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.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Darlington Chamber Music Spring Festival review

St Cuthbert's Anglican, Darlington
It was the perfect way to celebrate the first sunny weekend this spring. The bush was bursting with blossoms under a bright blue sky as I drove up the hill to Darlington on Saturday morning. A capacity crowd had gathered in the quaint stone St Cuthbert’s Anglican church for the inaugural Darlington Chamber Music Spring Festival.

Cellist Jon Tooby began the Darlington Chamber Music series fifteen years ago and has built a loyal audience, an extensive network with WA's best chamber musicians, an impressive team of volunteers and a reputation for sumptuous catering. With this backing Tooby launched the spring festival on October 22nd, showcasing not only fine music but also his thriving hills community.

Tooby’s canny knack for pairing interesting repertoire with the perfect venue became apparent over the weekend. The intimacy of St Cuthbert's church made it a great venue to check out the newly formed Darlington String Quartet. Although it is a new ensemble the quartet - Semra Lee-Smith and Zak Rowntree (violins), Sally Boud (viola) and Tooby - have been playing and studying together in various configurations for decades.

I had high expectations so the unsettled opening to Haydn's String Quartet Op 33 No 3 caused me some worry. Differing tempos and scrappy phrase endings made me wonder if this was going to be a weekend of disappointments. The accents and contrasts in the second movement were a welcome distraction and by the the third the players (and I) relaxed into a well paced Adagio, lulled by Lee-Smith's sweetly doleful violin. The zesty energy of the finale flourished in the resonant acoustic with cascades of semiquavers delivered immaculately.

The standard had been set and the quartet didn't look back from here. The ensemble's musical empathy became apparent as the concert progressed. Lee-Smith led with subtlety and beautiful sonority with clean support from Rowntree while Tooby and Boud added a dose of intense expressivity. Their performance of Janacek's String Quartet No 1 dived into the confronting depths of a deeply psychological composer. The  melancholic melody was juxtaposed with aggressive interjections delivered with weightiness and tremendous volume. One of the great gifts of chamber music is the physiological impact from sitting so close to the performers. The 80+ audience members sitting just metres from the quartet experienced Janacek in our chests!

Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op 12 was a well-chosen work to end the program, performed by the quartet with achingly romantic elegance and a brillante flourish to the finale.

Darlington String Quartet

Later that evening the festival continued at Guildford Grammar School Chapel. I wasn't able to attend the concert but reports were unanimous that the soaring purity of soprano Sara Macliver singing Baroque repertoire was perfectly suited to the splendour of the gothic architecture.

Sunday was morning was yet more pristine and by now the audience had a friendly familiarity as we gathered at the Darlington Estate Winery. The festival buzz was heightened by the impeccable hospitality of the restaurant staff and the relaxed manner of the musicians. A four course feast was interwoven with a three-part concert to make a decadent, leisurely lunch. The sultry and cheeky tangos of Piazolla (arranged for piano trio) were enjoyed over antipasto. A Rossini duet for cello and double bass featured Tooby playing alongside his brother Mark Tooby as a light-hearted accompaniment to soup. Main course (I had oven-roasted chicken with green pea and dill risotto) was completed by another bit of magical programming: Schubert's 'Trout' Piano Quintet performed with sheer delight by the now well-fed musicians. The 'Trout' runs the risk of being over-played but on this occasion it fitted perfectly. Gazing out over the forested valley I couldn't think of a better depiction of spring than Schubert's effervescent, buoyant writing. The clear delineation of the inner cello and viola voices avoided any muddiness while Graeme Gilling's supple touch and elegant pacing on piano lifted the performance to another level.

Darlington Estate Winery

It was a fabulous weekend. Perhaps next year (I am hoping and presuming the festival will become a regular fixture on Perth's musical calendar) music by an Australian composer will be included on the program. It was the only oversight in an otherwise outstanding celebration of music and community.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Jon Tooby

Cellist Jon Tooby has been building Perth's chamber music scene for decades. This weekend the fisherman, carpenter and conductor is launching a new spring chamber music festival in his favourite hills community. Tooby has extensive networks with WA's best chamber musicians and a reputation for connecting the audience to the music. Which is perhaps why Tooby is promising "This festival will have it all!"

