Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Alex Turley

Alex Turley has been a compulsive composer since high school and this year he is really hitting his stride. The WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate has had music performed by the Melbourne, WA and Perth Symphony Orchestras, Soundstream Collective, Greywing ensemble and this month Blue Heat is being premiered by Intercurrent Ensemble. Later in the year Alex heads to Hobart for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's composer's school but first he stopped by for a chat on Celebrity Soft Spot.

What music gets your heart racing?

I’ve recently become a bit obsessed with horror movie soundtracks. They’re all about using known semiotics and codes, but sometimes they’re just put together really intelligently. Michael Abels’ score for the recent movie Get Out was pretty masterful.

What calms you down? 

Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens or anything by Takemitsu (his music is not necessarily ‘calm’ but it’s very reflective).

What do you sing along to?

Anything from Travelogue by Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac.

Your work Blue Heat is being premiered this month by Intercurrant Ensemble, commissioned by co-co-director Lachlan Skipworth who has also been your composition teacher for the past five years. Intercurrent has a fairly unique instrumentation of percussion, piano and clarinet; how did you go about creating this piece? 

Skipworth conducting Intercurrent
What I always look for in an ensemble – and is sometimes tricky to find – is some sense of homogeneity, that everything is working together as part of one machine. The instrumentation of Intercurrent is unique, yes, but at the same time feels very natural to write for. Marimba and clarinet blend well, especially in their lower ranges, and a piano can complement anything. Ashley, Louise and Emily are three of Perth’s most talented musicians, so when I was writing Blue Heat I was conscious of not letting them go to waste. So what I’ve written is really fast and difficult!

What do you hope the audience will experience when they hear it?

The piece is all about exploring energy and motion. I called it Blue Heat for a few reasons, firstly to capture a sense of fire-like energy in the sound, but also because it’s about contradictions. Can something be moving fast but at the same time not really moving at all? Can something be almost inaudible but at the same time intense and exhilarating? It’s quite a visual piece, too – the players throw different melodies to each other, and interact in lots of different ways. At some points everyone comes together and it’s difficult to distinguish which sounds are coming from whom, and at some points the ensemble breaks apart into three separate fields of individual activity. I’m hoping that the audience’s focus will be constantly moving around the ensemble, as that sort of thing makes a piece of music really exhilarating to experience.

Have you established a standard method of composing or is each piece unique? 

I certainly have a ‘groove’ that I get into when I’m composing, but I’m still very conscious of not making all of my pieces sound the same. One of the tricky things about learning how to be a composer is finding a balance between having a voice and language that you can claim as uniquely yours, but not churning out the same piece over and over, and I’ve watched many composers fall too far on either side of that spectrum. For me I try and focus each work on a different visual or extra-musical idea (an image, poem or place, for example) that can take the audience into a unique world, but across every work I still have a very ‘Turley’ way of doing things.

Pencil and manuscript or computer?

Honestly, both are equally frustrating. I wish I could just Bluetooth my brain into a computer and write scores telepathically.

With Greywing Ensemble. Photo Bohdan Warchomij.

You’ve been composing since high school. You made a brave choice in pursuing it for a career; Australia is not renowned for appreciating its own composers! Why did you choose composition?

I caught the bug, unfortunately. In my teenage years I was immersed in a very musical environment, and I became obsessed with deconstructing the language of music, learning as much as I could about how and why everything works the way it does. It’s so mystifying to me how something as mundane as a vibration in the air can produce such intense physical and emotional responses in us. I spent as much time as I could exploring this process, eventually making my own music just as a means of understanding. When I finished school it was a little tempting for me to go and do Law or something nice like that but by that point I had such a deep fascination with music that anything else would have made me quite unhappy. Yes, Australian composers have a very difficult time getting people interested in their music, but I am really determined to make everything work and I’m not going to give up without a fight. There are lots of things that can go alongside composing really nicely – arranging, engraving, conducting, teaching, researching, producing, administrating – so it’s not as if I’m lost for things to do.

You are having a remarkably successful year including wining the Penrith Symphony Orchestras Young Composer Award and being selected for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Composer School, plus upcoming performances of your works in Texas, Mexico City, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. Where to from here?

I’m still at that point in my life where everything is really new, and I’m just trying to pull things together into some semblance of a freelance career. 2017 for me has been the year that everything has really begun to pick up speed. I’ve got myself to a place where I’m really confident with my craft and my ability to produce good music for people. It’s still a huge rush for me when someone that I barely know from across the country (or in Texas!) is actually interested in what I’m doing and wants to work with me. From here I’m just trying to make as much good music as I can, and I’m trying to diversify as well into areas such as art installation and theatre. There’s lots of stuff in the pipeline!

Listen here to City of Ghosts performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

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

It’s hard to argue with that statement. For me I think music just needs to produce a response – emotional, physical, memory, whatever – and the more intense the response the more powerful the music.

You have a soft spot for saxophone. You’ve composed a Sax Quartet, a Sax Concerto, a work for Sax and piano and another for Sax and cello. What is the appeal of this instrument?

I never set out to write so much for saxophone! It all happened because one of my close friends from uni (David Gioia) is a saxophonist, and he is incredible. I’m completely in awe of how he’s able to paint melody with an astonishing amount of precision and nuance. Together we found that his style of playing was really well suited to my style of writing, so we collaborated on all of those pieces that you just mentioned. We even recorded an album together which will be released in the near future. That kind of ongoing collaboration ended up being very significant in my development as a composer.

'Ink' with Alex Turley piano and David Gioia saxophone

Who are your music heroes?

