) in silver spandex, the aria was sung by soprano Emma Pearson and excerpts from the film were projected on a screen. Lady Diamond then took on the role of narrator and the evening continued with various movies providing a launch pad for different operatic numbers...

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Soprano Emma Pearson and her amazing wig!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address Perth 2016

The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is an annual forum for ideas relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. it is named after the Australian composer who championed the creation of new music and dedicated large amounts of her career to supporting the work of other artists.

The presenter of the 2016 Address was clarinettist, interdisciplinary artist and festival director Nicole Canham, whose recent doctorate on the career pathways of Australian classical musicians informed much of her talk.

At a time when the Australian arts scene has been crippled by government funding cuts Canham used the Peggy Glanville-Hicks address to challenge artists to refuse to chase money. She argued that instead of being dependent on commerce as a measure of value, artists should become agents of change able to clearly articulate how the arts will grow our cultural evolution.

Below is an excerpt of her speech, given at the Perth State Library on the 26th October and Carriageworks in Sydney on 31st October is below. She will present the same speech at Federation Square, Melbourne on 3rd November.

Like many of you, I have been a committed musician for much of my life.  The story and learnings of that journey, and your own stories of making a life in music, are central to my talk tonight.  The ability to recognise how our experiences as artists form part of a positive story of possibility and potential is critical for several reasons.  When we understand and know how to share our stories with others, we reinforce our sense of self.  We also make it easier for others to really see who we are and to know what we stand for.  These are vital anchors at a time when many of our systems of value, along with people’s life and work expectations, are being thrown into disarray through rapid social change. 

Four main themes bind my own story together.  First, music was a very important part of my childhood.  In those early years I formed the powerful impression that musicians are people who make a positive difference to other people’s lives.  That belief has sustained my sense of purpose over the last twenty years:  my professional activities have provided a framework for exploring various transformative aspects of music and music-making.  Second, when I was about 20, I started to feel very strongly that my choices in music should somehow reflect who I am – a female, Australian artist working in the late 20th and early 21st century.  That preoccupation has significantly influenced the direction of my creative life.  Playing the music of living composers somehow feels more authentically me, and my interest in the compositional process inspires my curatorial work.  Third, in the last five years or so, I’ve begun referring to myself as an artist rather than as a musician.  It better reflects the range of platforms and roles through which my creativity finds an outlet, and so I use the terms musician and artist interchangeably.  And finally, I’m a problem-finder by nature.  One of the characteristics of problem-finders is that they ask their own questions – they don’t necessarily try to solve existing problems, or problems presented to them by someone else.  A lot of my work has been concerned with creating more genuinely democratic, transformative experiences for people through the arts.  So my journey as an artist has really, at its core, been about finding ways to empower myself to answer questions around the nature of the arts experience, and the higher purpose the activity of making art, and making music, serves today.  

On that journey, I’ve encountered the same ideas and arguments about why it’s hard for us to think of including everyone in what we do.  Or why everyone shouldn’t be included.  And where I’m at right now, and what I want to talk about tonight, is the importance of sustaining a bigger vision of our work beyond our own immediate challenges.  I’m also going to talk about some of the ideas that have sustained and inspired me to think in terms of alternatives, rather than absolutes.    Some of these ideas are conceptual, such as the poetry of the present, the challenge of complexity, the importance of meaning making, and of metaphor, and the nature of independence.  There are also practical ideas to be considered too:  the benefits versus the cost of public funding, and the ways in which we build community and advocate for ourselves.  For me these ideas form the basis of an alternative route through our shared problems, and the inspiration for a host of new solutions.  

Peggy Glanville-Hicks drew upon the work of D.H. Lawrence in two of her compositions - the Etruscan Concerto, composed in 1954, and her choral work, This place of fire.  So it seems rather fitting that for my address tonight, I was also inspired by D.H. Lawrence.

Poetry is, as a rule, either the voice of the far future, exquisite and ethereal, or it is the voice of the past, rich, magnificent (…) But there is another kind of poetry:  the poetry of that which is at hand:  the immediate present.  In the immediate present, there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished…The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither.  

