Features, Music, News

The other Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s moving Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will receive its Australian premiere in Perth this weekend. But it isn’t by the composer you are probably expecting. The oratorio was written by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and rediscovered late last century. Ron Banks finds out why.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the older sister of the more famous Felix, was a prolific composer. Or should that be a prolific composer of unpublished and unperformed music?

During her short life of 41 years Hensel wrote about 460 pieces of music, mostly for piano. As a child she excelled at the piano and in composition lessons. However composition skills were not considered the sort of task fit for a married woman and her career was discouraged by her father, although her brother managed to publish some of her pieces under his own name.

A wood engraving of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel by her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel.

Her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, actively encouraged his wife, putting out manuscript paper each morning and suggesting she fill the sheet with notation by the end of the day. Hensel took up the challenge, despite the lack of success with public performance. Only small groups of friends ever heard her works.

Two years into her marriage she wrote one of her biggest works, and one that remained undiscovered until late in the twentieth century. The Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel (Scenes from the Bible), is otherwise known as the Cholera Cantata, after the cholera epidemic swept Europe from 1829 until 1836. During the epidemic Hensel nursed her family and afterwards plunged into composing the oratorio. The three-part libretto is based on Biblical scenes that embrace a narrative of misery and despair, eventually turning to a joyful praise of God. It is written for eight-part choir, orchestra and soloists.

This long-neglected work will be performed by the University of Western Australia Choral Society on December 15. Its choral strength will be boosted to about 200 singers with the addition of the St Barnabas Choir and the Perth Undergraduate Choral Society.

The massed voices will perform the oratorio at Winthrop Hall under the direction of Sarah Mills- Menoque. The concert will conclude with Vivaldi’s Gloria and Christmas carols conducted by Kris Bowtell. Audiences are invited to picnic afterwards by the Winthrop Hall pond.

The UWA Choral Society’s final performance for the year comes after a successful tour of China in October, with about 80 singers performing concerts of classical and modern music in four cities. UWACS president Jan Kirkman said the concerts were enthusiastically received by the Chinese, with ecstatic reviews.

Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will be performed  as part of ‘Festive Celebrations’ on December 15 at Wintrhop Hall.

Pictured top: The University of Western Australia Choral Society on tour in China.


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Features, Music, News

Words on song

Everyone loves a good story, especially one straight from the heart. Ara Jansen finds out why the much-loved Barefaced Stories series has become such a success at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Musicians usually use their singing voices, instruments and songs to tell their stories.

This month at Fremantle Arts Centre’s Barefaced Stories the musicians won’t be able to use (or potentially hide behind) any of those things.

The challenge and the potential exhilaration of the monthly storytelling event is the opportunity to stand on stage and share a story lasting less than 10 minutes to a room full of unknown people. It’s the place to tell a tale, maybe get something off your chest, reveal something or simply take flight in the telling. That’s the beauty, risk and freedom of Barefaced Stories.

The ‘Music Edition’ line up this month includes Alex & Rob (Hope… It’s a Trap Podcast), Andrew McDonald (artist, comedian and cultural critic), Michael De Grussa (Kill Devil Hills, Eskimo Joe) and Jamie Mykaela (comedy/cabaret) alongside special guest musicians Lucy Peach and Ofa Fotu (Hot Brown Honey, Odette Mercy).

“For the musicians, it’s performing in a very different way to what they are used to,” says Barefaced Stories co-creator Andrea Gibbs. “It’s not about being a character but being real and you.”

It’s not the time to trot out those stories you’ve told ad nauseum over the years. No, this is a space to potentially go to those dark, amazing, sad, wonderful and never told before places.

“We push people because if you have something you feel you shouldn’t say, that’s the story we want to hear.”

Gibbs says the night is usually curated to make sure the stories have a light and shade about them. They must be true and storytellers are encouraged not to memorise the piece like a monologue, but rather tell it as you would to a friend.

“There are always laughs, even in really dark stories. It’s almost like people needing to breathe.”

