Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Christopher Dragon

The Colorado Symphony has just extended Perth conductor Christopher Dragon's contract for another two years and his name blazes across their marketing with slogans like "Dragons are Real". The 26 year old Perth conductor first stood in front of an orchestra just five years ago and is already making his mark internationally. He returns to Perth in September for several concerts including a season of Ariadne auf Naxos with OperaBox. 

What music gets your heart racing?

Listening to any sort of classical music can get my heart racing from symphonic to chamber music. As a conductor, what really gets my heart racing is the process of music making during the performance and being fully immersed in the moment.

What calms you down?

When I need to switch off after a rehearsal I enjoy listening to a variety of pop music – to not lose too much respect it’s probably better for me not to say what… I find it very hard to switch off listening to orchestral music as it usually results in me air conducting along.

What do you sing along to?

Due to my intense schedule with the Colorado Symphony and numerous outside engagements I am always studying, so the music I sing along to is whatever I’m currently preparing. On this current trip to Perth, Strauss’ Ariadne of Naxos is definitely getting the most karaoke time from me.

You are back in town to conduct (amongst other things) Ariadne Auf Naxos, your fourth opera with OperaBox. How are you preparing?

Strauss’ Ariadne of Naxos is a without any doubt the most difficult opera that OperaBox has ever staged and the music is extremely complicated and difficult to put together. There are tempo changes every few bars, the first act is basically all recitative and the individual parts are challenging for both the singers and orchestra.

In regards to preparation, before I started marking up my score I translated the text and watched numerous productions of the opera to get a good understanding of the work. Next I marked up the score using a specific process I use which basically breaks down the structure of the work into phrases. From there I then develop musically what I want and need from each phrase/line and work out how to transition from each of the sections.

I’m very fortunate to also have the close mentorship of WASO’s Principal Conductor Asher Fisch so I’ve been able to ask him various questions about conducting the work and how to approach certain sections.

You’ve just completed your first year as Associate Conductor with the Colorado Symphony. What have been the highlights so far of working with the orchestra?

4th July concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
It has been such an amazing experience for me to be able to work with such a high quality orchestra and due to how busy the orchestra is it means I get to conduct a lot of concerts. Last season I conducted 22 different programs and as the orchestra prides itself on being innovative it meant I conducted a wide variety of styles and genres and collaborated with a diverse range of artists.

Everything I’ve done with the orchestra has been special to me but a few big learning experiences have come from the Symphony at the Movies concerts – Back to the Future and Home Alone. These shows are where the orchestra performs the music to a full screening of the movie. It is some of the most difficult music I’ve had to conduct as you have to sync it with the movie and there are constant sudden tempo changes. Even with a click track (live metronome) these shows are difficult to put together as well as the music often being quite difficult for the musicians. Due to the difficulty and challenge of putting it all together I find these concerts very rewarding – plus I get to watch some great movies!

Next season I’m looking forward to collaborating with Ben Folds on his Piano Concerto as well as conducting some major repertoire including Brahms’ Symphony no 1 and 3, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 4 and Dvorak’s Symphony no 9.

It has been amusing seeing the symphony make the most of my surname Dragon! For example next season there is special allocated seating for a few of my concerts called “The Dragon Pit” and they even have a banner advertising the upcoming season with the quote “Dragons are real!”

Where are you living, how have you found the transition into American culture?

I have an apartment in downtown Denver that is about a five-minute walk from our hall. I want to avoid driving in the US as they drive on the other side of the road and worry that if I tried, I might not survive there very long….

The transition of moving to Denver has been quite smooth as I find the lifestyle very similar to Perth. It is not an overwhelmingly busy city yet there is enough happening to keep it interesting. It is a beautiful place and I can’t wait to explore the mountains more.

The American culture has been a blast and I have already been to a baseball and NFL Broncos game.  This year the Broncos won the Super Bowl so it was an amazing to experience the hype of it all. There are a few aspects I’m still trying to adjust to such as why portions are so large, why pizza comes with ranch sauce and when to tip.

