Over the decades, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Many of these performances were impressive – but Shuan Hern Lee’s account of the much loved Rhapsody was in a class of its own: it was unforgettably fine. With fingers that know few fears, young Lee reached for – and touched – the stars. Stylistically impeccable and presented with rare clarity, this was a performance to cherish. Unsurprisingly, young Lee’s virtuosity prompted a blizzard of cheers, with some of the audience standing as they clapped in appreciation of an extraordinarily fine reading. If ever there was a reason to offer an encore, it was this audience reaction. Instead, and oddly, conductor Elena Schwarz came on stage and took the WASO through a frankly lacklustre reading of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance opus 48 no.8.
Earlier, we listened to bass James Clayton in Madamina, il
catalogo e questo from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Clayton’s account bordered on the
faultless. Blessed with a beautiful voice, he sang as if the aria had been
written specially for him. Strings played beautifully here. This was a
highlight of the afternoon. Later, Clayton was joined by tenor Paul O’Neill in the
much loved In the depths of the Temple
from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. As well, O’Neill sang Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s
Turandot with a finely focussed voice.
The WASO Chorus earned laurels as well. Its contribution
gave splendid point and meaning to Borodin’s ever popular Polovtsian Dances.
This was a consistently sensitive offering. We need to hear this polished
choral ensemble more frequently. The Polonaise from Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin
needed a more emphatic beat, though.
Glinka’s rousing overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla made its
mark in a most positive way. So, too, did the famous Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria
rusticana. Under Elena Schwarz’s direction, WASO’s playing of its opening
moments was informed by an entirely appropriate tenderness. But in Aaron
Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the playing sounded rather uneven. Lee’s
brilliance in the Rhapsody, however, more than made up for this disappointment.
If it was jazz, New Orleans style, you were after, then The
Sewing Room in the CBD’s Wolf Lane was the place to be.
Jam-packed with aficionados, many standing as they bobbed
and swayed to rhythms belted-out by musicians of The Hot 6, it was emphatically evident that this ensemble
knew very well how to deliver the goods – and it did so with immense elan. What
style and energy the players brought to their performance. They delivered the
goods big time. It was the real thing – and without a dull moment from go to
From time to time, the players stepped down from the venue’s
tiny corner-stage and walked in procession about the crowded venue as I
listened, fingers in ears, to jazz classics presented at often-dauntingly high
decibel levels. Considering how very crowded the venue was, it’s surprising how
the ensemble managed its rounds of the room without bumping into anyone,
especially Anthony Dodos carrying an immense Sousaphone wrapped around his body
like some enormous brass anaconda.
I particularly liked The Hot 6’s presentation of Sheik of
Araby. It glowed with splendid tone, not least from Adam Hall’s trumpet, its
playing like a golden thread through the evening, It held the attention from first note to last. This
was especially so, too, in St James Infirmary Blues, the piece that Louis Armstrong
made so famous. And it was certainly in good hands at The Sewing Room. This,
like so much on the program, radiated authenticity.
Throughout the evening, Bronton Ainsworth did wonders on
drums. His offering was rhythmically immaculate.
Let’s Get it On was another great jazzy gem. And Kate Pass,
in a number of pieces, did well on both trombone and double bass.
Did you know that Grieg’s opus was the very first piano concerto ever recorded? It happened more than a century ago – as far back as 1909. The soloist was a very young Wilhelm Backhaus. It’s a compressed version of the work – a mere nine minutes – but it is beautifully played. Listen to it on Youtube. And Andrey Gugnin’s offering at the weekend was no less meaningful, not least for its blissful clarity and range of tone colourings.
An audience that packed the Concert Hall to capacity – it was standing room only – listened to the concerto in its entirety featuring a soloist with the world at his feet. And in his hands, Grieg’s masterpiece flashed into pulsing life. The clarity which this young Russian-born musician brought to the solo part could hardly have been bettered. And the range of tone he coaxed from the Concert Hall’s Steinway – from whispered pianissimi to thunderous blocks of sound hurled into the auditorium like some pianistic Zeus – made for most satisfying listening. The first two movements were beyond reproach, in the best sense meaningful. It was only fleetingly in the finale, though, that one felt that more emphatically stated rhythms were required. At times, it was too lyrical here.