His essay entitled, The Poetry of the Present, was published in 1919.  Lawrence entreated other poets to look to the present in order to create a living form of poetry.  In essence, Lawrence was asking us to find new meaning in the present, which we often take for granted.  If we substitute the word poetry with the word music, then we encounter two challenges that are salient with respect to making new music today.  The first challenge is to keep our focus on “the immediate present” as a source of artistic ideas.  Many of us will likely agree with that point.  But I think he pushes us further than that, because making the work of the immediate present is about the process of being in the present and seeing what comes out of that, rather than manufacturing a product or running a business.  

This makes the second part of Lawrence’s challenge more difficult.  In order to fully embrace this present moment as the stimulus for our creative work, our ways of thinking and working must evolve to reflect “that which is at hand.”   This requires thinking and working processes that support the ability to respond rapidly to shifting circumstances.  But although these processes are vital for artists today, they don’t always come easily.  We may find ourselves longing for the way things were, or dreaming of the way we would like them to be.  Thinking in this way takes us out of the present moment.  Things may seem simpler, solutions more straight forward.  But there is one major problem with allowing ourselves this indulgence:  the present is not simple, and it is certainly not straight-forward.

We can’t speak about the present time without acknowledging the growing complexity of our environment.  Any attempt to tackle our individual, and collective, creative challenges must also address broader themes of complexity and change.  Sustainability theories highlight how difficult it is to motivate people to change.  Their central tenet is very simple:  “All of the problems we face are of our own making” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 2).  This is a line of thinking that is very difficult for some people to accept.  Yet when we adopt an inappropriate mindset for the problem at hand we perpetuate destructive behaviours instead of finding solutions.  The growing imbalances that sustainability theories seek to address aren’t limited to matters of the eco-system; our societies also reflect widening inequality and increasing poverty (Espinosa & Walker, 2010), Australia included (cite report). We can’t fully understand these problems through “individual, institutional or local issues in isolation” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 3).   Rather, we need to understand how the whole system works in relation to each of the parts.  We also need to understand how “a system governs, or regulates, itself” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 11), and then we need to be prepared to adapt accordingly, even if we didn’t choose, or initiate, the particular challenges that we face.

Careers scholars have also been working on the problem of complexity as it relates to changing work environments for some time. As whole industries and professions move towards the kinds of work patterns and insecurity that artists have been living with for a long time, the characterisation that what we do is a Peter Pan “lifestyle choice” (cite) is incorrect.  We are sentries.  We are prophets.  A very individually demanding model is emerging in which we are each responsible for managing and developing our professional identities in what are often uncertain and trying circumstances.  The challenge now is not to match our skills to the available jobs.  This paradigm is dying out.  Today, the single-most influential factor in designing a satisfying and sustainable working life in 21st century knowledge societies is the ability to make meaning.   [PAUSE] Our perception of our work experiences, including our responses to challenges, transitions, failures and successes, determines how rewarding we find what we do.   Pursuing one’s purpose in complex environments involves connecting the personal and the professional in profound ways, rather than adopting inherited, or out-dated stories, about the way our adult lives, or indeed our creative lives, should unfold.   Managing career complexity doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to disadvantageous situations.  We can change the game entirely, if we are willing to think of ourselves as change agents.

We may experiment in our music making, but how many of us are willing to completely change the game of making music?  Although for many artists the act of meaning making is integral to their creative practice, making sense of where one’s artistic work fits in a rapidly changing cultural context isn’t easy.  These twin challenges reflect their own distinctive narratives:  on one hand we have the tremendous freedom of the agent of change, and on the other hand we frequently find the pain of the misunderstood and undervalued artist.  The dissonance between our habits of meaning making and the current circumstances grows.   This dissonance also places us in a bind if we leave it unresolved.  We may be advocating for the new with out-dated arguments.  We may be assessing ours and others’ success through a lens that is no longer appropriate for this time, nor for our field.  And the stories we tell about our work may only address half of what is going on.  Making new meanings that reflect the possibility of the present becomes a vital skill.  Re-thinking and reframing individual and shared stories in these volatile conditions becomes a courageous and necessary act of survival.  Crafting new stories of what we do also helps our community, and others, to envision and appreciate the powerful social role that artists will play in healthy 21st century societies.  Recent developments around federal arts funding, and the cutting of Government subsidy to mostly arts-related VET courses are two powerful examples of why new stories are needed.