Your career has escalated at a whirlwind pace:
2011 began conducting studies with the Symphony Services Conductor program
2013 Assistant Conductor WASO
2014 Jarvi Winter Academy in Estonia – Orchestra’s Favourite Conductor Prize
2015 Associate Conductor Colorado SO
Where to next?!

Yes I still cannot believe how everything has really snowballed to where I am today. It’s amazing to think that just over five years ago I conducted for the very first time in front of an orchestra. For the time being I know I will be with the Colorado Symphony for a while longer as my initial year contract was extended to three years.

I have a few future goals set that I see as my next steps. One is finding an agent as my schedule is already very busy and it would be good to have someone help organize all my outside engagements. More guest conducting in Australia (as I love travelling back here regardless of the long trip) and expanding my guest conducting in America. Finally a Music Director position somewhere, as I feel ready to have a strong input building an orchestra and integrating it with the community. To be honest though, as long as I’m still conducting and making music in the future I will be more than happy.

When did you first become interested in conducting?

Even before I studied clarinet at university I was interested in conducting but it wasn’t offered as a core subject of study. At WASO concerts I would always try to get choir stall tickets so I could watch the conductor to see how their gestures and expressions shaped the music. Also when I played clarinet in orchestras I wanted to have more of an input to the overall music making but as a clarinetist it wasn’t really my position to be doing anything like that as I was responsible for just my part.

Orchestral musicians love working with you - what is it that you offer that is so compelling?

Haha! I’m not sure how true that statement is but I know they definitely do a good job putting up with me. I’m often asked if it’s difficult being a “young” conductor especially when the musicians are more experienced etc, but to be honest I have not really found this to be an issue. I believe that if you respect the musicians in front of you, you know what you want to do with the music and you use your time effectively you should not have any problems working with any orchestra.

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

Music has a unique ability to connect with people on a transcendental level and life without it would be soul-less. There is that cheesy saying that music is a universal language but there is a lot of truth behind it – music has the ability to pull people together from all over the world regardless of race, religion and age.

You have a soft spot for reading scores – for hours and hours on end. What is the appeal?

Haha! I don’t really know if it is a soft spot or more just it is what I have to do for my job. Saying that, my scores are my most prized possessions as I put so much time into marking them up. I always find it fascinating returning to a score I’ve done before; trying to decipher my scribbles and seeing how my interpretation of the piece has changed.

Do you have a partner/significant other/pet?

I really want a dog but as I travel so much it’s not really possible for me to have one. Also no girlfriend at this stage which is probably a good thing considering the amount of work I’ve had on!

You have just finished conducting at two back-to-back festivals in the US (Breckenridge Music Festival) and Australia (Bangalow Music Festival), involving a huge amount of repertoire in a short space of time. Where did you learn the skills to manage your time and absorb so much music?

Marking up a score at the Bangalow Music Festival
I’ve really tried to push myself over this two month period. Three weeks before the Breckenridge Music Festival I had two different concerts with the Colorado Symphony as well as making my conducting debut in Brazil. The day I got back to Australia I started music calls for Operabox then two days later flew to New South Wales for the Bangalow Music Festival. Being back in Perth I now have Operabox, WAAPA Faith Court Orchestra and MetSO to juggle as well as being at WASO rehearsals. So far everything has gone ok so I’m coping (just!)

When I was living in Perth I was quite fortunate to have so many conducting opportunities – at one stage I was conducting, two community orchestras, Operabox, the WA Youth Orchestra and WAAPA’s Faith Court all at the same time as well as being at WASO rehearsals so this really helped me to develop my time management of being able to work on multiple projects. The other benefit of this was that it exposed me to a lot of music early on. The same goes with the Symphony Services masterclasses and others I did overseas where I was able to learn major repertoire in front of professional orchestras.

What do you miss most about Perth?

I have some really great friends in Perth that I love catching up with over good food and wine. It seems a bit topsy-turvy but I always lose weight whilst in America and gain it when I’m back in Australia as I spend so many nights out catching up with friends.