Throughout, Asher Fisch took the WASO players through a first rate accompaniment. I particularly liked the introduction to the central Adagio during which Fisch coaxed an exquisitely hushed response from a much-in-form strings section.
A veritable tidal wave of applause and cheers greeted the conclusion of the concerto, its insistence persuading Gugnin to offer an encore. With house lights dimmed and the soloist in a pale pink spotlight, we listened to a relentlessly virtuosic account of the toccata-like finale to Prokofiev’s Sonata No 7. Yet again, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause.
As curtainraiser, we were offered the world premiere of young Perth composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland, a work inspired, inter alia, by Western Australia’s rock formations. Homeland incorporates a swarm of ideas, too many too assimilate on a single hearing. I hope we can listen to it again soon. Its final notes were followed by sustained and vigorous applause. I was indeed able to listen to it again – on ABC FM a few days later – and how much more meaningfully the work came across second time around. Skipworth has real skill, producing, through clever orchestration, variants of tone colour that fell most pleasingly on the ear. On second hearing, though, it sounded a shade too long for its material. Some judicious pruning might well enhance the overall impact of a work full of good ideas.
Also on the program was that much loved symphony – Dvorak’s From the New World. Asch’s focussed direction did wonders not least his skill in injecting enthusiasm into his forces but without ever allowing this to degenerate into mere showiness.
It could not have been a more solemn occasion: a performance devoted to the fallen in World War I exactly one hundred years to the day
since the curtain finally came down on a hideously prolonged battle that saw the death and disablement of millions.
As we listened to The Ode of Remembrance and bugler David Scott playing The Last Post, there was a minute of almost palpable silence to reflect on the
slaughter that was World War 1. Then, as the Australian national anthem was sung by the choirs and a capacity audience, the thoughts of most would surely have focussed on the dreadful events of the years 1914 to 1918. Significantly adding to the memorial atmosphere was the fact that the 4pm start of the concert coincided with 9am in France, that being 100 years to the hour since the Armistice was announced by Prime Minister Clemenceau of France – and the concert’s end at 6pm coincided with the cessation of hostilities in France precisely 100 years before.
Then, Faure’s Requiem, its inherent melancholy revealed to a degree I cannot recall experiencing before. And it was listened to in an almost reverential silence.
Dr Pride has devoted her life to choral training and performance – and in this account of Faure’s masterpiece, the Requiem moved me as never before – no mean achievement given I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to the work. From first note to last, Pride, as ever in complete control of her forces, did wonders, coaxing responses which brimmed with the sort of insights that come from a lifetime’s association with the setting. And the Requiem worked its melancholy magic as never before.
Violins, of course, do not feature in the work, their absence giving the string complement a rather darker sonic quality, wholly in keeping with the mood of the work. Soprano Sara Macliver was in her element here. She sang most movingly, again and again taking up an interpretative position at the emotional epicentre of whatever she sang. What a precious musical asset this soprano has been over the decades, not only to Perth but Australia as a whole. Christopher Richardson, too, sang with consistent expressiveness and a very real understanding of the text uttered so clearly – but from time to time rather higher decibel levels might to advantage have allowed his voice to be more emphatically projected towards the rear of the venue.
Millions of the armed forces died in this dreadful war. But there were other deaths, too – of animals ranging from homing pigeons and dogs to horses, each involved in the war effort. The most famous from an Australian perspective was the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade which captured Beersheba from the Turks. So it was entirely appropriate that, early in the program, a horse was ushered on-stage: Indie, rider Phil Dennis from the Kelmscott – Pinjarra 10 Lighthorse Troop. Indie, behaving impeccably, munched carrots.