Canham went on to talk about creating structures of our own which other people can't take away, and becoming bigger picture artists who are able to look beyond the business of creating concerts and attracting audiences, to the Zeitgeist of the role of art itself. She cast a compelling vision for creating musical communities which attract audiences keen be involved in every part of a performance: before, during and after.

I appreciated Canham's very grounded style and her wholistic approach to the creative arts. She didn't provide many answers to the current challenges of being a musician (or music journalist!) in Australia, but she did blow the ceiling off the possibilities of being an artist, and the powerful role it can have if we function as a community of truly independent creatives.

For those of you like me who may not know a lot about her, Nicole Canham is a clarinettist and performer on the taragato whose aim is to provide transformative arts experiences and build new audiences for live music. She was the founder of my fave clarinet quartet Clarity, whose albums have become collectors editions! She directed the Canberra International Music Festival from 2005-2008 achieving a ten-fold increase in audience numbers. She also works with a range of artists from outside the world of music, exploring connections with theatre, film, visual art, dance and photography.

The following links provide more information on Canham and her speech: 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

November Gig Guide

There are some high quality gigs in Perth this month. My pick of the crop is the launch of the new   company Freeze Frame Opera on the 17-19th. They boldly claim "we are to opera what 20/20 is to cricket" #noboringbits and their debut season At the Movies celebrates the intersection of cinema and opera, promising glorious arias, duets and ensembles that will take you on a cinematic journey through time.

Slava Grigoryan joins the Australian Chamber Orchestra on November 2nd for a concert including Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and Beethoven's Symphony No 7. The same night the new music series Scale Variable 3 will feature a 6-piece instrumental ensemble performing a program curated by Australian composer Dominik Karski titled The Calm Before.

Trio Dali will begin their national Musica Viva tour at the Perth Concert Hall on the 7th and on the 11th St George's Cathedral features pianist Mark Coughlan performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with Mozart's Requiem also on the program.

WA Ballet will open their children's ballet season on the 17th, a brand new lavish production of The Nutcracker running until Dec 11th.  On the 19/20th Louise McKay will perform Haydn's D Major Cello Concerto with the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra with Beethoven and Dvorak also on the program. On the 25th the vocal ensemble the Giovanni Consort will profile the eccentric and eclectic genius of Percy Grainger in a concert titled A Tribute to Grainger.

The stand out concert for the WA Symphony Orchestra this month is on the 25/26th when tenor Stuart Skelton joins the orchestra for an all-Wagner program conducted by Asher Fisch. Earlier in the month on the 17/18/19th Fisch will conduct Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with cellist Alban Gerhadt performing Lalo's fiery Cello Concerto. There are also two pops concerts: a David Bowie tribute on the 10/11th and on the 4/5th vocalist Mary Carewe will join the orchestra to sing hits from Broadway to Hollywood.

As usual let me know if I have missed anything. Otherwise happy musicking!

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Gruffalo comes to WASO

He has terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws... and he was being dragged up the steps of the Perth Concert Hall by a toddler.

It was the WA Symphony Orchestra's Gruffalo concert and one boy had brought his stuffed Gruffalo teddy along for the show. The concert hall was buzzing with children flocking to see Julia Donaldson's best-selling book The Gruffalo brought to life on a big screen with live music by the orchestra. 

The story follows a little mouse walking through the forest and deflecting a fox, an owl and other predators with descriptions of a terrifying monster. Turns out the Gruffalo of his imagining is real and the quick-thinking mouse has to find a way of tricking him too. The animated version of the book includes a squirrel family as narrators, and the sequel Gruffalo's Child flips the tables and tells the story from the point of view of a small Gruffalo girl.

My family embarked on the trip with great excitement. They love getting a taste of the concerts mum is always going to for work, and WASO's kids concerts are a great place to start.     Conductor and orchestrator Terry Davies introduced the sections of the orchestra and the musical motifs associated with the different animals: the flute for the owl, the percussion for the fox, the tuba for the Gruffalo. And then the film began, projected on screens around the hall. 

There is something special about live concerts; there was far more participation that would be generated from watching the movie at home. The young audience members soon recognised the familiar lines and began to join in:"I'm going to have lunch with a Gruff-a-lo".