I also miss watching WASO with Asher Fisch as the quality of playing is just world class and the orchestra is really in a golden period right now. I am also very close with a lot of the musicians and Asher so it’s always nice returning home and seeing them all.

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

Music definitely is a major part of my life and apart from general things like hanging out with friends and going out for good food and wine, I guess a secret pleasure of mine is that I LOVE to watch cooking shows. I can’t really cook at all but I am just completely hooked on shows like Masterchef and anything with Gordon Ramsay in it – he is just brilliant!

Christopher Dragon conducts the WAAPA Faith Court Orchestra on September 2nd/3rd, Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with OperaBox from the 9-16th and the WA Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on the 18th. You can follow Christopher on Instagram Dragonconducts

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

September Gig Guide

It's an exciting time for the WA Symphony Orchestra this month. The orchestra has just launched its 2017 program and is gearing up for the China tour in October. Asher Fisch is in town conducting Mozart's Requiem on the 2/3rd. Later in the month on Sept 29/30th/Oct 1st the orchestra will showcase its tour repertoire: Mahler’s Symphony No 5, Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No 5 (with Jean-Yves Thibaudet) and Sculthorpe’s Kakadu. There was scandal on the eve of the 2006 tour to China; the pressure and energy will be intense. These concerts will sell-out for sure. 

On the 2/3rd wunderkind conductor Christopher Dragon (more on him in the next Celebrity Soft Spot) returns to Perth to conduct the WAAPA Faith Court Orchestra.  The program includes Stravinsky’s Firebird and student soloists competing for the Academy’s concerto award. It will be a great showcase of emerging talent.  Maestro Dragon will also conduct a season of Ariadne auf Naxos for Opera Box, opening on the 9th. Hooray for another platform for emerging singers and a (much needed) expansion of opera repertoire for Perth audiences. 

On the 4th September Sara Macliver will give a recital for the Swan Song series with songs (including Barber’s Hermit Songs) inspired by solitude. 

Legendary Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja features as soloist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the 9th performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 9. Also orchestral arrangements of Strauss Sextet from Capriccio and Beethoven String Quartet in Eb.

The Italian Tenors arrive at the Regal Theatre on the 10th if you want to check out the latest pop-opera European export.  On the 13th the Jerusalem Quartet begin their national Musica Viva tour in Perth with a program including string quartets by Beethoven and Dvorak alongside Australian composer Ross Edwards Summer Dances.

The Sound of Music begins its season at Crown on the 14th – the first musical I ever saw and my favourite! It's going to be a bit of karaoke sing-a-long I think!

Tura new music's Reflections Kimberley Tour concludes in Perth on the 21st with a performance at Studio Underground. This will be a rich (and rare) authentic cross-cultural collaboration with indigenous musicians. 

Fresh from their triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall in New York, Collegium Symphonic Chorus has returned home to present Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on the 24/25th. 

And finally on the 25th UWA Percussion will perform Reich's Music for 18 Musicians to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the premiere of this minimal masterpiece.

Enjoy your concerts!

Monday, 29 August 2016

Alexandre Da Costa and the Indian Ocean Ensemble

It is two and a half years into Alexandre Da Costa’s appointment as associate professor at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. On Friday night 26th August the Canadian violinist led the elite students from the Indian Ocean Ensemble in a concert which, while not flawless, revealed that his enthusiasm and immense musicality are rubbing off.

The concert, titled Vienna to Berlin by Night, opened with a darkly flavoured performance of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio. The ensemble (supplemented by teaching staff) captured Strauss’ weighty Germanic soundworld and over this Da Costa’s gleaming ‘Di Barbaro’ Stradivarius violin sang with haunting beauty.

The masterworks by Beethoven and Schoenberg as promised in the publicity didn’t eventuate. Instead the remainder of the concert featured Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss which revealed there are still some obvious growth areas.

The waltzes were arranged for harmonium, piano and string quartet by Berg and Schoenberg. The smaller ensemble size meant there was nowhere to hide and issues with pitch and timing began to emerge. Lagunen-Walzer lost its poise as the rhythm tumbled forward filling all the spaces between notes. Wein, Weib und Gesang suffered from clashes in tuning. I admit I expected better.

