Friday, 30 September 2016


The WA Symphony Orchestra heads off on an international tour next week and I am feeling a pang of pride!

It is the orchestra's first tour in ten years. Asher Fisch is conducting three concerts this weekend to showcase the tour repertoire: Mahler 5, Sulthorpe's Kakadu, assorted Wagner repertoire and Saint-Saens.

Fisch conducts tour repertoire at the morning concert today.

The tour begins October 6th in the United Arab Emirates where WASO has been invited to open the Abu Dhabi Classics Season, the first Australian major arts organisation to perform in the UAE. The tour continues to Beijing and Shanghai and is reminiscent of the 2006 trip to China when I accompanied the orchestra as a critic. Jean Yves Thibaudet is obviously still popular with Chinese audiences and will be soloist again in Saint Saens' Piano Concert No 5. The Chinese publicity folk have again been prescriptive with their repertoire advice; Shostakovich 10 has been swapped for the more traditional Mahler 5 which the orchestra performed last tour. And again a film crew is travelling with the orchestra, but this time the focus of the documentary seems to be the cultural rather than the business exchange.

The China leg also includes two school concerts and a masterclass. The tour is expected to build on the growing partnership between WASO, the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the Australia China Business Council. I am relieved to see the emphasis this time round on the cultural aspects of the tour, over and above the business and trade relationships which were the overriding focus in 2006.

Colin Barnett and Asher Fisch, with three Chinese musicians in WASO

The 2016 tour seems like a good fit for an orchestra who boasts less these days about their enviable sponsorship and business foundation and more about the quality of the music making. It's been a subtle shift over the past few years with the gradual change of administrative staff and under the leadership of Paul Daniel and now especially Asher Fisch. For people like me who love their orchestra it has been welcomed with a sigh of relief.

 In 2006 the cracks in the orchestra showed as administration fired conductor Matthias Bamert at the commencement of the tour, overlooked basic musician requirements like access to safe drinking water, and where the musicians played to empty concert halls.

I believe the orchestra is the strongest and most balanced it has ever been musically, administratively and financially. I don't envisage any of the dramas of the last trip. I wish them well and look forward to hearing of their international success.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

October Gig Guide

There is exciting news for classical music in Perth this month with the launch of the inaugural Darlington Spring Festival. Soprano Sara Macliver headlines the event which will run from 22-25th October. Three concerts will be spread across heritage buildings in Guildford and Darlington with a lunch concert package at Darlington Estate winery on the final day. It sounds very boutique, community-based and with a very promising music program (Trout Quintet, Vivaldi motet, Brahms Sextet).

The WA Academy of Performing Arts is also worth checking out this month with a fabulous array of concerts. New music by composition students takes centre stage at Spectrum Project Space on October 3-7th and in a series of works paying homage to Charles Ives on October 6th.

On the 4-5th London-based pianist Zubin Kanga performs a program of piano solos at WAAPA followed by a concert on the 5th in collaboration with Decibel ensemble. The concert includes the performance of a work by the student winner of the Difficult Commission award. 2nd year WAAPA music theatre students will tell the story of impoverished students living in an attic in their production of Rent (8-15th Oct), the modern remake of La Boheme.

Then from 10-15th WAAPA opera students present Britten’s comic chamber opera Albert Herring directed by Thomas de Mallet Burgess (Lost & Found). This is an ambitious opera for students to present but it has the potential to be fabulous theatre.

Finally on Oct 18th at WAAPA Australian composer and pianist Larry Sitsky brings his extraordinary playing and intellect to Beethoven’s piano works. “What would Beethoven have written if he had had a modern concert grand piano with its greater power, increased range and third pedal?”

On the 8th Art Song Perth present their final recital for the year: Lieder, L’Orient and Laughs. Local singers Caitlin Cassidy, Lucy Mervik and Herr Helmut Wunderlicher (aka Robert Hoffmann) will perform a range of vocal music accompanied by Marilyn Phillips.

There are two national tours this month.The Australian Chamber Orchestra will bring a reduced version of their national Baroque tour to Perth on the 19th. The Perth version doesn’t include soprano Julie Lezhneva and instead features five string players and recorder player Genevieve Lacey playing works by Bach and Vivaldi. Musica Viva’s national tour beings in Perth on October 3rd. The violin and piano duo Benjamin Meilman and Andrew Tyson have included on their program the premiere of a work by Jane Stanley, as part of Musica Viva's Hildegard project. The commissioning of women composers is a subject close to my heart after spending years researching this area for my book Women of Note.