What music gets your heart racing?
Chamber music gets my heart racing, particularly Brahms.

What calms you down?
Getting away fishing up in the North West

The Darlington Spring Festival kicks off this weekend – what was the inspiration behind this new festival in Perth?

The Spring Festival is just a slightly more condensed version of the hugely popular winter series. I guess it was to bring us closer to our audience over one weekend and to play in a few different venues.

As festival director you seem to have gone to some effort to match the right performers with the perfect venue. For example Sara Macliver’s angelic soprano in the cathedral acoustics of Guildford Grammar Chapel, and the intimacy of string quartet in the quaint St Cuthbert’s Anglican Church. How important is the venue in a chamber music concert?

The space in which we perform is hugely important. One of the things which we pride ourselves on in our performances is in bringing our audiences closer to us and to really share in the magic of the music with them. We are blessed as chamber musicians to have this never ending supply of exquisite repertoire and as much as we love to immerse ourselves in it as players it is totally enhanced when you can bring others along for the ride.

The repertoire looks very appealing on paper: string quartets by Janacek, Mendelssohn and Haydn; Baroque motets by Dowland and Vivaldi; staples such as Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Brahms’ Sextet in G minor, and Argentinean favourites Piazolla and Golijov. What do you hope the audience will experience?

This festival has it all, starting with a full program of string quartets including works by Haydn, Janacek and Mendelssohn. This really is the purest form of chamber music as we know it - what a way to start. Then we have Sara Macliver join us in the stunning Guilford Grammar School Chapel in what shall be a night of special magnificence. With the wonderful acoustics of this Gothic architectural masterpiece combined with the music of Brahms, Vivaldi and Dowland it is sure going to be a night to remember. Our final concert is presented with a sumptuous lunch at the Darlington Estate Winery. It will be a celebration of fine food , wine and of course amazing music. Here we present probably the most iconic chamber work The Trout Quintet among other tasty musical treats.

The Darlington Trio: Tooby with Semra Lee-Smith and Graeme Gilling
You are taking part as a performer too – playing cello for all three concerts. How are you preparing?

We have a pretty busy rehearsal schedule this week, but I’m feeling confident it’s going to be a terrific weekend. We have an amazing team of very experienced musicians, for me the best available. Not only are they all fabulous players in their own right but they are also passionate about performing chamber music together. We really all have a lot of fun.

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

For me personally I think all the arts but especially music have the power to transform people, to take people to special places and to unlock held emotions and dreams. Yes I think music has to be interesting but only in as much as it can have this effect on people.

Tooby performing Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor with Brett Dean (viola), 
Natsuko Yoshimoto (violin) and Jonathon Anur (piano).

You have a soft spot for Darlington – you have been making chamber music up there for 12 years since the launch of the Darlington Chamber series. What is the appeal of this hills suburb?

Darlington is special to me partly because I grew up here but also because I love it for the sense of community. It is a very artistic community, many fine artists and musicians live in Darlington and it is just far enough away from Perth to feel like you’re in the country but not totally isolated. I used to go to chamber music concerts here in the 70’s and some very fine ones too. It’s a funky place with funky people.

Your love affair with the cello began at the age of seven and has been sustained through 18 years with the WA Symphony Orchestra, studying at the Royal College of Music and over 200 concerts with I Cellisti. Why the cello?

 I think all musical instruments attract certain personalities and I think most cellists are quite smug in the fact that they almost blindly believe there is no better instrument on the planet than the cello. In terms of the sound, colour and the texture range is immense and really I don’t think anything can get closer to replicating the human voice. The repertoire is endless and you get to sit down in a relatively comfortable position. I could go on but you might feel ill.

Tooby conducting Etica ensemble
More recently you have ventured into conducting, studying with John Hopkins, Richard Mills and Richard Gill. You founded and directed the new music ensemble Etica. Do you have plans to further pursue a career in conducting?