My heroes are the people around me – young composers and young artists in general – that are taking risks, producing great work, making things happen and being lovely people in the process. Lachlan Skipworth, Dan Thorpe, Josten Myburgh, Lisa Cheney, Peggy Polias, Connor D’Netto, Bec Smith, Kezia Yap, Samuel Smith, Sally Greenaway, Tim Newhouse, Cassie To, Sam Wolf, to name just a few!

What is your favourite place in Perth? 

The beach near my old house, lovely place to take my dogs at sunset!

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

I love taking photos, I’m also a huge fan of visual art and theatre, I’ve recently become quite obsessed with architecture, I travel as much as I can afford to, I try and keep up to date with feminism, I’m obsessed with interior design… the list goes on! I also work in a fancy-ish restaurant and I actually really enjoy it (weird, I know).

Thank you Alex Turley for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. You can read an interview with Alex here at CutCommon mag and listen to a Making Waves podcast here. For more details about Alex and his work go to alexturley.comFuture performances:
29th August: World premiere of Blue Heat by Intercurrent, State Theatre Centre. Program also includes works by Julian Day, Chris Tonkin, Hannah Lash and Philip Glass.2 Sep: Between the Ocean and the Sky performed by Jonathan Thompson, a PhD oboist from Texas who has commissioned composers from all over the world via the internet. 10 Sep: New Commission (piano duet) performed by Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg, Queensland Art Gallery. This is a part of a concert series called ARGO that seeks to take classical music out of the concert hall and into interactive spaces. They are playing the piece from either sides of an indoor lake.28 Oct: New Commission (orchestra) performed by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra in Sydney as part of the Young Composer Award.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Ever wanted to be a percussionist?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a percussionist?

I've always secretly wanted to play percussion. Rhythm is one of the most primal and powerful forms of communication. Percussionists get to dance around (often barefoot) on stage and always seem to be having so much fun! 

Now is our chance! Speak Percussion are putting a call out for 100 percussionists - NO EXPERIENCE REQUIRED - to participate in their performance at the Totally Huge New Music Festival in October.

Speak Percussion and guests will unite in the 13th THNMF to perform the WA premiere of A wave and waves by American composer Michael Pisaro, a massive 74-minute work for 100 performers on 100 instruments.
They are offering a rare opportunity to join with one of Australia’s most dynamic and risk taking arts organisations in an extraordinary new music project. A wave and waves is a project that redefines the way contemporary chamber music is presented.

 The Midland Railway Workshops will be transformed into a sonic and visual ocean of instruments and performers, creating an intimate experience of monumental proportions.

 No percussion experience is required – this call is open to all interested people. Participants will work with Eugene Ughetti (Artistic Director, Speak Percussion), Louise Devenish (Head of Percussion, University of Western Australia) and Tura’s production team.

There are 3 rehearsals before performances on 29th October.

Sign up here before September 1st.  More details here. Go on, be brave, be a percussionist!

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Australian publishes WICA review

I was delighted to be able to review the Women in the Creative Arts conference recital for The Australian newspaper. The concert featured the Muses Trio, an ensemble remarkable both for their charisma and for their focus on performing music by women. Their dedication to performing the eight works on the program included a month of workshops with the composer (sometimes via skype).  Four of the composers were present for the performance and gave insightful introductions to their works. The concert was richly thought provoking and often very beautiful, a fitting centrepiece for a conference celebrating women in the arts.

Christa Powell, Therese Milanovic and Louise King. Photo William Hall

"I’ll let you in on Australia’s best kept secret: our nation has one of the highest proportions of women composers in the world. Last week more than a hundred people gathered at the Australian National University to celebrate the diverse work of women who make up 26% percent of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising artists.

The centrepiece of the Women in the Creative Arts conference was a Friday night concert by Queensland’s The Muses Trio who performed eight works for piano trio chosen from around 100 international score submissions. Pianist Therese Milanovic, violinist Christa Powell and cellist Louise King’s authoritative interpretations were inflected with humanity and detail, marred only by a rather boomy piano (half-stick the lid!) and occasional mis-pitches in the violin.

Queensland-based Nicole Murphy’s Spinning Top opened the concert. Breathless repeated figures, harmonic stasis and some off-kilter syncopation gave this piece a self-contained perpetual motion. Minimalist patterns also underpinned US composer Jean Ahn’s A Flash of Ravel where Ravelian snippets were fragmented and juxtaposed with sections of string pizzicato and harmonics."

Read the rest of the review at The Australian.

Composers Natalie Williams, Nicole Murphy, Joyce Wai-chung Tang,
 Hilary Kleinig and Christine McCombe. Photo William Hall

Monday, 14 August 2017

A warm celebration in Canberra

Despite the chilly Canberra weather the atmosphere this past week at the Women in the Creative Arts conference has been incredibly warm. The academic papers, panels, performances and the rigorous discussions were all under-girded with encouragement and cheers of support. 
WICA composers, performers, academics. Photo William Hall

I was able to witness the impact Women of Note has had in the landscape, something I hadn't realised from Perth. I was told countless stories about how my book had influenced people in their commissioning, their perfoming, and their careers.

Photo William Hall

 I was overwhelmed by how much people felt supported and affirmed by my work. And it was so exciting to see the next generation of composers learning from the work of their forebears:

"....I confess to my shame I hadn't heard of Margaret Sutherland before now..."..
".... a couple of years ago I read your book and decided I wanted to meet Helen Gifford, to see her, to commission her..."
"...the bridge building you are doing for the music industry is so important..."

