Friday, 29 July 2016

August Gig Guide

It's all about singing this month with musicals and choral performances popping up everywhere. And no I'm not talking about the much-anticipated The Sound of Music production that is still 6 weeks away!

The two musicals hitting town in August are Little Shop of Horrors, opening at His Majesty's Theatre on 4th August, and Black Swan Theatre's Clinton the Musical on the 27th. This very topical production was scripted and composed by Aussie brothers Michael and Paul Hodge and is just the antidote we need to survive the US election.

There are also two large-scale choral concerts this month. The WA Academy of Performing Arts will team up with school choirs from John Septimus Roe and All Saints at St Mary's Cathedral on on the 4th to perform Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, accompanied on organ by Stewart Smith. The St George's Cathedral choir will perform Durufle's Requiem and Rutter's Gloria on the 12th accompanied by WASO brass and percussion.

The vocal fireworks continue with Opera Australia soprano Taryn Fiebig returns to her almer mater Churchlands Senior High School for a benefit concert From School to Opera Australia on the 19th.

Also on the 19th the Grigoryan Brothers are visiting WAAPA for a guitar concert. The Academy's elite Indian Ocean Ensemble led by Alexandre da Costa will perform Strauss, Schoenberg and Beethoven on the 25/26th. Meanwhile over at the University of WA Ensemble Vagabond will perform the iconic wind quintets by Mozart and Beethoven on the 21st.

WASO will be working with Simone Young in a flamboyant concert of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Holst's Planets on 5/6th. Asher Fisch is back in town in the lead up to the tour of China in October. His first concert on 19th/20th will feature principal horn David Evans is soloist in Mozart's popular Horn Concerto alongside Schubert 4 and Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. On the 26th/27th Latvian violinist Baiba Skride will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No.4 and Brahms Piano Quartet No.1 with the orchestra.

Tura New Music's Scale Variable series continues at Studio Underground with a concert on the 27th of experimental music solos performed by Louise Devenish (percussion) & James Hullick (piano). And on the topic of new music, a fascinating discussion on Australian women composers will be led on the 9th by yours truly as part of UWA's Music Research Seminars. More details to follow soon!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Jessica Gethin

Last year Jessica Gethin scooped the Brain Stacey emerging conductor award and was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia's "Top 100 Women of Influence". This year the chief conductor of the Perth Symphony Orchestra is one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera's Institute of Women Conductors. It seems that it's not just the locals who think Jessica's straight-talking musical enthusiasm and her wide warm smile are a winning combination.

What music gets your heart racing?

There are many moments symphonically, particularly in large scale romantic symphonic works that physically get my pulse up on the podium; full bodied brass, resounding percussion and the build of wind and driving strings can be completely thrilling in the actual moment. However, I’d have to say how I connect with certain key pieces probably has just as much effect; conducting a work like Mahler Adagietto (from Symphony No 5) where the tension is all in the silence, the ebb and flow and the slight delay in each cadence has just as powerful an effect.

What calms you down?

Listening to the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites; much complexity yet beauty in its simplicity. I remember my mum used to play Bach most nights as she cooked dinner when I was younger, and I used to play it to my kids at bedtime when they were babies. I also grew up listening to the jazz greats, so that has always been a good escape at the end of a long day. Otherwise going for a run along the beach or reading on my deck always seems to give me some clarity.

What do you sing along to?

Whatever score is currently open on my desk! I tend to do a lot of score study late in the evenings so often go to bed and wake with a jumble of lines in my head from my current scores. Not always ideal, as was the case late last year when learning excerpts from Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Dead Man Walking’… the March to the Execution Chambers isn’t the most ideal libretto to sing around the house! I’m not actually that aware of it but apparently I have a reputation of singing to the orchestra a lot, I suppose I find it the most efficient way to communicate a particular sound or phrase direction.

You are about to head back to America to continue your studies as one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera’s Institute of Women Conductors. I understand the course is about intense immersion which must also require intense preparation! What are you working on this semester? 

This semester we are focusing some modern English and American repertoire, I’m currently learning The Crucible (Ward) and The Turn of the Screw (Britten) however we will also be conducting excerpts from Mozart and Handel. In December we covered 18 operas, everything from Puccini, Handel, Adamo, Verdi, Ravel, Menotti and Donizetti so it’s very diverse in genre selection.

[Check out this fabulous footage of Jessica conducting the Dallas Opera Orchestra .]

Statistics in the US reveal that in the top 15 opera houses only 5% of performances during the 2015/16 season were conducted by women. How is the Dallas Opera course upskilling you to overcome the challenges inherent in your industry?