The monthly event celebrates the idea that everyone has a story to tell and the Barefaced stage has played host to everyone from truck-drivers to accountants.

Barefaced Stories is 12 December at Fremantle Arts Centre.

Pictured top: Barefaced Story co-creators Andrea Gibbs and Kerry O’Sullivan. Photo Simon Pynt.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Fisch comes full circle

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s Requiem ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 29 November ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Giuseppe Verdi is primarily a composer of operas, and Asher Fisch is primarily a conductor of operas, so it is no surprise that the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem had the intensity and emotion of a night at the opera. True, there were no elephants (Aida), hunchback clowns (Rigoletto) or Hebrew slaves (Nabucco). But there was a 150-strong choir (the WASO chorus supplemented by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the St George’s Cathedral Consort) and four high profile soloists joining the orchestra on stage, plus a capacity audience; the Concert Hall was bursting at the seams.

Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was premiered in a church, with a liturgy rather than an opera libretto. But it contains the drama and emotion of romantic opera and who better to bring this to life than Fisch, who has spent his six years at the helm of WASO schooling the orchestra in this sound world. It was full circle for the Israeli maestro, who conducted the Requiem in his debut with WASO in 1999 (then a protégé of Daniel Barenboim and yet to complete his now legendary first Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004).

As we have come to expect, Fisch brought Verdi’s dramatic architecture to life in all its majestic detail. From the haunting opening ‘Requiem’ whispered over misty string to the writhing storms of the ‘Libera me’, via moments of brass splendour recalling the Triumphal March from Aida and heart wrenchingly intimate vocal solos, each cameo reached its zenith. There were numerous exquisite moments from the orchestra as, under Fisch’s baton, the ensemble navigated tempo changes, eased fluidly in and out of phrases and breathed shimmering beauty into Verdi’s soundworld.

It’s a dark sound world, though; a work of fear and trembling rather than comfort and hope. Verdi exploits the period’s prevailing “judgement” theology with his inclusion of the Sequence. Its recurring ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’) was sung explosively by the chorus and soloists and the orchestra was unleashed with Wagnerian lavishness. Four trumpets stationed in the upper gallery added to the immersive experience.

Soprano soloist Siobhan Stagg capped her year as WASO’s Artist in Residence with a compelling performance, her golden voice and delicately clear top end making every phrase a delight. Stefanie Irányi’s darker mezzo brought a penetrating intensity, tenor Paul O’Neill sang with gleaming ardour and Warwick Fyfe’s splendidly effortless baritone completed the quartet.

And now to the chorus, who in many ways were the highlight of the night. The 150-strong composite choir were remarkably unified, singing with a warm, cushioned sound that had the clean purity of an organ. For six years Fisch has honed a creamy, rounded orchestral sound built on German romantic repertoire: now he has found a choir to match his orchestra.

I am a huge lover of opera but I wonder if perhaps this was even better? As the great requiem composers recognise, sometimes the more profound experiences are those of the soul, not the spectacle. What a privilege to experience the increasingly refined beauty of our orchestra, chorus and world class soloists in immaculate acoustics, without distraction. One thing is sure; it bodes well for WASO’s much-anticipated concert performance of Fidelio in February.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo Rebecca Mansell.

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

Conversations within but not between

Review: Charlotte Hickson and Ashley Yihsin Chang, ‘Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth’ ·
Review by Jess Boyce ·

“Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth” marks the 20th anniversary of the Charter of Mutual Friendship between the two cities; a friendship that is evident in the string of exhibitions, residencies and other programs involving these communities that have been held at PICA and other galleries and organisations in the sister cities over the last two decades.

Bringing together both Western Australian and Taiwanese artists, “Unfolding Acts” is curated by Charlotte Hickson and Ashley Yihsin Chang. The show presents stories from both metropolitan and regional areas and represents voices of artists, First Nations people, workers and everyday folk.