Also on a memorable program was Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.
The November concert saw Associate Concertmaster of WASO, Semra Lee-Smith (a founding member of the Darlington Ensemble) join with associate artist Gladys Chua in an attractive programme of works for violin and piano. The two most substantial pieces were sonatas by Brahms and Debussy, composed about thirty years apart but inhabiting quite different sound worlds. In the Sonata in A major by Brahms (1886), both performers were able to balance an often full-bodied sound with the essentially song-like character of the work. In this sonata, the middle movement is an interesting combination of slow movement and scherzo and the alternations between the two were deftly handled. Altogether a very satisfying performance of a work that is perhaps not heard as often as the other two sonatas by Brahms, but deserves to be.
With the concert taking place on the actual centenary of the Armistice which ended World War I in 1918, it was appropriate to hear the last work that Debussy completed before his death in that same year. Its elusive form, fragmented melodies and distinctive harmonies were captured just as well as the late Romanticism of Brahms had been.
Framing the sonatas by these German and French composers were shorter pieces by two Austrian Ks – Korngold and Kreisler. Korngold’s Garden Scene comes from the incidental music he wrote for Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing (incidentally, also composed in 1918), originally for small orchestra but with this intermezzo later arranged by the composer as an extended piece for violin and piano. Its rather sentimental lyricism foreshadows his successful film music as well as his later, increasingly popular Violin Concerto.
Praeludium and Allegro in the Style of Pugnani is one of Kreisler’s ‘pastiche’ pieces. Strong playing in the prelude led to rapid passage-work in the Allegro, culminating in a crowd-pleasing climax. An encore may have been called for, but having played for nearly an hour without a break – save for an explanation of colleagues having to withdraw for various genuine reasons – it was probably better for the audience to leave satisfied but wanting more. Well done, Semra and Gladys!
When Felix Mendelssohn wrote the famous overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his unmistakable style was already firmly established. He was a mere 17 years and six months old at the time. But when Schubert, at 16, composed his Symphony No 1, there was almost nothing in it to suggest he was on a path to musical immortality, with barely a hint of the wonders yet to pour from his pen. But it is nonetheless a most remarkably skilled offering despite it revealing barely a hint of the stylistic magic yet to come.
In the hands of the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra with Mark Coughlan at the helm, Schubert’s First flashed into life. It was given a strong introduction. Its robust, emphatic quality could hardly have been bettered. I particularly liked Georgia Lane’s skill on the flute in the Andante movement. The Allegro, which came across as an almost folksy dance unfolded with a pleasing sense of onward momentum. Tempo choice was ideal, although the movement’s closing measures were tinged with some uncertainty. Oboes redeemed themselves here. Momentum was well maintained in the finale, its ideas coming across as cheerfully noisy and jovial with strings much on their mettle.
Rossini’s overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers worked its customary magic notwithstanding some uncertainty among upper woodwinds but the music’s inherent insouciance registered most pleasingly.
Whether lyrical or virtuosic, Anne Sleptsova’s playing in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was a model of its kind. This fine pianist sounded in her element here. So, too, did Louise McKay. Her cello playing, as ever, stylistically beyond reproach with notes clothed in a warm tone, reached the back row of the Ballroom in finest fettle. Rebecca Glorie’s violin tone, though finely formed, was rather restrained. Throughout, Coughlan secured a pleasingly supportive response from his forces in this too-seldom-heard masterpiece.
In years – decades! – of attending concerts at Government House Ballroom, I cannot recall any event which drew a bigger audience than that which flocked to this splendid FCO concert.
During the interval, cheese and biscuits were on offer in GHB’s Supper Room.
Following on from their very successful concert last year, Deanna Blacher and Neville Cohn again combined their remarkable talents in an entertaining October recital entitled Fiddling with Castanets. The programme consisted of piano works by the famous Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, including popular pieces such as Andaluza (Granados), Asturias and Cadiz (Albéniz), as well as some that are not as well known.