Liza Lim, Natalie Williams, Mathew Dewey (ABC), Naomi Johnson (ABC), Lisa Cheney

There are are significant changes afoot around the visibility and celebration of our women composers and I am so excited to be part of it.  47 papers, 4 recitals, 5 keynotes and 3 panels later I think some of the changes are going to stick this time around. In the immediate future:

* Cat Hope has offered to host the conference next year at Monash.
* Vanessa Tomlinson will be rollling out her research from Queensland University to include every tertiary institution documenting the works that are being performed in graduation recitals. 
* Joanna Drimatis is collating a database of graded works for performance by schools and community groups.

Add that to the ongoing work from the Hildegard Commissioning Project, the findings from the APRA/AMCOS commissioned report on results from RMIT research, the Skipping a Beat report, the Australian Women Screen Composers report, and there is a sense of growing awareness and action toward increasing visibility for women composers. 

I'll post my keynote paper soon to add to the discussion. 

With the magnificent composer Judith Clingan

I have the satisfied feeling that my book has done what it was meant to do.
I sold out of copies of Women of Note at the conference. Which means my print run with Fremantle Press is finished and it is time for an eBook. 

So now it is time to head back home to my family, filled with a warm glow, and work out where to from here. 

Huge thanks to Natalie Williams and ANU for hosting this incredible event.

conference director Natalie Williams

Friday, 4 August 2017

WICA conference riding the crest of arts gender debate

The Women in the Creative Arts conference will be held next week in Canberra and the atmosphere around gender and the arts is reaching a new intensity. 

My opinion piece in the Guardian has been widely read and generated excitement about what we might be able to achieve at the conference. At the same time the responses in the 'Comments' section  highlighted for me that there are still some very entrenched views around! 

This week APRA/AMCOS released a report in response to RMIT research.with a raft of initiatives to increase female participation in the music industry. They are committing to doubling the number of female membership applicants within the next three years.

The WICA conference is perfectly timed to harness the energy across multiple art practices and direct it towards long-lasting change.

Registrations close on Monday 7th August. If you are a woman working in the creatives arts you need to be part of this history-making gathering!

If you can't make it stay tuned for blogs coming from the conference once I land in Canberra next week! Now back to writing my presentation: "Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers".

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Mixed ASQ concert

The Australian String Quartet launched their Homeward national tour in Perth on Wednesday night. The quartet is eighteen months into their new configuration (their line-up seems to change as often as the prime minister!) and the players seem relaxed and settled at the Government House Ballroom. Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew (violins), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Grigoryan (cello) are unashamedly young and hip, performing standing with their iPad scores, designer clothes and bundles of energy. The enormous sound they muster from their exquisite set of Guadagnini instruments is velveteen, crisp and well-integrated under the egalitarian leadership style of Barltrop.

Britten’s String Quartet No 1 was a fascinating exploration of sounds and textures by the then-young English composer brimming with ideas. The first movement’s cluster chords and shrouded melody were given an eerie chill while the second movement had thrilling gear changes between angular chunks, bright pizzicato and racing scale passages. The doleful solo violin melody in the third movement gave way to a chorale played with organ-like richness. The quartet’s assertive, clean finale revealed an unguarded joy that was a delight to watch.

Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet No 2 was premiered by the Pavel Haas Quartet in 2009 and was well worth revisiting. It continued where the Britten left off with an intriguing mix of musical ideas. Motifs from East Europe and the Middle East coloured the work, making reference to the Czech composer Pavel Haas who died in Auschwitz. Melodies were inflected with trembling bowing, pitch sliding and trills, while energetic syncopations and percussive effects lent a folk feel. The weary melody in the third movement Dirge was hauntingly played by cello and violin while the lurching dance of the finale, with its chugging accompaniment and off-beat rhythms was given almost rock ‘n’ roll swagger.

Following on from the explosive creativity of the first half, the Dvorak’s String Quartet No 13 was quite simply uninteresting. Perhaps it was the lack of musical direction from the ensemble - the famed Adagio was numbing and the fiery finale lacked ebullience - or perhaps it was simply an anticlimax after the more adventurous repertoire? If the programmers were looking for a safe romantic contrast they should’ve looked further; the work lacks lyrical moments and is rhythmically quite square. Either way it was an uninspired performance and a disappointing end to what was otherwise an exciting concert.

This review first published in Limelight magazine August 2017.

Friday, 28 July 2017

August Gig Guide

Let's start this month's gig guide with Tura New Music, who are having a busy winter! In August Tura will support the workshop of Cat Hope's experimental opera Speechless in Adelaide plus tour to Warmun for a 3 week regional residency where Jon Rose will, in collaboration with the local community, turn a car wreck into a musical instrument. Tura is also producing the next Scale Variable concert featuring Intercurrent on August 29th. The 4-piece Intercurrent have an impressive program planned including a recent work by Hannah Lash and THREE premieres by Chris Tonkin, Julian Day and Alex Turley. Finally the organisation have been involved with a sound art, video and sculpture installation called Scarasson which will be presenting nightly performances at the State Buildings from August 1-6th.

Keep an eye out for string quartets this month: the Australian String Quartet kick off their national tour in Perth on August 2nd with a program including Dvorak Britten and Australian composer Paul Stanhope. I haven't yet heard the new lineup of players, so if you have let me know what you think. The popular Takacs Quartet is also in town on the 10th performing Haydn. Mozart and the world premiere of Carl Vine's 6th String Quartet Child's Play. This will be the launch of their national Musica Viva tour.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra will celebrate a 20 year association with conductor Simone Young on the 4/5th with a wide-ranging program from Haydn to Brahms and the world premiere of a work by Australian Andrew Schultz. Asher Fisch is in town on the 17-19th to conduct Schubert's great Symphony No 9 with Jayson Gillham joining him for Schumann's Piano Concerto. The following week Fisch will conduct Mahler's 6th Symphony and Karen Gomlo will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No 3.