Created by the York Noongar community members and Community Arts Network, Welcome to Balardong is a collaborative series of animations that share stories of life in York. Whilst the childhood memories are reflected upon fondly, and the clay animations playful, undertones of systematic racism and colonial structures are hard to ignore.

Dondon Hounwn’s story explores a shifting dynamic between traditional and modern practices. Photo: Bo Wong.

Such storytelling is at the heart of many of the works in “Unfolding Acts”, including Yu-Cheng Chou’s A Working History: LU Chien-Te for which the life-story of a Taiwanese contingent worker nearing retirement was published and recorded, and Chia-En Jao’s video Taxi which documents conversations between the artist and Taipei Taxi drivers to piece together a story of Taiwan’s history and current political climate. Dondon Hounwn’s story looks inward instead; three videos displayed concurrently each show the Truku artist in some way being pushed and pulled by other performers, a shifting dynamic between traditional and modern practices.

Whilst all other works in the exhibition present stories from the artist’s home city, rather than a response to the sister city, Taiwanese artist Yi-Chun Lo’s Protective Layers responds to the impact of agriculture and feral animals on Western Australia’s natural landscape and wildlife. Created during a residency in Western Australia, Lo engaged with Noongar elders and utilised native trees and grasses as well as introduced grains to construct hides of a kangaroo and a fox, laid on the floor like ornamental rugs.

Also engaging with natural landscape, Whadjuk Noongar artist Sharyn Egan’s One mob features animals made out of yonga goona (kangaroo droppings) and balga resin, and Pilar Mata Dupont’s series of photographs, Multispecies, depicts invasive species of flora introduced to Jirndawurrunha, the lands of the Yindjibarndi people in northern Western Australia.

Pilar Mata Dupont’s ‘Multispecies’ depicts invasive species of flora introduced to Jirndawurrunha. Photo: Bo Wong.

Whilst pvi collective’s public residency and series of interventions tiny revolutions successfully reflects “Unfolding Acts’” aim to “examine the social, cultural and economic fabric” of Perth, presented separate to the exhibition in an upstairs room, it felt disconnected from the discourse in the main space. This separation is created by its physical distance from the other works and heightened because, unlike the resolved outcomes presented downstairs, it is a participatory project in progress, marketed individually without mention of “Unfolding Acts”.

Artworks in “Unfolding Acts” present a deep and thoughtful glimpse into the individuals and communities who make up the fabric of Perth and Taipei, yet for an exhibition filled with storytelling, the conversation between works and the two cities is lacking.

“Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth” runs until December 22.

Pictured top: ‘Welcome to Balardong’ by York Noongar community members with Community Arts Network. Photo: Bo Wong.

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Classical music, Film, News

Where the sound of movies began

Mark Naglazas talks to Benjamin Northey about the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s new venture into the Golden Age of movies.

In recent years the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, like many orchestras around the world, has drawn large audiences with their programs dedicated to the music of modern fantasy blockbusters such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, E.T: The Extraterrestrial and Back to the Future.

For their latest trip to the movies WASO is going where few contemporary orchestras dare to venture — back to Hollywood’s Golden Age and the birth of the symphonic score that we now recognise as the sound of the movies. If you want to know what inspired John Williams this is the concert for you.

Under the baton of Benjamin Northey, chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the associate conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, WASO is playing rarely performed selections from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Max Steiner’s soundtracks for Gone With The Wind and Casablanca, Franz Waxman’s music for Sunset Boulevard and Bernard Herrmann’s anxiety-inducing atmospherics for Psycho.

The programme is rounded out by more modern pieces that are grounded in the stirring, deeply emotional scores of Golden Age Hollywood, such Maurice Jarre’s Theme from Lawrence Arabia, John Barry’s soundtracks for the James Bond movies and Ennio Morricone’s beloved music for The Mission.

Northey says that WASO’s Hooray for Hollywood program doesn’t have the instant recognition factor of recent box office hits such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. However, the scores of Hollywood’s Golden Age are of such quality they deserve a concert outing of their own.