It would have been well worth attending the concert just to hear Neville Cohn draw such stylish and absorbing sounds from the Callaway Auditorium’s Steinway. But his playing was greatly enhanced by Deanna Blacher’s skillful use of the castanets, complementing not only the rhythmic impetus but also the melodic contours of this very appealing Spanish music. Theirs was a coordinated understanding, obviously honed over many years of practice and performance together, and for which no praise could be too great.
Blacher also contributed informative comments about castanets and the various pairs she chose to use – including a “fat” pair sent to her from a maker in Seville, which helped to project the strong sound required to match Cohn’s robust playing in Sardana by Granados.
On a lighter note, Cohn kept the audience entertained with delightful anecdotes about the two composers who had completely different experiences on trans-Atlantic sea voyages. Granados drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel in 1916, while he was returning from the successful premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York – allegedly taken under by the weight of the gold bars which he received as payment, and which were strapped in a belt around his waist. On the other hand, the child prodigy Albéniz stowed away at the age of twelve and paid his way by playing the piano each evening in the first-class saloon of an ocean liner – and then in a New York bar, astonishing patrons by tickling the ivories with his back to the keyboard. At one stage, Blacher played with her hands behind her back – but not surprisingly, Cohn did not!
If you haven’t heard of Grace Clifford, make a note of her name because, one the evidence of her performance with the WASO at the weekend, she is on a fast track to the stars. This young violinist is still an undergraduate – she is in her final year for a B.Mus degree at Curtis Institute – but when she puts bow to string, her playing is astonishingly mature. And her extraordinary musical gift was abundantly in evidence at Perth Concert Hall as, with Leo Hussain on the podium, she took us on a musical journey through Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, a work that is a closed book for any but the most accomplished of fiddlers.
It is fiercely taxing – but this young artiste sailed through the work with an ease that was astonishing. But there is far more to this phenomenal musician than playing the right notes and keeping in tune. Again and again as the work unfolded, the young Clifford revealed the music’s emotional essence. It’s a fairly long work; it runs for a little over half an hour – and I’d have been delighted if she’d chosen to play it all again.
Whether evoking the passionate ardour of much of the writing or, in the work’s more reflective moments, bringing extraordinary expressiveness, at times tenderness, to her playing, Grace Clifford could hardly be faulted. And from the conductor’s podium, Hussain, in black lounge suit and black tie, took the orchestra through a near-flawless accompaniment. Andrew Nicholson’s contribution on flute was impeccable. Much the same could be said of the French horn players.
After rapturous, prolonged – and thoroughly deserved – applause (with the WASO players enthusiastically clapping as well) – we were given an encore. With lights dimmed, we listened to a stunningly fine account of Bach’s Sarabande in D minor. It was beyond criticism, a model of highest musicianship. The slightest lapse in music such as this is instantly, glaringly apparent. Here, though, it bordered on perfection.
As curtainraiser, we listened to the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an account which focussed strongly on its dramatic moments. The latter’s emotional darkness was impressively evoked – and the buoyancy of lighter measures was no less convincingly conveyed.
Bohuslav Martinu’s music hardly ever features in a WASO performance – so programming his Jazz Suite was something of an occasion. It’s scored for twelve players (the program note listed only ten). I especially liked the outer movements: quirky and zany, brimming with good humour. It was like a breath of fresh air. In the 2nd movement – tempo di blues – bassoonist Jane Kircher-Lindner was well to the fore and sounding in her element. So, too, was oboist Huw Jones, much on his mettle – and Graeme Gilling was in customary fine form at the piano.
Sibelius’ name and reputation are inextricably linked to his symphonies. They are the bedrock of his fame. But, these aside, he was a most prolific composer. A fair number of these works could fairly be described as tripe – but there are also shorter orchestral pieces which are gems in the highest sense.