Conducting is very important to me and I will continue to work towards a career in it . Orchestras are amazing and I feel after 30 years playing in the profession I have a good understanding of what makes them tick. Clearly though, there is more to it that just being a good musician, something which I’m working on.

Do you have a partner/significant other/pet?

I have a wonderful wife, Penny Reynolds who is a soprano. Also two fabulous daughters, Laura 15 and Rosie 17. We laugh a lot together. Oh yes I also have a black cat Sandy, a dog Barney and a horse named Kat.

Where did you learn the skills to juggle a diverse freelance career that includes performing, directing, teaching and conducting?

I love my life with all it’s diversity. I am also a Builder/Carpenter and when I’m not conducting , playing cello or teaching you might find me up a ladder somewhere replacing someone’s ceiling or building a deck.

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

 I love fishing and every year I go away with my brothers on a pilgrimage to Quobba or Dirk Hartog Island, 30 years and counting.

Thanks Jon Tooby for taking the time from your busy rehearsal week to participate in the Celebrity Soft Spot. 

Concert 1 Saturday 22nd 11am: Darlington String Quartet perform quartets by Mendelssohn, Haydn and Janacek
Concert 2 Saturday 22nd 7pm: Sara Macliver and ensemble perform Vivaldi: Nulla in Mundo pax Sincera; Brahms String Sextet in G minor; Dowland: Come Again, Weep You No More; Respighi: Il tramonto; Golijov: Lua Descolorida
Concert 3 Sunday 23rd 12pm: Schubert's Trout Quintet, tangos by Piazolla and a duet for cello and bass by Rossini served with lunch.

Tickets can be purchased at the door but are nearly sold out so probably better to pre-purchase at the Darlington Post Office or Mundaring Bendigo Bank Ph: 92956411.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Working with Musica Viva

On Monday night I had the privilege of presenting the pre-concert talk at the launch of Musica Viva's national Beilman & Tyson tour. I've often thought it would be a lot of fun to give a pre-concert talk, and I was right!
Selling books at Perth Concert Hall

I enjoyed preparing by reading scores and listening to violin sonatas by Mozart, Janacek, Saint Saens and Jane Stanley, and I enjoyed sharing my discoveries with the audience. The sonatas essentially chartered the development of the violin sonata genre from the 18th century to present day. They were well-crafted in their different ways. Each was built around a motif or pool of notes that generated the structure of the entire work. My goal was to highlight those themes so the audience could recognise them in performance. It makes such a huge difference to the listening experience if the audience feels they are following the musical conversation.

One of the pieces on the program was by Australian composer Jane Stanley, so I was also invited to sell copies of Women of Note at interval. What a fabulous opportunity! It's nights like these where I really love my job!

It is always hard to know whether these public speaking gigs have been a success or not, but I received overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the audience, including from a self-described 'concert virgin' who said I was his life-saver and had been very interesting. I was also told I was difficult to hear, a serious issue given most in the audience were elderly and probably struggling with hearing complications. I will have to project my voice more in the future!

My greatest challenge was to present the music of  Jane Stanley in a way that was going to help open the ears of the audience to a musical language they were less familiar with. Stanley's music is unique and incredibly beautiful. Here is an excerpt of what I shared:

JANE STANLEY b Sydney 1976 Cerulean Orbits

Stanley follows a tradition of female Australian composers who have made significant contributions to Australian music. 25% of Australian composers are women, more than almost any other western country. Women began being recognised as composers at the beginning of the 20th century. Margaret Sutherland was the mother of women composers in Australia and her impact was huge – she almost single-handedly pioneered Australian new music in the first half of the century.  She was one of the first composers to develop a uniquely Australian musical voice. She had a hard life, married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness! She once said 

My musical life has been a frustration of half promises, then bad performances, followed by no more performances. The world at large thinks a woman can’t be creative. A woman can contribute in a special way. I don’t think that women want to write the same thing as men, but their contribution is no less important.