Indeed, he believes the work of pioneers of the form such as Korngold, Steiner, Waxman and Hermann created the sound that was later re-embraced by Hollywood in the 1970s after a period of song-based soundtracks.

“It was fortuitous that at the time Hollywood was transitioning from silent to sound cinema Europe was plunging into turmoil. So you had huge cohort of incredibly talented composers and musicians seeking refuge in Hollywood and looking for work,” Northey tells me over the phone from his home in Melbourne.

“Both Max Steiner and Erich Korngold were wunderkinds in their native Austria. They had written operas in their teens and were feted as the next generation after Mahler and Brahms and other composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. They wrote in a Late Romantic style which they then brought to film.

“So when you listen to Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, he’s writing to serve the purpose of an Errol Flynn swashbucklers but he’s also using the language of the orchestral world of the first half of the 20th century,” continues Northey.

“This is why they were so good. You had the best composers in Europe working in an industry that had also attracted all these musicians who were fleeing the rise of Nazism. When you watch these movies and listen to these scores you can hear the virtuosity.”

While Hollywood welcomed this new wave of composers from Europe it took time to acknowledge their contribution. When Korngold’s score for Anthony Adverse won the Oscar in 1936 it was the head of the music department who collected the statuette on Hollywood’s night of nights. There was so much embarrassment about the world-famous composer not getting the Oscar the Academy was forced to change the rules to ensure was acknowledged.

Northey says that by the 1960s Hollywood had abandoned the full-blown symphonic scores, which was often played throughout the entire movie, for much sparser soundtracks, with popular songs filling out the space between dialogue or nothing at all.

The symphonic score made a comeback in the mid 1970s with when Lucas and Spielberg started reaching back into Hollywood history with films such as Jaws and Star Wars, ushering in the return of the kind of soundtrack that dominated movies in the Golden Age, in which each character had their own theme and there is wave after wave after surging emotion.

“We have a lot to thank John Williams for,” says Northey. “He recognised how fantastic a symphonic soundtrack is in underscoring a range of emotions to enhance the viewing experience. It is fascinating that sound was brought to us by refugees fleeing the Nazis. It’s this bit of history we are filling in with Hooray for Hollywood.”

Hooray for Hollywood is on at the Perth Concert Hall on December 6.

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Storm Helmore, Bernadette Lewis, Laura Boynes. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Dance double bill goes off with a bang

Review: Scott Elstermann and Shona Erskine, “Bang! Bang!” ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 28 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

November has been a boon month for dance in Perth, with no less than seven shows presented by various companies, organisations and independent artists. Packing a powerful punch, dance theatre double bill “Bang! Bang!”, by local indie choreographers Scott Elstermann and Shona Erskine, makes a fitting grand finale to this unofficial dance festival.

Scott Elstermann. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Scott Elstermann alternates between elegance and frenzy in ‘Love you, Stranger’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

As the gunshots of the title foreshadow, it’s murder that ties this double header together. The first work on the program, Shona Erskine’s Love you, Stranger, is a chilling exploration of the consequences of public shaming. Though we know this to be a contemporary issue, Erskine takes us back in time, to the fates of three Australian women – Martha Rendell (1871-1909), Audrey Jacobs (1905-?) and Ellen Thompson (1835-1887) – all brought to trial for murder.

Performed by three dancers (Storm Helmore, Scott Elstermann and Bernadette Lewis), each representing one of the accused women, Love you, Stranger interweaves stark solos with detailed ensemble work. It’s lightly seasoned with text (written by Vahri McKenzie, voiced by Jo Morris) that hints at horror of various kinds.

Representing Rendell, accused of murdering her step-children, Helmore is neat, deliberate, intricate. As the “seduced and then publicly snubbed” Jacobs, Elstermann alternates between elegance and frenzy. Arms flinging wildly, Lewis, as Thompson, seems to be fending off an attack from an invisible foe; later it seems as if her own gasps floor her. Joe Paradise Lui’s soundscape provides an ominous backdrop; a melange of repeating notes and deep drawn-out undertones, punctuated by whispers and breaths.

