Wednesday, 1 March 2017

March Gig Guide

As Perth Festival winds down the rest of the arts community winds up! It's a busy month, starting with the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra on March 4/5 featuring violinist Rudolf Koelman teaming up with FCO soloists for concertos by Vivaldi, Bach and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings.

On March 10/11 the WA Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky with Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov plus the very exciting world premiere of Lachlan Skipworth's Spiritus. On the 16/17/18 Yu-Chien Tseng features as violin soloist with the orchestra in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and Daniel Cohen will conduct Beethoven's 7th Symphony. WASO finishes the month on March 31st with classically trained singer Kate Miller-Heidke who will traverse the worlds of contemporary pop, folk and opera with her original songs.

After outstanding performances for West Australian Opera in The Marriage of Figaro and The Riders soprano Emma Pearson will be in recital on March 12th as part of the Swan Songs series. I could listen to Pearson's satin soprano all night, definitely my current favourite singer!  Her program includes songs from Strauss and Mahler and a beautiful set of songs shot through with all kinds of dance rhythms.

The Perth Symphony Orchestra are having An Irish Night on March 15th at the Fremantle Town Hall, celebrating Irish history and its journey to Australian shores.

The show schedule for the WA Academy of Performing Arts has been released and March is packed full of gigs including Mad About Coward on March 21st featuring International director and Noel Coward tragic Stuart Maunder and accompanist (and Associate Dean of Music) Stewart Smith promising an elegant, moving and very funny exploration of all things Coward.

On March 23rd Geoffrey Lancaster directs WAAPA classical and acting students in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, an evening of musical melodrama featuring music written as accompaniment for the spoken word. There are also excellent two WAAPA percussion gigs on the 23rd and 25th.

The Giovanni Consort will present Baroque vocal music from South America - often overlooked with our Euro-centric approach to western music history - in a concert on March 26th.

On the 28th WA Opera will launch their first house season with Tosca sung by Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Scarpia), Antoinette O'Halloran (Tosca), Paul O’Neil (Cavaradossi) and Wade Kernot (Cesare Angelotti). WA Opera presented Tosca just six years ago but this production is from New Zealand with Stuart Maunder directing. Hopefully it is worth revisiting!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Musical Soiree for International Women's Day

International Women's Day is just around the corner and I'm proud to be participating with a Musical Soiree at Joondalup Library.

If you are in the area on Wednesday 8th March pop in to Joondalup Library at 6pm for a glass of wine and a chance to hear some stunning music and  stories from my book Women of Note.

It's essentially an author talk but more fun with musical samples and (sometimes scandalous) stories which invariably provoke plenty of discussion. My presentation gives a quick history of Australian composition by tracing three generations of women composers. The musical range is enormous. I find people are surprised by how much they enjoy my talks - I guess most people assume classical music is going to be a bit dull, but the lives and music from Women of Note are anything but dull!

I can't think of a better way to celebrate women in Australia than to profile the work of our women composers. It's our best kept secret: we have more women composers than almost any other western nation! Definitely something worth celebrating and I do love putting together the missing jigsaw pieces of our musical history.

Feel free to circulate among your networks. The details regarding registration and location are here.

Reviews for Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers (Fremantle Press 2012)

“A welcome – and overdue – publication. Appleby displays an expertise probably honed by her years as a journalist. She writes engagingly, achieving a fine balance between conveying information about the women’s personal lives and their music.”
Jillian Graham
Australian Book Review March 2012.

Women of Note makes an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring the music of Australian women composers. The musical lives and survival stories of all the women are inspiring. One can almost believe anything is possible. At the very least women of all ages can find in it a variety of survival tips...”

Jenny Game-Lopata, Musicological Society of Australia Journal July 2013

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Bertroffenheit PIAF review

The German word Bertroffenheit loosely translates as a sense of shock, bewilderment or impact.  Canadian writer and dancer Jonathon Young explores this state of being in a two hour contemporary dance/theatre show with choreographer Crystal Pite and the Kidd Pivot dance company.

The hidden weapon in this disturbing production is that Young is drawing from his own experience suffering PTSD after the death of his daughter in a camping accident. He uses his own artform to grapple with the question of suffering, taking centre stage as the protagonist in a very public exploration of grief.