On the 11th St George's Cathedral Consort will perform Bach, Bernstein and Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. The Perth Symphony Orchestra are performing their annual Baroque by Candlelight concert on the 23rd at St George's Cathedral. Jessica Gethin will conduct and Paul Wright is concert master: book now as this immersive concert always sells out!

Rochelle Durkin's fiery colloratura soprano will be on display in Baroque Beauties at the Government House Ballroom on the 20th, accompanied by the UWA string orchestra and vocal consort.

On the 12th the WA Academy of Performing Arts will host Geoffrey Lancaster and Stewart Smith playing keyboard works by Bach. Also at WAAPA Karin Schaupp and Claire Edwardes will give a concert on the 18th of all-Australian music for the mellow and sensuous medium of guitar and marimba. On the 24th winner of the 2016 Sydney international Piano Competition Audrey Gugnin will present a recital and on the 26th August WAAPA 3rd year music theatre students will  begin their season of Chicago under the direction of Crispin taylor.

Finally the Darlington Piano Quartet will perform Dohnanyi, Brahms and James Ledger's Three Escher Portraits on the 27th at the Darlington Hall. Enjoy!

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Women composers in The Guardian

My Opinion piece for The Guardian was published today.

I am really pleased to be able to document nationally the exciting energy in the industry at the moment around women composers. The article is already generating a storm of comments. Got to love a controversial topic! 

Australia's female composers are having a moment. We need to harness that energy.

“Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I been a boy. But never mind, I never paid much attention to it, I just marched in and there I was.”

These fighting words come from Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), arguably the most famous female composer in her time and one of the first Australian women to march into the male-dominated world of composition.

Back then, the costs were high: Glanville-Hicks’s colleague Margaret Sutherland was married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness, while many women had to lie about their gender in order to be published. The positions on the boards and in the institutions were held by men who also received the majority of the commissions.

Today women make up 26% of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising performers. It’s not close to gender parity but the figures do stack up well internationally – the only country to fare better is Estonia with 30%. Women make up about 20% of American and Polish composers but, for most countries, the average is a woeful 15%.

Women have also made a significant contribution to Australia’s music history, often punching above their male contemporaries. Sutherland almost single-handedly pioneered modernism in Australia music and, in 1938, Glanville-Hicks was the first person to represent Australia at the International Society of Contemporary Music. Anne Boyd smashed through the glass ceiling to become the first woman and first Australian to be appointed professor of music at the University of Sydney in 1991. Today Liza Lim, Mary Finsterer and Elena Kats-Chernin are likely to rank higher internationally than their male contemporaries.

Sadly, however, the majority of women still struggle with visibility. According to musicologist Sally Macarthur, women’s music represented only 11% of the works performed at new music concerts in 2013. In the concert halls where the more conservative orchestras reside, it is far rarer to hear a work by a female composer – dead or alive.

But a new surge of energy is bringing female composers into the spotlight. In August, hundreds of women, including myself, will gather at the Women in the Creative Arts conference in Canberra as part of a wave of industry activism – hopefully, they say, for the last time.

Read more here.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Serenade - a performance for someone you love

A Serenade is a performance for someone you love. It comes from the Latin word serenus and the music is typically calm and light. Or bubbly and beautiful, or even sumptuous, in the case of the Perth Symphony Orchestra's Serenades concert this weekend. The morning concert includes champagne and brunch in the elegant surrounds of Government House Ballroom, which is being decorated as a 1920's Parisian cafe. What's not to love?!

I have the inside goss on this concert because I have been asked to host it and I am super excited! Bourby Webster, Paul Wright, Jessica Gethin and team have put together a stunning sensory experience which will include dancers and painters responding to work by Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Margaret Sutherland.

So pop on your best floral frock or Matisse tie and come join us on Sunday morning for a concert of lush string orchestral music with dancers, art, divine refreshments and wonderful company. This is a performance for you: the people we love. Book now, as it is likely to sell out!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Night out of the year at WA Opera's effervescent The Merry Widow

The diplomat Danilo’s motto is “Love quite a lot, promise rarely, marry never”. But it’s a hard standard to live up to when the whole of Pontevedro is vying for the attention of the love of his life, wealthy widow Hanna. Someone has to keep the immense fortune (and the person attached to it) in the country.

Yes it’s Lehar’s The Merry Widow, bubbling over with opulence and mirth in a new production by Graham Murphy. The Opera Conference production premiered in Perth on 15th July as part of WA Opera’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Taryn Fiebig made her long-overdue company debut as Hanna under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, WA Opera’s first female conductor.

Taryn Fiebig as Hanna in The Merry Widow. Photos by James Rogers

If there was a lot of champagne overflowing at the interval celebrations there was just as much on stage. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish Art Deco set, Justin Fleming’s new streamlined English translation and Jennifer Irwin’s dazzling costumes were the backdrop for a dance-infused show where every act was a party fizzing with romance and comedy.

Immense bronze latticework set the scene for the Embassy Ball, with sequined dresses and the gilded braiding of 1920’s Parisian high society shimmering under Damien Cooper’s creamy lights. The breathtaking Monet garden setting for Act Two’s Pontevedrian party drew spontaneous applause as the curtain lifted on a waterlilies backdrop, pastel frocks and dreamy lighting. Lehar’s ‘Love Unspoken’ wafted through this setting like an evening breeze and Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Danilo delivered a heart melting waltz. But it was not enough to break Danilo’s scruples about money and Hanna becomes embroiled in the fledgling affair between the Baron’s wife Valencienne and a young Frenchman Camille. It was not until the Act 3 nightclub party where she joined the ‘Grisette’ girls that this high-kicking heroine revealed the details of her inheritance and steals back Danilo’s heart.