The IWC is unique in that aside from the intense conducting masterclasses, we also take part in a number of seminars addressing key issues and challenges in surviving the industry. From media training to working with directors and sponsors, how to pick the right management and also negotiating interviews for us with top agents across the US, they provide us with five years continued support to create better visibility on the podium and increase our opportunities for career longevity.

Where to after the course has finished? 

My previous work has all been symphonic, so the IWC Fellowship in Dallas was really my first introduction to the opera world, something I am keen to explore further with their support over the coming years. I really enjoy my work here in Perth, aside from my current role as Chief Conductor of the Perth Symphony I also work with Perth Chamber Orchestra, Opera Box, WA Opera, lecture at WAAPA, adjudicate festivals and such. However it’s definitely time for me to broaden my opportunities outside of Perth so I’m currently working closely with my agent in Singapore on developing contacts in the US and Asia this year. It’s a pretty exciting time, hopefully the next five years will see some more opportunities overseas in both the symphonic and operatic fields.

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

I believe music has an extraordinary power to connect. It transcends race, age, demographic, time, language and culture. The elderly draw on it for nostalgia, the youth throw themselves into it for refuge and escape! I’m an ambassador for a brilliant international movement ‘Playing for Change’ who use music as a tool for peace, they do some great work in this area on a global scale. I think it goes even further than that though; it’s such a raw, authentic, innate form of expression of the human nature. I find it all very fascinating!

You started your career as a violinist, graduating from the WA Academy of Performing Arts with a music degree in 2002. In August you return to WAAPA as guest conductor for their 25th Anniversary Gala Concert at the Perth Concert Hall. It sounds like it will be a musical extravaganza…!

Yes, I’m really looking forward to working with the Faith Court Orchestra for this very special concert. We will be collaborating with the choir and also some special guest artists, it’s a great program and the audience are in for a real celebration of all things WAAPA!

Jessica and the Perth Symphony Orchestra

You have a soft spot for Margaret River Wines... can you recommend a good bottle for a chilly Perth winter evening?

I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several Leeuwin Estate Winery Concerts so feel pretty qualified to say their Art Series Chardonnay or Cab Sav are exquisite! I also love the Cape Mentelle Cab or Voyager Estate Tom Price SSB. As I’ve got older I’ve enjoyed learning more about wine and started following the journey of Perth Chamber Orchestra’s wine sponsor, Barton Jones. Getting to know the owner, Jackie and the whole story of nurturing each wine in the developing stages has been fascinating. I always stop by her cellar door in Donnybrook to say hello and stock up. Try their Red Rhapsody chilled in summer!

You have a distinctive dynamic energy on the podium. What sort of preparation is involved to present at a rehearsal with such interpretive confidence and abounding enthusiasm? 

It all comes down to study and really knowing the score, and more to the point what you want to do with the music. There is no faking confidence in front of an orchestra, they smell it a mile away. They need to trust and have confidence in your ability for you to get the best sound out of the orchestra. As a conductor I spend far more time in a score than on the actual podium to achieve that, it’s actually quite a lonely process in that respect and one that I have had to work hard on over the past decade. I guess the enthusiasm comes partly from my nature, and partly from my sincere commitment to communicate and define each sound and idea. I have a lot of energy in whatever I do and always try to be authentic on the podium so hopefully this carries across. Over the last few years I’ve realised the importance of being vulnerable at times too, sometimes this is when the best work is created. I always tell my conducting students they need to have the confidence to lead and the courage to yield, knowing when to do which is the tricky bit!

I’ve heard you tell a story about an orchestral player who said “You're the best female conductor I've ever played under”. Your reply was something along the lines of “It would be lovely to hear that phrase again one day, just without the female part.”
What is it going to take for women conductors to be considered ‘normal’ on the podium by performers and audiences?

It’s interesting that my conducting lectures usually have an equal 50% division of gender, as do many of the school orchestras I adjudicate at festivals. It’s only at the very top that these numbers dramatically diminish. I think it will continue to improve over time, especially with programs such as the IWC with Dallas Opera encouraging more females to pursue the field. In many ways I try to look past it these days as I would much rather be recognised for my musical input than a gender statistic, although I also realise the importance of bringing awareness to the issue for future developing conductors.

Jessica, Pat and their two children

You and husband Pat are parents to two children aged three and seven. I think one of the toughest parts of parenting is the guilt that comes whether you choose to work or stay at home. How do you reconcile your career and your motherhood so that you can delight in both?