October 25th is opening night for WA Opera's The Pearl Fishers. This is a new Opera Conference production directed by Michael Gow. The cast includes Emma Matthews as Leila and young local talent Wade Kernot as Nourabad, with Brad Cohen conducting.

The University of WA Wind students team up with St Mary’s Cathedral Choir on the 27th for a concert of sacred and instrumental works by Brahms and Barber.

The month ends with two children's concerts on the 30th: Cappuccino Concerts Children’s Corner on returns by popular request with three-piece string ensemble Fiddlesticks introducing kids to music with lots of stories, interaction, dress ups and dancing.  WASO’s kids program is more impressive each year and I have high expectations of their presentation of the popular kids book The Gruffalo,with the film projected on the big screen and live performance of Rene Aubry’s magical score.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

WA's new media monster

Western Australia's new media monster has arrived!

Seven West Media's proposal to purchase The Sunday Times and has been given the green light by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The statement released today said "Following an extensive review, the ACCC has reached the view that the proposed acquisition is, on balance, not likely to substantially lessen competition for either consumers or advertisers."

The Commission justified its decision saying "many consumers in WA are now getting their news online or elsewhere" and "most (advertisers) acknowledged that print advertising was of declining importance". The findings also mentioned Fairfax's and the ABC's dedicated online website as alternative online news sites.

Read the full statement here.

I guess it is now a case of wait and see what shape the new enterprise will take. Will it be a creative, exciting and thought-provoking journalism platform? Or will it just be The West Australian published seven days a week?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Future of Journalism

Forgive the weighty title but a series of events recently have left me contemplating the future of the industry I work in.

Last month The West Australian lost forty staff or the equivalent of one quarter of its work force. The job losses were mostly redundancies taken by staff including a senior editor who expressed disillusionment with journalism's clickbait-generated focus on kittens, puppies and Kim Kardashian's behind. 

It's sad to see the paper losing such quality staff. But perhaps those taking redundancies are the lucky ones. The resultant reshuffle at the paper has resulted in overworked staff covering multiple roles often in areas they have no interest or knowledge.

It has also spelled the end for freelance contributors. After fifteen years of writing for the paper I was told my contributions were no longer required. In-house staff would now be covering the arts reviews. Almost the entire freelance section for the arts pages has been cut in a huge loss of industry knowledge for the paper.

Seven West Media's proposed acquisition of the Sunday Times is another issue creating uncertainty in the local journalism world. There are concerns about the impact of a media monopoly caused by the amalgamation of the state's two newspapers and Chanel Seven television. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will hand down its findings on Thursday 15th September. The West has given no indication what it plans to do with the Sunday Times and journalists everywhere are holding their breath.

The situation in WA is a mirror of what has been happening on the east coast and all over the world in the past 5-10 years. The rise of digital news has meant not only less readers for traditional print media but also less advertising revenue. There is now more news content available than there is advertising dollars to support it.

Arts Journalism in Crisis

The losses seem most acute in areas of journalism that require in-depth investigation and specialist knowledge. The arts in particular are taking a hit - very few papers or websites are publishing classical music reviews. It is an international crisis for the arts industry. Whether The West intends to allocate reviews to non-specialists or to cut the arts reviews entirely, it spells an unhealthy future for WA's thriving arts industry.

I believe criticism is an essential part of a healthy arts scene. Reviews don't just provide artists with grabs for their self promotion; a good review will also evaluate and creatively express the experience for the audience, interrogate the concepts being presented and hold accountable organisations who are often receiving substantial government and philanthropic funding to pursue their artform. The contribution of critics should provoke debate, inspire excellence, and above all celebrate the art form. My (rather lofty!) endeavour is that my words will have the same richness, integrity and excellence as the music being performed on the stage.  

The Arts pages were one of the few areas in The West's pages that were focusing on local news. Like local sport these events are created by locals, attended by locals and should be covered by the local paper. The WA Symphony Orchestra's artistic manager Evan Kennea predicted the biggest impact on WASO would be felt not by conductor Asher Fisch whose career is already internationally established, but by people like composer-in-residence Lachlan Skipworth whose composition for the 2017 program may not get reviewed. If the local paper doesn't cover it, who will?

Well of course there are the bloggers, some of whom do classical music reviews. There are issues with online writing though. Firstly it requires discernment by the reader because not every blogger is the expert they appear. Secondly, it doesn't pay! Digital revenue has bypassed news sites and gone to Facebook, Google, Seek etc. I don't know any online blogger making an income as a music journalist. It is mostly volunteer work, which makes it difficult to buy food! (Read an interesting post about disillusionment with blogging by UK critic Jessica Duchen here.)

Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten

What will the future be?