What the students lacked in fundamentals they made up for with spirit. Decisive leadership from the first violin in Rosen aus dem Suden gave the dance a playful energy that was a reminder of the waltz’s origins as a rustic folk dance. Kaiser-Walzer (written in tribute to the Kings of Germany and Austria, a historical note which would have illuminated the theme of the concert had it been explained to the audience) had moments of delicacy and muscle, the addition of flute and clarinet adding to the fairy-floss sweetness.

The large ensemble regrouped with Da Costa at the helm again for an elegantly impassioned Blue Danube and the famous Radetzy March which was supplemented by percussionists and enthusiastic audience participation. It was a fitting finale to a concert that for all its technical flaws showed spirited musicianship.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Alexandre da Costa

Alexandre da Costa's debut at age nine on violin and piano brought him recognition as a musical prodigy. By eighteen he had a Masters degree in violin from Quebec Conservatory and he went on to study in Madrid with legendary violin teacher Zakhar Bron. His career as an international soloist includes recording 20 albums and in 2014 he was appointed associate professor of classical performance at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. This month Alexandre will perform with several ensembles from the academy and he took a break from rehearsals to update us on the string revival occurring at WAAPA.

What music gets your heart racing?

Good concerts! I love performing, it’s what excites me the most.

What calms you down?

Being with my son. He is a very important part of my life and gives me strength to fight the important battles.

What do you sing along to?

Mostly eighties pop music!

This weekend (September 2/3rd)you are directing Vienna to Berlin by Night with repertoire including the tone poems of Richard Strauss, Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss and works by Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig van Beethoven. How are you preparing students from the Indian Ocean Ensemble to explore these works?

It’s a very healthy preparation process, involving a pretty good amount of rehearsal time, and lots of fun! Indeed, when the IOE meets, it’s always done in a very professional way, but also in a relaxed environment that allows the elite students to relate to the music and their colleagues.

When you arrived in Perth your goal together with your WAAPA colleagues was to “build one of the strongest string programs in the Asia-Pacific region”. What was your strategy and how is your progress going?

It’s going great. We are definitely right on path for our goals and desires. The level of the students is rapidly increasing, and the philosophy of practice and training is changing fast. We are also working on very important international partnerships, such as the one that allowed us to send six of the best WAAPA students on tour with a young professional orchestra program in Canada.

Listen to Alexandre perform the first movement of St Saens' Violin Concerto no 3 with the Oviedo Symphon Orchestra here.  

A WAAPA degree is one small part of the shaping of a performer, alongside post-grad studies, mentoring, competitions etc. What is the most important aspect you want your WAAPA students to take from their degree?

I would like for them to feel confident enough to apply and be successful at getting a good job in the music field. Some will go work for professional orchestras, and the levels required are very high for those jobs, so I want to prepare them as best I can so that they win a position where they want.

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

Let’s put it this way: without music, the human race would never be the same or be able to achieve such growth. Music calms the spirits, soothes them, creates passion, and gives us a different perspective on life in general.

You play a 1727 Di Barbaro Stradivarius violin. Does it have a distinct musical character?

It is an incredible opportunity to play on this instrument which is on loan from the Canimex company. It is an wonderful instrument, one of the most beautiful on the planet.

Watch Alexandre perform on his Stradivarius with the Vienna Symphony here.

You have a soft spot for violin concertos by Portugese composers, having recorded the premieres of violin concertos by Luis de Freitas Branco and Armando José Fernandes. What is the appeal of this repertoire?

My name, Da Costa, is of Portuguese decent. I wanted to make sure that I would explore all my roots through music.

You also have a love affair with the piano which you have played from early age alongside the violin, culminating in a bachelor degree in piano interpretation at University of Montreal. What made you ultimately choose violin as your focus?

I think it is very difficult to pursue a solo career in two different instruments. I loved the piano but in order to achieve my goal of being an international soloist, I had to make a difficult choice and go for the violin. But I still play a bit of piano for myself!