A clinical grimy room is the set (Jay Gower Taylor) with a grim industrial soundscape (Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe) creaking in the background. Young’s voice provides the text, either live or pre-recorded, a flow of disjointed words and repeated rhetoric focused around trying to ‘come to terms with it’. Terrifying flashbacks involve strobe lighting (Tom Visser) and immense noise. The self-talk psychotherapy is exchanged for addictions as Young’s character gives in to the five dancers who have been shadowing him. He is lured into a Vaudeville show that becomes a vehicle for flashy salsa dancing from Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond and a group tap dance complete with bowler hats. There is a lovely connection between Young and his alter ego (?) Jermaine Spivey as they dance a vaudeville duo and use each other’s bodies as puppets.

Pite’s choreography fuses classical elements with structured improvisation, referencing a huge range of dance genres along the way. Body movements act or react in alignment with the words, quivering, twitching and writhing on the floor.

The production becomes increasingly surreal and heavy handed. The dancers hold their heads, mouth silent screams and sprint around incoherently, bodies flung about like shrapnel. The chilling sound track is relentless and I begin to wonder if there is going to be any movement towards light or growth. But in the uncomfortableness is also the truth that grief is relentless, long-winded, self-indulgent and cyclical.

The second half moves into an expressionist dance piece on a bare black stage, which Tchaikovsky might have named Dance of the Traumatised Subconscious. The soundscape is constructed from vocal samples that are stretched, distorted and hazy. The dancers move with athletic improvisatory freedom which overlaps in moments of precise synchronisation.

Young returns to the stage and revisits his memories again, this time admitting that to leave the memories would mean leaving behind people he loved. But he does leave, and as he walks away Spivey remains, moving into a virtuosic solo dance executing increasing aerial movements to a (somewhat clichéd) sweetly harmonic piano accompaniment.

Bertroffenheit is a bleak unrelenting stare at raw human grief, which, like a Tim Winton novel in its final moments gives a glimpse of light.

This review was first published by Limelight magazine February 2017.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Opus 7 review - Remembering changes the way we see

There is so much going on in this production - puppetry, music, painting, dancing, acting - I hardly know where to start. Perhaps with what was missing: there were hardly any words. Russian director Dmitry Krymov put the emphasis on the visual in his stunning two-act work Opus 7 which remembered the creativity and lives obliterated by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The first work Genealogy traced the lives of Jewish Russians while the sister piece Shostakovich put the spotlight on the composer and his repression under Stalin.

Who needs words when there are images that can teach us how to see, to really perceive?

Krymov and his team of designers from the Moscow School of Dramatic Art heightened our visual awareness by constructing the images in front of our very eyes, literally from a blank canvas. After an unhurried prologue - a lament for peace - seven black-suited actors used buckets of flung black paint, staplers and string to transform the white cardboard backdrop into silhouettes. Or were they tombstones?

The set was constructed with playful lateral creativity. Discarded coats came alive with arms inserted, x-rays became missing appendages, the rhythm of names turned into a blues scat.
And then suddenly a multi-sensory overwhelm as bright light, smoke and a paper cannon exploded into the audience. Each piece of newspaper clipping represented one of the dead and they floated around the actors and audience like a snowstorm. Shortly afterwards air raid sirens and machine gun noise shook the floor and chairs as video projections of Russian figures vanished.

Paperstorm during Opus 7. Photos Natalia Cheban

Words were disjointed and used sparingly (mostly to name the dead – aunts, uncles, neighbours) but visual metaphors were everywhere. Glasses were worn by many of the characters, helping them and us to ‘see’. And the piles of children’s shoes with the lone man holding the hand of a cardboard child? Perhaps a reference to Janusz Korczak, the Polish orphanage director remembered for volunteering to go to the gas chamber with his children.

The actors created their own soundtrack too, singing Russian plainchant with sparse beauty, offering bursts of coloratura, breaking into scatting and constructing songs from tuba or flugelhorn solos. Their contributions were woven with snippets of Shostakovich’s music.

The second act was largely an independent work with some reappearing motivs: Dmitry Shostakovich wore glasses and was given child-like dimensions, portrayed by the diminutive actress Anna Sinyakina with fragility and resilience. The number 7 linked the two acts - not just Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 but also the seven actors and seven pianos.

Shostakovich was depicted as trapped in an abusive relationship with Mother Russia, a grotesquely huge puppet. Shostakovich clung to her bosom, was forced to kiss her hand and ended the act smothered beneath her. He was initially encouraged to explore the piano-like structure being constructed centre stage (the black cardboard silhouettes of figures from Genealogy were the drop sheets underneath), while the music of his Piano Trio No 2 was heard in the background. But then he was rounded up with other artists (including theatre director Meyerhold, playwright  Babel and poet Mayakovsky) while Mother Russia took pot shots. Shostakovich ducked and ran and a dangerous dance unfolded as he scrambled up chandeliers and was surrounded by metal grand pianos smashing together like bumper cars, all set to the music of Shostakovich’s own waltzes. The sense of dependency and entrapment was real.

