Friday, 30 December 2016

The Best of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 December 2016

Christmas listening - something different

What are you listening to this Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

1. Jerusalem reioss for joy: 

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

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

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

Monday, 12 December 2016

Your 2017 Concert Calendar - a snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perth Festival 2017 highlights reel

Friday, 9 December 2016

Celebrity Soft Spot Louise Devenish

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

Louise Devenish c Nik Babic

What music gets your heart racing?

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

What calms you down?

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

What do you sing along to?

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

What first drew you into percussion?

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

Performing David Pye's Rebana Loops

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

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

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

What inspired the formation of your new group Intercurrent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devenish performing a work she commissioned from Kate Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devenish with Steve Reich

What is your favourite place in Perth?

Our back yard.

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

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

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

Monday, 5 December 2016

Handel's Messiah review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was first published in Limelight magazine.