It’s a glimpse into the abyss; dizzying, compelling. Erskine tells me she has plans to develop this work, and I’m keen to see what comes next.

Bernadette Lewis, Scott Elstermann and Storm Helmore. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Detailed ensemble work: Bernadette Lewis, Scott Elstermann and Storm Helmore in ‘Love you, Stranger’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

It’s during the brief interval, complete with snack-bearing usherettes (Laura Boynes and Lilly King), that we are drawn into Scott Elstermann’s Act 2, Scenes 1-4, a mad-cap ride that takes murder less seriously. Elstermann’s work is inspired by Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and, having filled that particular hole in my pop-culture knowledge the night before, I was wondering how the concept would play out.

Bernadette Lewis and Laura Boynes. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Laura Boynes and Bernadette Lewis in one of many moments of physical comedy. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

Well, in summary, it is Wes Anderson’s style, cleverly transformed into contemporary dance. While you don’t need to have seen the film to appreciate this work (my plus one assures me), Anderson buffs will, I think, be thrilled by the result.

Unsurprisingly there’s audio from the film, but it’s the way it’s animated on stage that’s so effective. With his terrific team of dancers – Laura Boynes, Storm Helmore, Lilly King and Bernadette Lewis – Elstermann captures the cartoon-like nature of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s many fight and chase scenes, rendered all the more hilarious by the liveness and the proximity afforded by the intimate Blue Room Theatre space. From the sunrise-stained opening to a luminous aqua wash, Chris Donnelly’s lighting pays exquisite homage to the film’s famed saturated hues.

Boynes, Helmore, King and Lewis are superb. It’s not just the crisp perfection of their many slapstick scenes of physical comedy, but their wildly mobile faces that move, plasticine-like, into ever more comical configurations.

The only serious thing to say about this work?

You gotta see it. I don’t care whether you’re a contemporary dance aficionado, a newbie or indifferent.

And I reckon it will sell out, so don’t delay.

“Bang! Bang!” runs until December 14.

Pictured top are Storm Helmore, Bernadette Lewis and Laura Boynes in ‘Act 2, Scenes 1-4’.

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Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Juan Carlos Osma as Lewis Carroll in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Scott Dennis (14).JPG
Ballet, Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Whimsical and wonderful: an Alice for all ages

Junior reviews: West Australian Ballet, Alice (in wonderland) ·
His Majesty’s Theatre ·
Reviews by Bethany Stopher (13) and Saskia Haluszkiewicz, aged 9 ·