Fiebig and Lewis as Hanna and Danilo

Lehar’s score is infused with folk dances, waltzes and marches and Murphy drew on his vast background in choreography and his intimate knowledge of The Merry Widow (he danced in The Australian Ballet’s famous 1975 production) to produce an operetta brimming with movement. In fact the production was so busy there were moments where it only just held together. Fortunately the cast and creative team were well-picked to deliver the complex theatrics.

Lewis and Fiebig were youthful, full of life and constantly tripping over their love for each other. Their background in music theatre meant their dancing was as alluring as their singing. Lewis cut a rakish character from his drunken arrival looking for a desk so he could sleep (“Beds are for making love, desks are for sleeping; I only have to look at a desk and I’m out like a light.”) to his elegant dancing and delightful  light lyric tenor. Fiebig was entrancing with her clear-as-a-bell top notes offset by a growling cabaret showgirl routine all the while navigating four incredibly lavish gowns.

Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis Act 3
Emma Pettemerides was big-eyed and sweet-voiced as the flirtatious Valencienne and John Longmuir sung the besotted Camille with a honey smooth gleam. Actor Michael Loney proved he could also sing and dance in a showstealing camp rendition of ‘Quite Parisian’ Baritone Andrew Foote’s comic excellence was put to good use as the foolish Baron Zeta while Sam Roberts-Smith and Jonathon Brain were quite ridiculous in their rivalry for Hanna’s fortune.

A 12-strong dance corps added feathered Grisette routines and Slavic folk dances. Murphy also put the WA Opera chorus through their paces with detailed choreography. “Women” became a Broadway-style male ensemble number complete with tuxedos, white gloves and slapstick moments such as a larrikin Mexican wave.  Throughout all the activity the chorus sound was warm hued and clean.

Fiebig and the male chorus.
There was great synergy between stage and pit. Scammell, who has built her career on stage shows, coordinated the masses with finely honed intuition. The WA Symphony Orchestra added spice to Lehar’s folk melodies, hazy romanticism to the instrumental solos and effortless lift to the dance numbers.

We rarely get operettas at WA Opera and the audience (younger than a usual opening night crowd) were captivated by the young, versatile cast and effervescent, truly beautiful production. Notwithstanding a few opening night jitters, this was an impressive launch for Murphy’s The Merry Widow. There’s still so much more to describe but instead go buy a ticket for your night out of the year; it doesn’t get much more fun than this!

Dancers during the Act 3 party

WA Opera’s The Merry Widow continues in Perth until 22nd July with an Opera Melbourne season in November and Opera Australia in December.

This review first published Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Harriet O'Shannessy

Harriet O'Shannessy is calm, unflappable,and the owner of a deliciously creamy soprano voice which you will hear in WA Opera's The Merry Widow this weekend. These days she has an irrepressible sparkle in her eyes and bubbling energy; her company Freeze Frame Opera is succeeding beyond her wildest dreams.

What music gets your heart racing?

Cavalleria Rusticana – the fight scene between Santuzza and Turridu: “No, no Turridu”  either watching it or singing it! It was the first opera I was in at WA Opera and it has a special place in my heart. I watched from the wings every night to see Dennis O’Neill and Nicole Youl singing this.

What music calms you down?

I listen to 101.7FM Capital Community Radio. Best station for golden oldies. I love it. I keep saying to anyone that’ll listen that it is not just a station for “the senior citizens of Perth”!

What do you sing along to?

I love singing along to Romeo and Juliet, (Dire Straits of course!)

Singing in the WA Opera chorus for Carmen
How are you preparing for your role as Sylviane in WA Opera's The Merry Widow which opens on July 15th?

We have had a wonderful rehearsal process with Graeme Murphy creating this show before our eyes. It is great to be involved in this original production. Sylviane is a little bit quirky and also quite naughty, so it is a lot of fun. I am a privileged Pontevedrian. I get to wear three amazing and glamorous costumes that have been designed by Jennifer Irwin. So much detail and thought has gone into every aspect of this show. This opera is going to look and sound amazing.

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

I absolutely agree. Interesting, and it must affect my emotions. I like watching a show when I’m so involved emotionally that I want the inevitable sad to ending to change, or when I get goosebumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, or when something makes me cry. Music should move emotions.

You have a soft spot for opera. What is the appeal of the art form for you?   

Opera has such power and passion.  It has the ability to speak straight to the soul, through the power of the human voice.  It is also just so impressive hearing a singer in full flight. It’s something primal and electric, and electrifying. I believe that the power to capture human emotion is the reason that opera can appeal to anyone. And, when you put that with a full orchestra…! Sensational.

How did Freeze Frame Opera come about?

I was inspired to start FFO to provide more opportunities for top quality Perth based singers to perform, and to increase opera audiences by making operas in a shortened format (like 20/20 is to test cricket, we are to grand opera), in a more intimate venue and in a more relaxed atmosphere. Camelot Theatre, where we performed La Boheme in May 2017, is perfect for that. The quality of the acting is as important as the singing.  Audiences have responded to that. Also, they can take their wine into the show, and come in their ugg boots if they like.  Always a good selling point.

Many would say you are mad starting FFO when opera companies around the world are going bankrupt. It is often an expensive and elite art form. What gives you hope?  