The repression of the regime was also made obvious; Shostakovich’s house was built around him from cardboard with the chandelier held in place by a spy. The metal rod in a chilling game of limbo is a visual limit to Shostakovich's growth and ultimately the stick from which he hung as a puppet.

The only words heard in the powerful sixty minutes were the words of Shostakovich himself, translated via subtitles. And of course his music: the instantly recognisable jarring combination of swagger and fear, pathos and playfulness, completing the requiem.

Opus 7 continues at the Perth Festival until February 26th. The show is sold out.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Musica Viva champions music for today

Last night's concert ticked so many musical boxes I'm not sure where to start!

Eighth Blackbird

The premiere of a work by a young woman composer was always going to grab the attention of the author of a book on Australian women composers. Holly Harrison's Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup was premiered by Eighth Blackbird, America's rockstars of classical music. Clarinetist Michael Maccaferri from the sextet described the work as extremely difficult, (even for them!) but it exploded off the page with a quirky energy that had the audience in raptures. Harrison drew inspiration from the nonsensical writing of Lewis Carol and her music captured the whimsy and madness incredibly well in a mash of extended techniques, experimental rock and blues.

with Holly Harrison shortly before her world premiere

Harrison's work sat alongside works written in the past four years by American composers Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, Timo Andres and Ted Hearnes. These are composers born in the 70's and 80's and young enough to be freer than previous generations of the style-police of modernist ideology - free in other words to be the composers they want to be. Yes there were plenty of modernist extended techniques and nods to minimalist composers but there were also hip hop vibes and musical conversations about contemporary art and politics.

Eighth Blackbird played with professionalism and high octane energy. As an ensemble they were tightly coordinated but also able to relax into a groove.

There was a sense of an international family, drawn together under the umbrella of the organisation Musica Viva, (with support from the Perth Festival). American performers rocking out to music by an Australian composer, with program notes by UK critic Jessica Duchen and an audience of very enthusiastic new music appreciators.

Setting up for Pre-concert talk

I admit to being pleasantly surprised at the full chairs for my pre-concert talk and the large concert hall crowd. There was an atmosphere of enthusiasm and curiosity. The questions in the post show Meet the Artist interview came from mostly elderly audience members (exploding my sterotypes!) who were keen to clarify and learn more.  Musica Viva has educated and grown an audience who do not fear the unknown.

This concert was a gift: music written today, for us, for our time.  Thank you Musica Viva for being one of the few Australian organisations brave enough to champion this repertoire.

Monday, 20 February 2017

ASQ and Arcadia a perfect match - Review

Festivals are the perfect opportunity for matchmaking and Musica Viva and the Perth International Arts Festival got it right when they paired Arcadia Winds with the Australian String Quartet. Arcadia Winds are part of Musica Viva’s new Future Makers artist development program and although they are a relatively young ensemble the collaboration felt like a meeting of equals.

ASQ and Arcadia at Winthrop Hall (© Appleby)

Their second of two concerts held at the University of WA attracted a good-sized audience who listened in rapt silence for a hefty 100 minutes (without interval). The program featured contemporary repertoire often considered challenging for audience members. Mozart’s Flute Quartet was the only work on the program written more than 40 years ago and made a delightful concert opener with flautist Kiran Phatak working in deft, graceful unity with the string trio. Phatak’s richly varied tonal hues in the Adagio over the delicate pizzicato accompaniment created an especially serene intimacy.

Roger Smalley is well-known to Perth audiences but his Toccata - composed at the end of his career in 2008 - was new. Written for flute, oboe and quartet, the short work opened with a quaver pattern of descending thirds followed by a long note. The motive developed into a climax and then recurred in different configurations, including as a canon and in an energetic syncopated pattern. It was a snapshot of Smalley’s taut, precise craftsmanship performed by an ensemble well-versed in modernist rhetoric.

German composer Jörg Widmann drew on Schubert’s Octet as the central reference point for his Oktett, which formed the centrepiece of the concert. The performers (string quartet plus clarinet, horn, bassoon and string bass) gave an insightful introduction to harmonics, glissandi and other extended techniques before demonstrating musically the command they have over this repertoire with a seamless blend of Schubertian romanticism with a 21st century sound world. The opening unison chords (referencing Schubert’s unison opening) were restated with increasing dissonance growing in volume to distortion before subsiding.  The ensemble captured Widmann’s mighty orchestral swells with the clarinet or violin riding high above. The horn calls, wails and snap pizzicato of the Menuetto were delivered with almost Mahlerian parody while the haunting microtones of Lied ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) were passed note by note between horn, violin and clarinet like molten wax.