I share that with you as an example of the difficulties women have had and in some cases are still having trying to find equal footing in the male dominated world of composition. Research done in the last few years shows there are still visibility issues for women composers who are under represented in commissioning, concert programs, radio programs and as staff in music education faculties. Which is why the Hildegard project and its commissioning of women composers is so important.  Because there are SO MANY fabulous women composers out there, particularly in Australia, where as I mentioned 25% of our composers are women, far more than for example the UK and Finland who clock in at 13% and the US which has 20%.  It really is our best kept secret and I am delighted to see Musica Viva celebrating this with the Hildegard commissioning project.

So where does Jane Stanley fit into this?

Jane fits into what I would call the emerging 4th generation of Australian women composers. She was born in the 70’s when the definition of classical music had broadened considerably since the days of Sutherland.  Jane is a fairly traditional composer in that she writes for traditional instruments as distinct from electronics or noise or performance installations. Jane has studied her craft very deeply - studied with the greats of Australian composers: Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards and Bernard Rands in the US. She has participated at the Wellesley Composers Conference, Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festival. She also completed a PhD in composition at University of Sydney under Ann Boyd, from whom she learned an appreciation for space and silence.

 Ensemble Offspring perform Stanley's Helix Reflection

Stanley is now Lecturer in music at University of Glasgow where the Scots have embraced her and aren’t letting go – she has been there 10 years. Jane tells me she is very sad she is unable to return to Australia for the premiere of this work. The reason is because has a two month old baby who is still a little small for flying.

As a composer she has established very distinctive voice. In most of her works there is an absence of recognisable time signature or pulse. Which gives a floating, drifting, stasis. It has a hazy weightlessness. It is beautiful and otherworldly but also sometimes wild.

The composer indicates in the program notes of Cerulean Orbits that the two instruments are orbiting around each other. Their music is drawn from the same pool of notes and the composer allows them sometimes to blend, sometimes to antagonise each other.

You will notice the piano is emancipated from being a purely accompaniment instrument; both instruments are complete equals. In fact the piano often treated like violin – as a single line shared between the two hands rather than block chords.

The music is very carefully crafted – it is not just random notes! Piano begins with a sextuplet of semiquavers which is the thematic core of the work. (Play sample on piano). This is the pool of notes getting introduced that will be the core of the piece. Then the violin enters and hovers on B for 6 bars. In the score the piano part is marked ‘smeared’ and the violin par ‘featherlike’.  Jane’s textural style is coming through - it is very tactile; the composer wants us to experience this like it is coming into contact with our skin! There are huge variation of dynamics and articulation the composer has written into the score giving it an instant intensity even though it is flowing and gentle.

The piano part is typical Stanley - scattered notes over a sustained pedal, sounding like droplets. Notes are grouped in 3's, 5's, 6's, spread across the beat so the effect is unpredictable, ungrounded, pulseless, a bit of a nod to Luciano Berio’s piano writing.

The middle section is where it gets wild, the score is marked "pulsating... hammered... propulsive... fff "  It is excited and busy, the sort of music that causes audiences to say  “It’s not music, its too noisy.”  Did you know Mozart’s music was criticised for the same thing? Archduke Ferdinand criticised one of Mozart’s pieces for having "too many notes”! Mozart’s ideas exploded beyond the perimeters of what was usual or predictable and people found it hard to digest. It sounds so elegant and simple to us now. So don’t be put off by the ‘noise’, instead recognise it as fresh thinking that our ears aren’t yet accustomed to.

The sense of calm returns at the end of Cerulean Orbits, and the sextuplet from the opening is heard again. This time the piano gets the repeated B’s.  it is a floating, spacious ending.

The challenge with contemporary music like this is how to make the ideas and phrases clear even when the usual signposts that our ears are used to from traditional music aren’t there?

Two Tips:
Listen to the texture. Some of Jane’s music is sparse so you get to listen to the beauty and colour of each note as it passes. There are also great washes of sound and the contrast between the textures is like listening to a trickling stream compared to the crashing waves of the ocean.

Watch the performers - they help with this: it is their job to bring out the different colours in each phrase, to make each note extremely beautiful. Their body language will hopefully cue the mood changes, to draw us in so we are enthralled.