It is true - you have to be a bit mad! It consumes my waking (and sleeping) thoughts! Where there’s a will there’s a way I guess. I get lots of nice, encouraging feedback. And I get kids stopping me on the hockey field to ask “How I kept my eyes open?” when Mimi died  … so there’s hope there that the youngsters are getting interested!

O'Shannessy singing Mimi in La Boheme with Paul O'Neill as Rodolfo

Your debut opera La Boheme in May generated overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the Perth public. What is it that creates such a resonance with your audience, many of whom are opera virgins?  

I think they liked our 90’s grunge Boheme because the cast were so immersed in their roles, and so well suited to their roles, it wasn’t too long – (90 mins including interval), and it is such a good opera! I love it that people new to opera are coming and willing to give opera a go. I think they connected to Boheme with Rachel McDonald’s modern setting and surtitles. We hope we’ll get them hooked.

Where did you learn the skills to manage an opera company?

Definitely learning on the job! I’ve had great sounding boards in Bourby Webster (PSO), Rachel McDonald (director La Boheme) and my husband, Greg. I have collaborated with the some of the best in the business (Robbie Harrold, designer and Geoff Glencross, lighting). All have worked so hard. The singers are very much a part of the collaborative process at FFO. They even change the sets! Having produced Boheme, I feel more equipped to know what will or might come up next time.
What is the most important quality required for running a business in the arts sector?

The passion has to be there. Nothing would happen without that.

How do you go about putting together an opera such as Pagliacci from scratch? It is scheduled for mid next year and I know you have already started working toward it.   

I’ve locked down the dates at Camelot Theatre, the availability of the cast, and the director, musical director, designer and lighting designer. I will focus on obtaining funding, selling tickets and learning my role.  Boheme was pretty successful, and we all want to make sure our next show is even better!

Creative Partnerships Australia, through MATCH LAB 2017, will match up to $10,000 in donations that we receive between now and the end of September 2017.  Donations to FFO are tax deductible and details about how to donate can be found on our website: www.freezeframeopera.com. All donations are used towards furthering our aims of spreading the love of opera, and giving opportunities to talented singers

Rachel (director) and Robbie (designer) are already busy working on their vision for the show. FFO is very much a collaborative effort. And, being, FFO, there will be some unexpected things happening in this show…. All will soon be revealed!  

Children’s opera isn’t something we see a lot of in Perth but I know you have plans to change that. Is  opera an art form for kids?   

Yes! Thinking about this question made me think about my first experience of opera. I was in Year 7 and our wonderful, unforgettable music teacher, Miss Stevens, adapted Mozart’s The Magic Flute for us. I played Papagena. I would like to introduce more kids to the magic of opera. This December, we are planning to launch an opera designed to tour to primary schools. The opera we are working on is a shortened version of Dvorak's Rusalka (based on the Hans Christian Andersen) fairy tale. The launch will be at Camelot Theatre in Mosman Park and we'd love people to bring along their kids and grandkids, in the Christmas pantomime tradition. From 2018, we would love to offer the show as an incursion for primary school children in metropolitan and regional schools in WA.

At the opening night of La Boheme I met your greatest fan; your husband Greg is a very proud groupie! Is running Freeze Frame a whole family affair? How do you manage work/life balance with young children?  

Husband groupie. That’s cool. I like it when he’s in the audience cos he cheers as though he’s at the rugby! It is certainly a family affair. Not just my husband, but the kids get involved, dropping off flyers etc. They also come to the shows. They are the motivation, and part of the team. Robbie (our designer’s) kids were helping making props for Boheme. Maybe we can even use them on stage in the near future. Mine would like that…  if it meant pocket money!

What is your favourite place in Perth?  

The beach. Good for the soul.

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

At the moment, outside of opera, it is all about the kids and their interests, and then there’s wine and coffee of course! I'm also a bit of a Dockers tragic.

Thank you Harriet O'Shannessy for sharing with us. You can get tickets to hear Harriet sing in The Merry Widow here, and go here to support Freeze Frame Opera and find out about future operas. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

An intuitive connection of 30 years

Every half decade the WA Symphony Orchestra celebrates their relationship with guest conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a gala concert. And why not; it’s a partnership of deep mutual respect and Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is much-beloved by audiences.

Since becoming guest conductor in 1987 Verbitsky has conducted the jewels of Russian repertoire, introduced countless Russian soloists and witnessed many changes at WASO including the tenures of four chief conductors. There has also been a huge growth in musicianship. For the 25th anniversary celebrations in 2012 Verbitsky described the orchestra as a ‘really fantastic orchestra, professional on the world stage’. In a recent interview he went one step further and declared them to be ‘the best orchestra in Australia at the moment.’

For the 30th anniversary gala concert Verbitsky programmed two large-scale Russians works: Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Both programmatic works were inspired by 19th century poetry and quote the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead. The Bells also provided an opportunity to profile the WASO chorus who are currently in top form.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony depicts Byron’s tortured, guilt-stricken hero Manfred and is one of the great program symphonies of the 19th century. Verbitsky established a rugged foundation from the first appearance of Manfred’s restless wandering idée fixe. His immaculate precision as a conductor was balanced by idiosyncratic heart-on-sleeve entreaties; an imploring stare at the violins drew out raw intensity while a chopping gesture provoked an incisive attack from cellos and basses.

Tchaikovsky’s colourful caricature of the Witch and her waterfall in the second movement was reminiscent of The Nutcracker’s glittering magic. Verbitsky conducted without a baton and the woodwind players were receptive, responding to his relaxed contouring with bubbling, fluid sextuplets.

The expansive lyricism of the third movement built via a folk dance into a moment of throbbing passion and then the blistering aggression of the finale unfolded with the percussion section pounding a dark descent into the underworld.