What is your favourite Australian composer?

At the moment I am working on a commission with Paul Sarcich, so he would be my favorite at the moment!

Martine Cardinal, violinst and
director of Laurentians Festival
You are director of the Laurentians Festival in Canada where you work alongside your wife and festival CEO Martine Cardinal. Am I correct in thinking you have welcomed a new addition to your family?

Yes. Martine and I are the proud parents of Mattenzo, my dear son. It has given us a new insight in life in general, and made us realize how precious life is.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

The restaurant Bread in Common in Fremantle and the beach at Cottesloe!

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

There is always time for other things, but I must say that with all the travels, the concerts, the family responsibilities and the projects, there are very few hours left in the day to think about something else! But we try to enjoy our surroundings and explore new cultures.

Thank you Alexandre for making the time for Celebrity Soft Spot. Alexandre will be leading the Indian Ocean Ensemble on the 2nd/3rd September in Vienna to Berlin, a program of late romantic Viennese music. On September 8th he will lead the leading string students in Scintillating Strings. For more information on Alexandre visit his website

Monday, 22 August 2016

Oliver! works its magic

The musicals just keep rolling through Perth - this weekend ICW Productions opened their season of Oliver! It was the perfect opportunity to take my son Matthew to his first musical. We finished reading Oliver Twist recently and Dickens' story of dark dirty London and the little boy who wanted more has captured his imagination.

ICW Productions (founded by Ian Westrip) aims to provide work for WAAPA graduates and bring high quality productions to the community. Oliver opened on Saturday night  at the performing arts centre at St Hilda's Anglican School for Girls and will run until the 27th August.

We couldn't make the matinee show so I braved a late night with my five year old and went on opening night. The thrill of being dressed up and out late, the sparkling foyer lights of the beautiful theatre, the folding chairs and the chocolate at interval were all part of the experience. And of course the music and dance worked their magic.

Westrip's daughter Charlotte made her directorial debut and her love for Oliver! was tangible. The story unfolded clearly and she allowed the personalities of her cast to flourish.

Lukas Steinwandel (Oliver) 

On Saturday night Oliver was sung by the sweet-voiced Lukas Steinwandel (star of The Snowman with Perth Symphony Orchestra last year). The Artful Dodger was sung by Jacob Miles who seems a confident stage animal and was well cast his wide grin and mischievous energy. The two boys were supported by a motley gang of orphans/street urchins who moved and sung with strong-voiced enthusiasm.

Phoebe Jackson (Nancy) and Jacob Miles (Dodger)

The adult cast included WAAPA graduate Phoebe Jackson who played a fiery, big-hearted Nancy with a well-rounded voice. Her rollicking rendition of Oom Pah Pah (wittily choreographed by by Lauchlan Edward Bain) was Matthew's laugh-out-loud moment. Her nasty boyfriend Bill Sikes was sung by an impressively menacing Tim Campbell who epitomised evil so effectively that his eventual demise was the talking point of the show for Matthew.

Fagin was sung with gentle humour by Jay Walsh, although the liberties he took with Reviewing the Situation threw the pit orchestra (conducted by Ian Westrip) into occasional disarray.  Mr Brownlow was performed by Ron Macqueen with the stateliness of Ian McKellen (Gandalf). Dean Misdale was a larger than life and slightly camp (not sure why?) Mr Bumble.

The sound operation (Alex Taubaland) and lighting (Chris Hastie) were the weakest link on opening night, but the glitches will iron out as the production team settles in the venue.

I'm grateful we have semi-professional companies like ICW to provide a platform for our talent and magical memories for a mum and her son.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Plant goes viral in Little Shop of Horrors

Perth is the final leg of the national tour for Little Shop of Horrors and the Luckiest/Tinderbox Production’s show is as slick, well-cast and entertaining as we had been promised. Director Dean Bryant dishes up the mix of creepy comedy for which this Ashman/Menken musical is renowned.