At a Future of Journalism panel discussion in Fremantle earlier this month there was a lot of shrugging going on. No one really knows what the future will look like. The trends are changing so often and the leading newspapers in the UK and US are madly leaping between online/print/paywalls/free content to try and stay ahead.

What was most clear from the panel is the conversation has changed. News is no longer the property of the traditional media figureheads. Facebook and Google hold the reigns of news distribution and the increase in public interaction around news gathering and sharing means journalists must now participate in a dialogue. Many journalists are morphing into 'content gatherers', 'infotainers', 'aggregators'. 

Apparently none of this is new. The arrival of CNN Cable News revolutionised the news 36 years ago. More newspapers died in the 60's when TV arrived than are folding today. The news industry has survived cataclysmic changes before.

There is hope.

Martin Turner, sub editor from Community News pointed out that social media has started to address the (im)balance of power inherent in newsrooms which until now has been dominated by white middle class men.

Joseph Fernandez, associate professor in journalism at Curtin University says there is hope; 'the fourth estate' is not in danger. There is still power in telling a story and giving information. So how do we maintain a (paid) presence for investigative specialist journalism?

I've recently heard two success success stories worth sharing.

Peter Law, head of news at the Sunday Times, painted a surprisingly healthy picture of WA's Sunday paper. The paper is bucking the trend and has in fact increased its readership by 3.5% or in real terms an additional 17 000 readers. Their online website Perth Now is Perth's most popular news site with a viewing increase of 16% this year. Together the Sunday Times and Perth Now have 1.5 million readers. Their staff team is small, young, innovative and attracting a younger readership. They are also breaking significant stories that are generating the WA news cycle. 

Peter argued that print carries gravitas and can be a force for change. His paper's focus is on content that is important but also readable. Sunday Times journalists are being creative about delivery and working alongside program designers to make their content attractive. 

When Andrew Batt-Rawden discovered in 2013 that Limelight magazine - Australia's national dedicated arts magazine - was on the verge of insolvency  he declared 'not on my watch'. He purchased the magazine and under his management and the editorial leadership of Clive Paget the glossy monthly has grown from a debt-ridden shrinking magazine to breaking even. Batt-Rawden has doubled advertising revenue and expanded the magazine's previously eastern-biased coverage of events to a a more national focus. It is now the only national print media to be providing coverage of arts events in Perth.

While the magazine's subscriptions continue to fall, the online website is hugely popular. The magazine is about to launch an Australian Cultural Fund campaign to overhaul its website and broaden its coverage. Batt-Rawden is also investigating nanotransactions as an alternative to a paywall and a philanthropically-inspired 'Friends' patronage system. He is one the few in the arts industry I've spoken to who is thinking innovatively about how to continue and enrich arts journalism in the digital age.

What do you think?

I'm interested in hearing stories about how the changes in WA's media landscape are effecting those in the arts industry and those consuming the news.

Is anyone else missing reviews from their favourite arts critic? Are there people worried about where to send their press release? Who is wondering what gigs to go to or how last night's concert was received?

Perhaps someone has a favourite source of arts news they can share. Or a story of hope?

And I'll do my best to keep you posted about how I go finding a way to do arts journalism in this uncertain world!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Operabox's moment of arrival: Ariadne auf Naxos

Operabox's ambitious production of Ariadne auf Naxos is destined to be remembered as a watershed moment for the grass roots opera company. The staging of Strauss' rarely performed opera has established the company as an innovative and professional contributor to the WA opera scene. Featuring Melbourne tenor Henry Choo and soprano Fiona Jopson with award-winning theatre director Kathryn Osborne at the helm and Christopher Dragon in the pit this show generated high expectations and then went on to surpass them.

Ariadne (Fiona Jopson) with her Nymphs.

Strauss' rarely performed 'opera within an opera' with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal combines slapstick humour with glorious music. Osborne updates the action to the mansion of a 'Forbes 500' type where the premiere of an opera is thrown into disarray by the unexpected inclusion of a burlesque comedy group. The ash-strewn island of Naxos, a setting of isolation and mourning for the lovelorn Ariadne, is swiftly turned into a beachside resort as Zerbinetta and her clowns try to cheer up Ariadne (with colourfully coordinated set and costumes by Laura Heffernan and Rhiannon Walker). The arrival of the god Bacchus heralds Ariadne's release into death. But in a light-hearted twist Osborne orchestrates for Ariadne to sneak away with one of the clowns during Bacchus' grandiloquent closing aria.

Zerbinetta (Jenna Robertson) with her clowns.