The struggle of the individual versus the universe underpins much romantic ideology. Tchaikovsky doesn’t have the sarcasm of Mahler, the decadence of Wagner or the word painting of Berlioz; instead his Manfred Symphony has the gripping energy of a tempest with rare glimmers of light.

Rachmaninov dwells closer to the psyche of the hero; deep emotions pour from his pen. And this is where Verbitsky reached full stride, unleashing the humanity in the music. He extracted the essence of the sweetly naive The Silver Sleigh Bells, the troubled tranquility of The Mellow Wedding Bells and the terrifying energy of The Alarm Bells. The culmination was the deep lament of the final movement, lifted only at the very end by the hint of twinkling sleigh bells and a return to tonality with gentle clarinet arpeggios. And then the final testament where Verbitsky summed up the entire symphony in the last two bars, floating a lingering chord that swelled darkly and floated like an exhalation. A small contour from Verbitsky’s hands extracted a hint of brass chorale warmth, the last sound echoing through the hall.

The WASO Chorus sang with a dark, smoothly blended sonority. Credit to director Christopher van Tuinen and vocal coach Andrew Foote for the way the chorus navigated comfortably through the daring harmonies and tricky rhythms of The Alarm Bells. Paul O’Neill was a last minute replacement for Bradley Daley and his gleaming voice shone through as he navigated the tenor part. Antoinette Halloran captured the languorous soprano part and baritone Warwick Fyfe lamented The Mournful Iron Bells with impeccable Russian diction and utter conviction.

The concert was a revealing insight into the intuitive connection between the orchestra and Verbitsky, leaving a lingering impression of glittering, honeyed sound and impressive coherence.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Australia's feminist revival in the arts

You are about to hear a whole lot more from women in the creative arts.

When I was writing my book Women of Note I was surprised to discover that 25% of Australian composers are women. This is more than almost any other country - our best kept secret! However despite the statistics it became clear from my interviews and research that many women still struggle with visibility issues. The majority of commissions by far go to male composers, who also hold most of the positions in institutions and on boards.

Logo for the Women in the Creative Arts Conference

That is beginning to change. In August the Australian National University is holding a Women in the Creative Arts Conference. The key note speakers are Liza Lim and Cat Hope and the conference has already attracted over 100 delegates across a range of art forms. 

Conference director Natalie Williams hopes the conference will "provide an opportunity for research professionals to gather, present their methodologies, discuss the unique issues surrounding the creative arena, and propose strategies to enhance and enrich their working lives as strong members of an international cultural and artistic voice. The gathering will feature a rich exchange of research ideas, including round-table discussions and panels that develop and enhance practices for women in the creative fields."

The WICA conference is riding the crest of activist revival addressing the visibility issue for women composers. Other developments include Musica Viva's Hildegard Project established last year, the first national program designed to encourage and commission women composers. The appointments of Cat Hope as Head of Music at Monash University and Liza Lim at the University of Sydney are also significant. Lim will be involved with the National Women Composers' Development Program, another recent development tackling the issue of mentoring emerging women composers. Hope has been part of a research team collecting data on the working life of arts practitioners.

Some of these ideas are quite innovative and it is significant they are all happening at once - four years ago when I wrote Women of Note there was nothing like this occurring.

I am particularly excited about the ANU conference; I have been invited to present a paper on Women of Note and I am looking forward to catching up with east coast networks. I don't know of any other Australian conference like this for composers. The last women composers' conference was in the nineties when there were gatherings around Australia that were significant for galvanizing support for women in composition and contributing to an increase in the numbers of women composers. I have high expectations for this one. Especially given the current proactive climate around women in the arts. Could women composers be leading Australia's fourth wave feminist revival??

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

When the kids joined in

“Would you like to join the orchestra?” Stan and Mabel asked the rabbit.

“Yes!!!!” cried a voice from the front row.

The enraptured child was one of 6355 audience members (young and old) who attended performances and events last week as part of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s Education Week.

The Beat of Your Feet on Sunday was one of 15 concerts WASO performed during the week. It featured the enthusiastic educator and composer Paul Rissmann who introduced the orchestral instruments, taught the audience some songs and then narrated Jason Chapman’s book Stan and Mabel, a story of two animals who travel to Italy to audition for the orchestra. The illustrations were projected on screens, vocalist Libby Hammer helped with the songs  and Benjamin Northey conducted the 50 plus orchestra.


The child in the front row wasn’t the only person getting swept up with the excitement. Children and adults were singing, doing actions, delighting in the instrumental solos and completely enthralled. There’s something so decadent about having literature, art and music brought to life by such talented professionals!

The day before we attended a Cushion Concert where the story of The Lion of Loved was brought to life in a similar manner by Rissmann and the11-piece EChO ensemble.

Paul Rissmann and the EChO musicians

This smaller scale concert was held in the more intimate Wardle Room of the concert hall. Even in the back row we were close enough to feel the reverberations in our chests from Andrew Sinclair’s marvelous double bass evocation of an elephant. Again Rissmann’s warm welcome and lively interaction with the music had the children captivated. The advantage of the back row was that my four year old daughter could dance her heart out. Or snuggle up when things got a bit tense as the jungle animals tried to rescue Leo the lion from the raging river.

Libby Hammer’s bubbly personality and warm vocals were an asset to both shows. And the "have-a-go" on the instruments at the end is always popular. But the real success lay in Rissmann’s compositions, which captured the zesty energy of the picture books and also the moments of sweet pathos while featuring specific instruments and some very singable tunes.

A few nights later my children randomly began singing “We’re going to Italy to audition in a competition”.