Matthew laughed uproariously at the slapstick moments: the fox getting snow on his head, the owl crashing into the trees. Once Tahlia realised the Gruffalo wasn't going to appear on stage and the snake and fox etc weren't real, she started to relax and enjoy the show too.

Of course with the antics happening on screen there wasn't much focus on the orchestra, but they played well under Davies, who used a monitor on his podium to coordinate the timing with the movie. The concert finished in under an hour before the kids had time to get squirmy and then we headed home to read the book just one more time!


Friday, 28 October 2016

Black Swan Theatre - Tartuffe review

Kate Cherry’s final hurrah after nine years as artistic director of Black Swan Theatre Company is a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe that is both hilarious and incisive. Her successful update of Moliere’s 17th century commedia d’ell arte is the complete package. It owes much to Justin Fleming’s Australian-ised text enriched by an opulently materialistic set and a cast of articulate, naturalistic actors.

The play opens with Madame Pernelle (Jenny Davis in outrageous form) descending the stairs of the marbled mansion in Richard Robert’s stunning rotating set.  She provides a fabulously blunt introduction to each character as she takes her leave of the “house that’s gone astray”.

The father of the home Orgon (Steve Turner is excellent as a small, misguided man) has welcomed the cash-strapped cleric Tartuffe into his home and become entranced by his religiosity. Different opinions are expressed about the house-guest and it becomes clear that Tartuffe is not all he appears.  Despite this Orgon decides to bequeath his home, daughter and inheritance to the imposter and it is up to the family (ably led by the maidservant Dorine) to prove Tartuffe’s hypocrisy.

Orgon (Steve Turner) and Mariane (Tessa Lind)

Orgon’s wife Elmire (given a Desperate Housewives glamour by Alison van Reeken) hatches a plan to reveal Tartuffe’s deception by pretending to encourage his unwanted advances.  Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan is creepy and comic in the role) has evolved from flagellating penitent to cocktail-sipping magnate and is quick to pin her to the dining room table, not realising Orgon is hiding underneath.  The distraught Orgon finally has to agree he has been duped, declaring “I give this man sheep’s clothing and he pulls it over my eyes”. The painting hanging over the dining table of the wolf descending from the heavens dressed in a sheep skin is a nice touch.

Moliere’s critics were alarmed by his comic portrayal of a man of the cloth but Moliere saved some of his most outrageous writing for the maidservant Dorine. Essentially the stock character Colombina from commedia d’ell arte traditions, Dorine is a prototype for Suzanne in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro with her witty interjection into family affairs  well above her station. Emily Weir dons a Kath and Kim accent and a low cut dress to assist her sassy commentary.  Her actions as the go between for the ‘Innamorati’ are particularly hilarious. Moliere’s hopeless lovers are Orgon’s daughter Mariane (a sweetly pathetic Tessa Lind) and her lover Valère (a long-suffering James Sweeny). Mariane’s brother Damis is played by the hot-headed, fist swinging Alex Williams while the mild-mannered uncle Cleante is portrayed with crisp plummy diction by Hugh Parker.

Orgon (Steve Turner), Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan) and Damis (Alex Williams)

The cast has such obvious mastery over the language structure and the comic timing that it is easy to forget the play is over 300 years old. Fleming’s script is a stream of Australian colloquialisms perfectly placed and cleverly structured to follow Moliere’s rhyming scheme. Lines like Valere’s “To assist with your escape my Uber is at the gate” keep the audience laughing from beginning to end.

Tony Brumpton’s music, best described as a Baroque dance party remix, and David Murray’s modernist lighting in cool whites and blues give a contemporary touch to the design and enable smooth scene changes.

Moliere’s definition of comedy was “to reform men through entertainment “ and Cherry allows plenty of breathing space for lengthy passages taking deeper aim at issues of truth and lies, moderation and excess. The result is not so much cheap shots at religion (as Cleante gently points out “You don’t want centuries of spiritual generosity thrown out in the bathwater”) but layers of pre-Enlightenment philosophising on deception, vulnerability and self-determination. The arrival of the ABC television reporter in the final scene packs a hilarious punch to the moral point.

Tartuffe runs until 6th November at the WA State Theatre and the Queensland Theatre Company season is 12 November to 4th December.

This review first published by Limelight Magazine October 2016.