 By now it was apparent that the silky-toned Arcadia could make even the most avant-garde sounds enticing. Both ensembles eased in and out of phrases with precision and impeccable intonation – particularly impressive given the extreme summer weather and the extended techniques involved.

The premiere of Perth composer Lachlan Skipworth’s wind quintet Echoes and Lines was much anticipated by locals. Skipworth (recently awarded the Paul Lowin prize) studied with both Smalley and Widmann, creating a serendipitous link between the repertoire. Echoes and Lines presented musical ideas in nine short miniatures which was something of a departure for Skipworth who tends to work with long lines. Each miniature explored a different technique including a canon, cross-rhythms, fast unison staccatos, repetition and echoes.

Despite of perhaps because of the simplicity of the ideas, the musical result was often intense; each miniature was minutely crafted for maximum flavour. Skipworth’s carefully placed phrase endings – either pointed and brief or wound down to niente - created a sense of pause and breathing room. The silence between each movement became a work of art itself, the last note echoing through the hall, then the decay of sound, followed by an absorbed silence while the memory of the idea lingered like a fragrance.

The ASQ returned to the stage with the addition of string bass player Stephen Newton for Françaix’s Dixtuor (Dectet). Folksy string playing and effervescent winds were offset by a vigorous bass line from Newton. The gentle dovetailing of phrases in the Andante was followed by a spirited finale bringing the concert to a close.

After nearly two hours of music making of great refinement and camaraderie it was clear that this was a youthful supergroup of unfettered imagination and immense control; a perfect match.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine Feb 2017.

The Perth Festival continues for two more weeks. Eighth Blackbird bring their fire to an extraordinary contemporary music program tonight at the Perth Concert Hall. Come early for the Preconcert Talk and stay afterwards for the Meet the Artists interview presented by yours truly!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Brodsky/Calder Octete-a-Tete review

Perth Festival's Chamber Music Series kicked off last night with a collaboration between the Brodsky (UK) and Calder (US) Quartets. Both quartets have a deservedly high profile in the festival: the Brodsky will perform all 15 string quartets by Shostakovich and the Calder will profile contemporary repertoire alongside Beethoven classics.

Calder and Brodsky Quartets in Octet form  (photo Tony Wilkinson)

I had a hunch the octet collaboration would be the highlight of the chamber music concerts: a meeting of two legendary ensembles; a profound dialogue between eight magnificent artists; the frisson of friendly rivalry.

Well I guess the good thing about a blog is that you can be frank: I was underwhelmed.

The light repertoire (perhaps an antidote to the intensity of the concerts to come) and the breezy approach of the artists meant the concert felt like an afterthought, a social outing before the real thing.

The program featured Mendelssohn's Octet supplemented by Shostakovich's intense but brief Two Piece's for String Octet plus arrangements (described candidly by violinist Daniel Rowland as encore arrangements) of  three orchestral classics. The entire concert including interval was over in under 90 minutes and the meatiest part was the program note by Gordon Kerry, who can make meaningful connections between even the most unrelated of pieces.

The Brodsky and Calder quartets. (photo Appleby)
Government House Ballroom was almost full with audience members spreading to the balconies. The room's resonant acoustic suited the octet, lending a brightness and immediacy to the string sound. In the first half of the program the four violinists shared the leadership of the ensemble which indicated a convivial partnership between the artists. But there were also pitch issues and a lack of cohesion which pointed to a lack of rehearsal.

The octet arrangements were by the multi-talented Paul Cassidy, the viola player from the Brodsky Quartet. The frenzied outbursts and sardonic humour of  Shostakovich's Two Pieces were well-conveyed, while Khachaturian's Sabre Dance highlighted individual players and their unswerving musical commitment. Barber's Adagio was less successful; the work's intensity is built from the density of sound and in octet form it felt vacuous in parts.

In the second half Daniel Rowland, principal violin of the Brodsky quartet, led the ensemble in Mendelssohn's Octet and although I admired his clear musical intent when the group were here in 2009, this time his charisma felt over the top and noisy. Despite this I found myself marvelling again at both the delicacy and vociferousness of Mendelssohn's precocious writing.

Of course music appreciation is a subjective game and while I felt disappointed many in the audience gave a standing ovation. Thankfully there is much more to come over the weekend.