Opening night, Thursday 21 November
Review by Bethany Stopher
Alice (in wonderland), performed by the West Australian Ballet, is a creative, vibrant ballet, full to the brim with humour and imagination. It is thoroughly enjoyable and perfect for a young audience.
The choreography is not strictly ballet; some of its features are neoclassical or contemporary. This keeps it fresh and different. The sequences are playful and fun, perfectly enhancing the characters from Lewis Carroll’s novel. It also has the hint of silliness and is definitely humorous in places, from the Cheshire cat, to the seductive red roses. The dancers use their voices, which is unusual for a ballet, but very effective in this case. Septime Webre has done an excellent job.
The scenery is outstanding. The plain white room and chair at the start of the show, give little clue of the imaginative props and scenery that are to come. Set designer James Kronzer has certainly gone above and beyond, making every scene as picturesque as possible. Suspension wires are used multiple times, in jaw dropping ways, during the performance. One of the highlights of this, for me, was when Alice “grew” after sampling the bottle labelled “drink me.” It looked so effective, especially as the adult “doors” are replaced by child guests to show how giant Alice is in comparison.
The scenery is also very portable and this is convenient, as there are many different settings, which have to be changed quickly.  There is even a touch of puppetry (artistically created by Eric Van Wyk), including a mini Alice, which is spun round to give the impression of falling, and a humongous Jabberwock puppet, which is controlled by many of the dancers. The scenery and effects are magical.
On opening night all the dancers were immaculate. Chihiro Nomura (Alice) stole the show for me. Apart from her flawless technique, she had a childlike quality and an abundance of expression, perfect for the role. I also admired the bird partnership of the dodo (Oscar Valdes) and the eaglet (Dayana Hardy Acuna). Oscar had such control in his pirouettes and elevation in his jumps. Dayana had a beautiful expression – you could see the joy that she has from dancing. Glenda Garcia Gomez (The Queen of Hearts) played the dominant and vicious queen with attitude and a dramatic snarl on her face. The child stars were given a large presence on stage, performed well and were adorable; the audience went “aww” every time they entered the stage. One thing that I found interesting is that the characters mirror Alice’s family in the real world. This gave me a deeper understanding of the story that was unfolding.
All the costumes are perfect for Wonderland; bright, colourful and quirky. I loved the White Rabbit’s costume, as he wore huge fluffy ears and a waistcoat with clocks on it. The children’s costumes are really fluffy and cute. The costumes have been designed so exquisitely by Liz Vandal  that all the characters look like they have stepped right out of the book. The costumes are also very clever; when the cards are “painting” the white roses red, the white petals peel off to show crimson ones! However, it appeared as though some of the costumes were uncomfortable to dance in. For example, the flamingo costumes looked spectacular, but it must have been hard to dance as gorgeously as they did with a ginormous flamingo beak on your head! I also found that some of the costumes had a plastic texture. Some of the costumes suited this, but others seemed a bit too shiny.  Overall, though, the costumes are creative and add to the thrill.
Alice (in wonderland) is a must-see. It can be enjoyed by all ages, as it is completely suitable for kids, and their attention will be hooked from the moment the curtain rises until the curtseys. It is the kind of ballet that makes you want to see it again and again. The season ends on December 15, so get your tickets before they sell out!
Friday 22 November
Review by Saskia Haluszkiewicz, aged 9
West Australian Ballet’s production of Alice (in wonderland) is a new version of Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book, and captures the imagination of people’s minds with colour, dance and comedy.
The costumes (designed by Liz Vandal) are full of colour and life, and beautifully capture the detail and tradition of the period the book was written. Many have described the costumes as a “visual feast”. One part of the ballet has a scene where Alice is walking through a magical forest when she sees a caterpillar on a toadstool smoking a pipe. Through dance we can see that the caterpillar is talking to Alice. Then it shows the natural cycle of a caterpillar by turning into a butterfly. The wings are a majestic blue and are so big, they fill up the entire stage! This is one example of the effort put into making these costumes. Another highlight is when Alice grows so tall, she is nearly touching the top of the proscenium with Alice’s feet dancing at the bottom.
The choreography (Septime Webre) is interesting, exciting and clever. It is a mix of traditional ballet and contemporary movement and even includes a Chinese dragon style puppet of the Jabberwock.
The cast includes students of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and 15 child dancers, along with WAB’s principals, soloists and demi soloists.
The main characters are Alice, The White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen and King of Hearts. Other characters are the Fishy Footman, The Tweedle twins (who at one point flew through the air on a tandem bike), the flamingos and the Playing Cards.
Overall, I think this is a wonderful ballet performance for people all ages. It is whimsical, fun and imaginative, showing perfectly the potential of storytelling through the art of dance.
Pictured top: Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Juan Carlos Osma as Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice (in wonderland’). Photo: Scott Dennis.
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A smiling conductor directs the orchestra from the podium
Music, News, Reviews

Fascinating musical exposé

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘The Art of Orchestration’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 23 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

As audiences for the traditional concert format age and a younger generation seeks a fresh approach, it is exciting to see the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s creative initiatives taking flight. ‘The Art of Orchestration’ is the second of WASO’s two Discovery Concerts this year featuring affable principal conductor Asher Fisch offering insights into the music. As judged by the enthusiastic reception, there are plenty of Perth folk of all ages who are open to having their musical appreciation expanded.