Osborne exploits the comic aspects of the opera: the Composer and Music Master sit in the audience as spectators; Bacchus tosses his wig after finding bits of hair in his mouth and numerous subplots for the clowns include shark attacks and speedo modelling. The clincher is when the clown Truffaldin  sabotages Bacchus's superficial wooing of Ariadne by using a laptop to hack the subtitles. <got 2 make her see me> appears on the screen, followed by love hearts. Without any change to the synopsis or music a completely different ending unfolds. Bacchus parades through his aria while Ariadne giggles alongside Truffaldin and #stillsinging appears on the subtitles in a gentle mockery of operatic conventions.

Bacchus (Henry Choo)
Under Osborne's perceptive direction the humour doesn't cheapen the libretto and is couched sensitively withing the splendour of Strauss' music. Dragon and his 34 piece orchestra impressively negotiate the sudden mood changes and soloistic writing so that Strauss' polyphonic wind writing and waves of string sound overlay the entire production with a profound majesty. Particularly impressive is Dragon's ability to modulate the orchestral support for singers of often quite varied vocal volume.

The singers are uniformly excellent and with such sympathetic directorial and musical support they are able to shine. Fiona Jopson's lyrico-spinto voice has the emotional richness and power for Strauss' music while Henry Choo commands the stage as an overbearing and seductive Bacchus. Jenna Robertson sizzles as the flirtatious Zerbinetta with coloratura fireworks compensating for occasional thin tone. Eva-Marie Middleton is a natural drama queen as the Composer, her voice sweet and strong. The clowns (Kristin Bowtell, Simon Wood, Ry Charleson and Charles Bogle) are a lively lot of lads singing in a quaint mix of barber-shop meets opera. Ariadne's troupe of Nymphs are sung with creamy warmth by Alexandra Bak, Christina The and Belinda Cox, and Michael Heap is an eloquent Music Master.

The Composer (Eva-Marie Middleton)

Ariadne auf Naxos continues 9, 11, 16 September Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre, Mosman Park. 13 September Concert Performance Darlington Hall.
Tickets here.
All photos credit Very Serious photography.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Lost & Found's compelling case for small arts companies

Australia’s arts scene is in crisis after a devastating government funding cut in May left 62 companies without funding. In this climate it is a miracle that the nation’s most innovative opera company Lost & Found continues to flourish. The company performs rarely heard repertoire in unusual venues, employs outstanding West Australian freelance singers and engages a much wider audience demographic than traditional opera. Lost & Found's hilarious, thought-provoking and theatrical production of Bizet’s Don Procopio on June 14th was a compelling argument for the vital role of small arts companies in Australia.

Bizet’s early opera buffa (composed in 1859 and borrowing heavily from Don Pasquale) demonstrates an easily facility with patter, brillante ensemble numbers to rival Mozart and a knack for musical characterisation. The libretto follows the antics of Bettina as she rails against an arranged marriage to the wealthy elderly Don Procopio. Bizet didn’t (as far as we know) provide recitatives which leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Conductor Chris van Tuinen with eight-piece and chorus
Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess rented the suburban Italian Vasto Club and enlisted a group of nonne from the nearby retirement village to lend an organic feel to the chorus. Conductor Chris van Tuinen arranged the score for an eight-piece ensemble with accordion adding cabaret flavour. Sally Phipps’ wedding set and costumes were awash in pink from balloons to wigs and even pink waistcoats for the orchestra.

Claire Condipodero (Bettina) with Perry Joyce and
Stephanie Gooch (Bettina's brother and aunt)

In Scene One the wedding had already begun (with audience members participating in the banquet) and Bettina’s uncle and aunt were part-dressed and mid-argument. ‘Go on, protest and burn your bra, the wedding will proceed as planned,’ shouted Don Andronica (a blustering Paull-Anthony Keightley), in de Mallet Burgess’ witty translation. The wedding did indeed proceed and just as quickly unravelled with the help of Bettina’s aunt (a hilarious Stephanie Gooch), brother Ernesto (a flamboyant Perry Joyce) and rockstar boyfriend Odoardo (Alasdair Kent with a glorious refined tenor voice).

Michael Lewis (Don Procopio)

Don Procopio arrived on a gopher, quickly concluded that ‘money is best enjoyed alone’ and spent the rest of the opera trying to escape Bettina’s crazy family. Michael Lewis sang Procopio with perfect diction and pacing, plodding around bewildered as Bettina (Claire Condipodero dressed in Couture tracksuit and ugg boots) literally performed back flips around him. The petite, pouting Condipoderos nailed the gymnastics but her coloratura was patchy. It did improve as the night progressed, shaping into a bell-like, agile soubrette. The highlight was her touching Act Two duet Pour moi, her voice dovetailing beautifully with Kent’s as they crooned rock-style in front of microphones.