Three raunchy chorus girls (Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel, Angelique Cassimatis) introduce us to Skid Row. They dance and twitch with a desperate energy that pervades the show thanks to Andrew Hallsworth’s tightly wound choreography.
Seymour and Audrey II

The drab Mushnik’s Florist is the centrepiece of the set and its manipulative owner Mr Mushnik is Tyler Coppin in fine comic form (although his Czech accent occasionally slips). The shop’s fortunes are turned around when the belittled assistant Seymour discovers an unknown plant species and becomes an overnight media celebrity. Brent Hill’s Seymour is earnest and bumbling but capable of belting out a rocking Grow For Me and melting duets with love interest Audrey. Hill also speaks/sings the booming voice of his plant (named Audrey II) in an act of impressive ventriloquism that also hints at a Freudian subconscious connection between the two.

Esther Hannaford’s petite frame and timidity makes her the perfect Audrey. With her husky French accent and droll timing she is the most winsome comic in the cast, singing with soulful power in numbers like Suddenly Seymour. Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin is played with goofy cruelty by Scott Johnson.

Audrey and Seymour
Owen Phillips’ florist set is initially greyscale but transforms in Act Two into a riot of red. The chorus girls wear tropical frocks with floral hairpieces and tendril jewellery as Audrey II’s influence grows. The centrepiece of the set is the carnivorous plant and its Feed Me demands require Seymour to go to increasingly desperate measures to keep it alive. This is where puppet makers Erth work their gruesome magic. What starts as a pot plant soon grows into a monstrous mouth with fleshy cabbage ears and veined bulbous tentacles, filling the set and requiring the entire cast (behind the scenes) to operate it.

Andrew Worboys directs a powerhouse band in the pit with surging electric guitar solos and throbbing bass providing a ferocious heavy rock accompaniment as Audrey II devours her victims.

It’s the small touches that set this show apart from the clever use of projections to augment the storytelling to the use of SBS broadcaster Lee Lin Chin as narrator. And then there is Audrey II’s psychedelic rock dance party that kicks in after the final bows, prompting an iPhone filming frenzy from audience members. It’s just the #worlddomination kind of reception that Audrey II would’ve been hoping for.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at His Majesty's Theatre until August 14th. Tickets from Ticketek.

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Beath Beath's YouTube gift

The enterprising Australian composer Betty Beath has created a YouTube channel where you can access free recordings of her music. There are now almost twenty recordings of her work available with original graphic illustrations by her partner, the illustrator David Cox.

Betty Beath

The latest addition is a solo piano piece called A Little Love Music, taken from the album The Music of Betty Beath on the Wirrapang label. There are three songs, the first "A Loving Embrace" opens with a jazz-inflected spread chord. The harmony continues to wander unsettled with glimpses of Betty's familiar gamelan sounds imbedded in what is a wistful, unhurried song. "Let's Dance" is more chromatic and didactic while "Dance... very slowly" returns to the meandering feel of the opening. Despite the sentimental title there is nothing saccharine about these carefully crafted little snapshots, with harmonic twists and turns that are equally surprising and delightful.

David Cox's idiomatic sketches (he has done some fabulous children's books) are emboldened by strong colours and the video includes photographs of the two artists.

I wanted to share this gift as it is another lovely opportunity to access the music of this much-recorded and highly regarded composer, who is well into her eighties and continues to compose and work with community ensembles in Brisbane where she lives.

For more information on Betty Beath and her music you can find her in my book Women of Note, and on the Australian Music Centre website.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Women of Note at UWA

It's time to take a fresh look at Australian history!

On Tuesday August 9th a the University of Western Australia I will be sharing some startling discoveries about the contribution of women to Australian classical music. My presentation will draw on research from my book Women of Note to piece together the missing pieces of history, sharing stories and music from women composers spanning the twentieth century to today.

The presentation is part of UWA's  Research Seminar series and will be held 5pm at the Tunley Lecture Theatre in the School of Music. Entry is free. I am looking forward to sharing my work with music lovers and colleagues in the music industry. Hope to see you there!