Well, some days are certainly more successful than others! I’m lucky to have a very supportive family and two amazing kids but the balance isn’t always right. It is something I am very mindful of, yet try not to be too hard on myself as I don’t think it helps anyone to be driven by guilt. I simply choose the work that fits with the family, and turn down opportunities if it just doesn’t feel right at the time. On reflection I think having kids has taught me a lot about myself; my strengths and weaknesses, my priorities, the value of time and a reminder to laugh often! They have both grown up learning to crawl across a stage so I guess it’s quite normal for them. I’m very aware of being present with the kids when we are together, and I talk to them about what I do so they understand what it’s like to have a career path that you really love.

What is your favourite place in Perth? 

Easy…. our beautiful coastline. We live only a few minutes from Watermans Beach in Perth. It is the place I recharge, meditate, jog, swim and play with the kids or watch the sunset with the family.

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

I think it’s really important to be as rounded a person as you can be… certainly for me, life balance has been key to keeping me motivated to experience new things, which I hope, in turn, makes me a better conductor. My secret escape would have to be my art; splashing paint on a canvas with Ella Fitzgerald blaring is pretty cathartic. I love to read, cook with the kids, I’m mad about photography and love travelling. Keeping fit is also pretty important as I’m always on the go and need a fair amount of stamina and focus to get through the week, so running and yoga helps.

Watch excerpts of Jessica conducting in an interview here:

A big thanks to Jessica Gethin for chatting to us at the Celebrity Soft Spot. You can catch Jessica conducting the Perth Symphony Orchestra at their  'Bach by Candelight' concert on August 31st and at the WAAPA 25th Anniversary Gala Concert on August 12th. For more information go to

Monday, 25 July 2016

Cirque de la Symphonie with WASO

It’s a strange mix of excruciating and exquisite watching aerial artists contort into back breaking poses while suspended many metres above you. Add the splendour of a 70 piece live orchestra and the plush environs of a concert hall and the effect was a circus experience of majestic proportions. 

A sell-out crowd packed the Perth Concert Hall to witness the world-wide phenomenon of Cirque de la Symphonie collaborating with the WA Symphony Orchestra. Irina Burdetsky spun hoops from her toes, knees and hair to the thrilling Spanish sounds of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance. Vladimir Tsarkov’s mime and juggling tricks provided comic relief. Elena Tsarkov swapped frocks at impossible speeds, danced slow contortions on top of bar stools and delivered a high-kicking ribbon dance to Offenbach’s famous Can-Can.

Irina Burdetsky

Even the most devout WASO supporter would have to admit the orchestra receded into the shadows behind the jaw-dropping circus stunts. In fact it’s a tribute to the players’ immense discipline that they weren’t completely distracted! Guy Noble conducted several orchestral interludes with spirit (showy excerpts from Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Dvorak’s Carnival Overture) but to be honest the playing was often untidy and the orchestral settings seemed locked on loud and fast.

Soaring to John Williams Flight to Neverland

The most engaging dialogue between the music and the cirque artists occurred in the aerial acrobatics. In the aerial silks dance Christine Van Loo rose and fell according to the contour of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, demonstrating impressive muscularity, flexibility and daring as she hung suspended by a foot or elbow. Vitalii Buza used aerial straps to literally fly over the audience in John Williams’ Flight to Neverland. The Valse from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was bewitching as two swans (Alexander Streltsov and Chirstine Van Loo) dived, twirled and courted while suspended from red silks.

Dancing swans in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

The highlight was Sibelius’ Finlandia where the ponderous grandeur of the brass playing was matched by the magnificent gold-painted strongmen Jarek and Darek. As the serene Finlandia hymn filled the hall one of the men executed a handstand on the other’s head slowly twisting and turning with incredible balance and strength, made even more breath-taking by Sibelius’ haunting music.

Strongmen Darek and Jarek

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Introducing Ollie Cuneo - the composer!

Ollivier-PhillippeCuneo is well known around Perth for his conducting and violin playing. Less well known is the blossoming of his composing career. Cuneo has been based in Paris since 2012 and is back in Perth this month for the premiere on Saturday of a work commissioned by the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra.

Le Verre Siffleur is named after the cafe at the end of Cuneo’s street and pays musical tribute to French cafe life including an elegy to the victims of the 13th November terrorist attacks. It was commissioned by the FCO after the enthusiastic reception to Cuneo’s opus one Between Two Moons which the orchestra premiered in February.

The premiere of Le Verre Siffleur has taken on extra potency given the Nice truck attack on Bastille Day last week. When we spoke Cuneo was still in shock from the news of the tragedy. He explained how Le Verre Siffleur expresses musically the way life for French citizens has permanently changed.