One of these, the Prelude to Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a superb evocation of a storm, of a frightening maelstrom – and when played with such focussed skill as was the case at the weekend, the question arises: why have compilers so neglected this work? In the long history of the orchestra, it has been programmed only once before – in 2009..
Wonderfully evocative of howling wind, thunder and lightning flashes, guest conductor Ludovic Morlot and the WASO sounded in their element, clearly as one as the piece unfolded. It drew me to the edge of my seat.
At the other end of the emotional scale was Tchaikowsky’s Andante cantabile from his String Quartet No 1 in an arrangement for cello and strings. It is one of the composer’s loveliest essays in calmness – and at the weekend, cellist Gautier Capucon reigned supreme. Here was musicmaking to soothe, surely, even the most agitated soul. It was an exquisite offering. Bravo!
Earlier, Capucon was soloist in the same composer’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Here, too, we were drawn – willingly – into Tchaikowsky’s unique sound and mood world. To ensure the cello line could reach the listener unencumbered by a too-heavy accompaniment, the composer wrote for a much reduced orchestra – no brass except for horns, no percussion. It was a performance that riveted the attention. Throughout, Capucon’s cello line adapted chameleon-like to the subtlest sound colours that the work calls for. And with Morlot’s conducting achieving a consistently first rate accompaniment, this interpretation reached for – and touched – the stars. Variation 6 was particularly fine with Mary-Anne Blades’ contribution on flute a highlight.
Also on the program were Debussy’s La Mer and Sibelius’ The Oceanides.
Those who missed the concert can listen to a broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Saturday 13 October at noon.
It was a fascinating experience listening to James Ledger’s String Quartet No 2. It was played by the visiting Australian String Quartet which is giving the work its world premiere performances on its current tour of Australia.
When it comes to predicting success or otherwise for compositions being given their first performances, critics have a terribly unreliable reputation. Music history brims with instances of critics giving the thumbs up for this or that new work but in very many instances, these compositions extolled as works of genius have quietly sunk into oblivion.
On the other hand, there’s many a new work which critics have slammed for any of a long list of reasons – and an embarrassingly high number of these critically panned works have gone on to universal recognition as masterworks! Consider just a few of those which were initially given the thumbs down: Puccini’s La Boheme (“silly and inconsequential”), Tosca (“distinctly raw-boned and hideous”), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (“baffles verbal description:, “to say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description”), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (”trite, feeble, conventional – fussy and futile counterpoint”). The list is very long.
This notwithstanding, and while not a betting man as a rule, I’d put money on Ledger’s latest offering.
As pointed out in a useful program note, each instrument plays into its own microphone, the sound travelling to a computer where it undergoes a series of manipulations whereby the sound is recorded and instantly played back in a continuous, repeating loop. This is the essence of the work’s electronic dimension. The loop alters in a number of ways according to the score. The beauty of this process is the discreet manner in which electronics are utilised. They never dominate proceedings but complement the players’ contributions in the most effective ways. The combined effect is consistently pleasing, often fascinating, with Adele Conlin doing wonders as electronics cum sound engineer positioned at the rear of the hall.
I’d really like to listen to this work again because there was so much intriguing detail here, that it wasn’t possible to assimilate it at a single hearing. It certainly deserves the widest listenership. Hopefully, it will soon become available on CD.
Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet opened the program. Incredibly, this was the only chamber work of Schubert’s that received a public performance during his tragically short lifetime. Knowing this, it is impossible to listen to the work and remain unmoved by the sheer unfairness and tragedy of the composer’s all-too-short life.
How beautifully it was played by the ASQ. I particularly admired the andante movement unfolding seamlessly with notes clothed in splendid corporate tone. There was excellent internal balance here. Most importantly, its poignancy was impeccably evoked. And the bittersweet essence of the Menuetto was no less convincingly conveyed. The finale was essayed with high finesse.
Prior to the concert and during the interval, finest cheeses and biscuits on exquisite, white napery were available to concertgoers in the ballroom’s undercroft.