It was a busy week for the orchestra who performed The Lion Who Loved and The Beat of Your Feet during the week to school children, along with Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants. There was also a conducting masterclass, the Rusty Orchestra concert, Harmony Music performances for children with special needs, the Hospital Orchestra Project at PMH and the Composition Project Final Showing.

 WASO's next children’s concerts is November 5th when ABC favourites Lah-Lah and Buzz join the orchestra.

Monday, 26 June 2017

July Gig Guide

The month kicks off with French/Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the WA Symphony Orchestra on June 30/July 1st. Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 is also on the program.

The following weekend WASO will celebrate their 30th Anniversary with conductor laureate Vladimir Verbitsky with a grand Russian concert. The concert will include Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony and Rachmaninov’s massive Edgar Allan Poe-inspired choral symphony The Bells.

WASO will end the month with a tribute on the 28/29th to the greatest film composer of all time: John Williams. The music will include soundtracks from Star Wars, ET, Superman and many others  WASO concertmaster Lawrence Jackson will step out from his orchestral activity on July 3rd for a concert with St George’s Cathedral organist Joseph Nolan as part of the Cathedral Music Series.

On the 9th July the Perth Symphonic Chorus, directed by Margaret Pride, will perform music to make you swoon, featuring a jazz trio and drawing on traditional and contemporary repertoire from Allegri to Ellington.

Musica Viva will bring the Sitkovetsky Trio to Perth on the 11th to perform piano trios by Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, PLUS a world premiere by Perth’s Lachlan Skipworth AND a preconcert talk by Rosalind Appleby. What a combination!

The WA Opera’s season of The Merry Widow opens on the 15th, set in 1920's Paris with a sizzling young cast including ex-Perth singers Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Hanna and Danilo, young Perth soprano Emma Pettemerides as Valencienne and Opera Australia’s John Longmuir as Camille. Come dressed in the style of the 1920's for this brand new Opera Conference production directed by Graeme Murphy.

On the 16th the Robert Zielinski Trio will breeze through some traditional Irish Scottish reels as part of the Darlington Chamber Music Series and on the same night WAAPA’s week long International Art Song Academy will culminate in a gala concert with singers from around Australia accompanied by acclaimed English pianist, Dr Graham Johnson.

The Fremantle Chamber Orchestra will accompany Emily Leung in Bruch’s Violin Concerto on the 22/23 plus perform Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3.

Freeze Frame Opera will dabble in some more creative opera with a concert on the 29th at Brans Antiques, Mosman Park. Proceeds will go towards the production of their next opera.

The month closes with the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s decadent Serenades in the City at Government House Ballroom including a champagne brunch, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Margaret Sutherland’s Concerto for Strings and stories from well-known author and journalist Rosalind Appleby. I suspect this will be more like a treat than a concert!

I hope to see you at some concerts soon!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Eisteddfod's messy lives are deeply loveable

The Eisteddfod was the work that really kicked off the career of Melbourne-based playwright Lally Katz over a decade ago and its Perth debut by the Black Swan State Theatre Company directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler is well overdue. Katz’s opera The Rabbits premiered in Perth a few years ago so it was good to see Katz in her home territory.

The Eisteddfod is a multi-layered work that depicts the claustrophobic lives of two orphaned children trapped in their memories and fears of the outside world. Or as Katz puts it in an authorial voice over that accompanies the work, it shows ‘their happy lives alone and afraid of the world together.”

Natalie Holmwood, Brendan Ewing. Photos by Daniel James Grant.

Katz’s script is loaded with this kind of sardonic melancholy, a humour that having no time for pathos cuts straight to the quick. She is OK with scenes twisting uncomfortably in and out of humour and pain as the siblings Abalone and Gerture play out their memories and longings through various fantasies.

Tyler Hill’s set was a large grimy room with a bunk bed, some wardrobes and a filthy toilet. Boxes litter the room packed with items of nostalgia and bringing a sense of temporary stasis, arrested development. Lucy Birkinshaw’s flouro lighting was overwhelming artificial, with no sense of daylight or fresh air. Brett Smith’s unobtrusive sound design included retro pop songs and a sweetly naive piano melody.

The plot revolved around Abalone’s desire to compete in an Eisteddfod together playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespearean soliloquies were rehearsed in thick Scottish accents, including a hilarious scene where Lady Macbeth invites Macbeth to dance and a small disco ball appears from under a box, accompanied by an eighties love song.

Brendan Ewing was a lanky, fragile Abalone. His large twitching hands and flexibly expressive face reminded me simultaneously of Johnny Depp, and also Garry McDonald in his moments of pathetic Mother and Son self interest. The ‘History of the Eisteddfod’ scene was delightful, Ewing revealing more through his body language about the characters than the competition.

Natalie Holmwood as Gerture was diminutive in every sense of the word, pining for her masochistic lover Ian, desperately seeking refuge in mediocrity and weary with frustration. Her warped understanding of life and love (“How can you not love someone after all the times you’ve touched arms in the ad breaks?”) begins to make sense as the fantasies are played out. “Be Ian”, she begs her brother, a little while later taking on the role of “Mum” for her brother in a world where hovering memories continue to break in, pinning and trapping them.

The performance in the Eisteddfod wasn’t the moment of dramatic triumph Abalone was hoping for, neither does it return his sister to him as he had planned. A quote from Macbeth “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’” foreshadows the sad end.

It sounds grim, but it wasn’t. Katz has a Winton-esque ability to create characters whose messy lives are deeply loveable. Ewing and Holmwood give gripping, multi-hued portrayals for 70 minutes of deeply enthralling theatre.

The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz will run at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA until 9th July.

This review first published Limelight Magazine, June 2017.