Le verre siffleur cafe
“We try to go about life as usual but it doesn’t feel the same. This is reflected in the music at the end of the work where there is a forced joyfulness, an out of kilter waltz with five beats in a bar. There is not the same naivety or innocence anymore.”

The piece is a mix of old and new much like the environment Cuneo experiences every day in Paris. It is scored for a Mozartian orchestra with two oboes, two horns and strings and draws on Cuneo’s research into the art nouveau architecture on his street and the correlating music from the early 20th century. Cuneo fused ideas from Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky and Puccini to evoke the changing moods and scenes of cafe life. A chord from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges inspired the elegy at the heart of the work.
Cuneo’s composing career is a new addition to an already flourishing conducting career that began with a young artist residency with Opera Australia and has included work with
various Australian opera houses and orchestras. Cuneo conducted the Pearl Fishers with WA Opera in 2009.

Ollie Cuneo in conducting mode
Cuneo currently teaches at the Conservatoire Gustave Charpentier where his work involves arranging and creating operas with school children. From there it was a small step to writing his own music.

“As a conductor you study so much music in order to understand a composer’s thought processes,” he explained. “You have the vocabulary, you just need to play around with it and search for something to say, for an original voice.”

A big part of his inspiration came from observing the innate imagination and creativity of his two daughters. Watching them play inspired Cuneo to channel his own creativity and begin to compose.

“We need to prioritise that creativity in children and adults. It is a crucial way to keep culture as a valued part of what gives a community meaning and cohesion. It is so important to keep creativity an active part of life.”

Le Verre Siffleur will be performed by the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra at 2pm on July 23rd (Perth Town Hall) and July 24th (Fremantle Town Hall). The program includes symphonies by Mozart and Haydn plus Hoffmeister’s Viola Concerto performed by Sally Boud. Tickets can be purchased here or at the door.

The article copyright The West Australian newspaper 2016.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Elixir of Love review

The set is built from corrugated iron dotted with sheep and when love-sick Nemorino sets eyes on Adina he declares “She’s a corker”.  Previous productions of Donizetti’s 1832 opera The Elixir of Love have been set in the wild west or at the beach but now it has arrived in the outback.

Rachelle Durkin as Adina and Aldo di Toro as Nemorino

Simon Phillips’ popular 2001 production has finally made it to Perth and it bubbles with the laugh-out-loud immediacy of a musical. The West Australian Opera’s revival by Cathy Dadd features a starry cast led by Rachelle Durkin as station owner Adina and Aldo di Toro as the local shearer Nemorino. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s corrugated red hills, windmill and vibrant blue sky are brightly lit by Nick Schlieper while Gabriela Tylesova’s frocks, suits and hats (dusted with ochre colours) place the action in pre-World War One.
Marco Nistico is Dr Dulcamara

Dr Dulcamara (a pompous Marco Nistico) arrives as the Rawleigh’s Ready Relief man and the love potion he sells the gullible Nemorino is a bottle of Coca-Cola, apparently introduced to Australia around this time. With new confidence Nemorino pretends to ignore Adina, who responds cattily that his love for her will “stick like a dag to a sheep”.

Sergeant Belcore (a gallant Jose Carbo) arrives with troops and almost convinces Adina to marry him despite a groin strain as he goes on bended knee. The resourceful set converts to a cow shed for the wedding scene between Adina and Belcore and then a chook house where the farm girls  cluck over Nemorino’s windfall inheritance. Nemorino can’t believe the rapid effectiveness of the potion as the girls suddenly clamour for his attention, led by a hilariously over the top Jennifer Barrington as Giannetta.

Filled with hope Nemorino sings his big showstopper A Furtive Tear. On opening night the dreamy-eyed and big hearted di Toro delivered a spacious, simple and achingly sweet aria. It was the icing on the cake of a career-highlight performance where di Toro’s Nemorino won over the audience even as he was shunned by Adina, stealing hearts with his mix of stumbling shyness and boyish exuberance.

Durkin, reprising the role with di Toro for the third time, gave the most multi-hued performance I’ve seen from her. Her strawberries and cream coloratura was marvellously expressive and after her robust flirtations the sotto voce timidity with which she declared her true feelings for Nemorino were breath taking.

It was one of many moments where the opera cut through the clanging clich├ęs and ribald humour and went straight to the heart. An energetic chorus under new head of music Thomas Johnson and a tight sparkling WA Symphony Orchestra under Stuart Stratford completed the picture. The Elixir is the second sensational theatre season this year from a company which appears to be thriving under director Brad Cohen. Whatever the magic potion is I hope WA Opera can keep it coming.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.