All three compositions in the programme were conceived for keyboard, but it took their orchestrated versions to bring them to their current renown and, as explained and illustrated by Asher Fisch, each work took a different route to orchestral life.

The evening opened with the conductor’s introduction from a dramatically deserted stage. Joseph Nolan’s masterful performance of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on the Concert Hall organ (and on a scale that would not have been known in Bach’s time) was followed by Stokowski’s technicolour orchestration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The orchestration is now considered to be in poor taste but it was impossible not to feel admiration for the skill with which the transformation was achieved; and for the fact that the movie is believed to have brought a generation of children to a love of music.

By way of contrast, it was Richard Strauss himself who sought a richer palette for some of his songs.  Here the audience had the immense pleasure of hearing Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, WASO’s first “Artist in Association”, deliver a bracket of five songs. Earlier in her career Stagg won the Richard Strauss song prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition with An die Nacht, and it was clear why.  Stagg has a voice of rare beauty, deployed with utmost sensitivity and with a core of contained intensity; the words have a natural flow and her stage presence is a delight. Regarding the transcriptions themselves, the first and last songs were accompanied successively on piano and by orchestra: unsurprisingly the composer achieved a close match of scale and mood between the two, both in the restraint of Morgen, as in the concluding Cäcilie, with its freely expressed emotions.

Following interval, Asher Fisch continued sharing his absorbing insights, happily contradicting Yvonne Frindle’s admirable programme notes by arguing, contrary to general belief, that Mussorgsky always had orchestration in mind when he set Pictures at an Exhibition for piano. At the keyboard, Fisch, a fine pianist in his own right, self-deprecatingly contrasted the unpianistic nature of certain passages with Ravel’s inspired orchestration. And if the audience was stimulated by this fascinating exposé, no less did the musicians respond. Older listeners might have been happy to see out their remaining days without ever needing to hear Pictures again, but here was a beautifully paced and weighted viewing of the chosen drawings and paintings, with the delicacy and wit of, say, Tuileries not suffocated by the mighty grandeur of the concluding Great Gate of Kiev. Played to death it may be, but here the introductory discussion of the work seemed to infuse new life into an old warhorse.

Asher Fisch and the artistic planning team must be saluted for being prepared to challenge the venerable ‘symphony-concerto’ formula without any dumbing-down, instead embarking on new paths designed to draw in younger audiences and stimulate old ones alike. On this occasion, with the conductor as an engrossing guide, the risk of a fragmented evening was entirely avoided: instead an appreciative audience went home savouring a small but memorable Richard Strauss song recital and consummate performances of the two other orchestral settings.

Asher Fisch and Siobhan Stagg join WASO again in Verdi’s Requiem on November 29th and 30th.

Pictured top: WASO’s affable Asher Fisch. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical journeys

Review: Perth Orchestra Project, ‘Destinations’ ⋅
Calloway Music Auditorium, UWA, November 22 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Orchestra Project is proving a welcome addition to Perth’s musical landscape. Conductor Izaak Wesson, who founded the semi-professional ensemble in 2017, is a student at the UWA Conservatorium of Music and his ensemble draws on student and graduate musicians. As conductor and artistic director Wesson (and team) have established a reputation for thoughtful programming, innovative presentations and a relaxed atmosphere. It is an attractive package, but the highlight for me is the new works. POP has premiered eight pieces from local composers, an achievement that surpasses the efforts of Perth’s professional orchestras, and the thrill of the new brings a exciting frisson to their concerts.

“Destinations” was the ensemble’s sixth concert since founding and the featured composer was Kate Milligan. Her new work Migrations offered a reflection on the other pieces on the program and also on her trajectory as a composer currently based in France.

Opening the evening though, was a work by Charles Ives, the pioneer of American modernism. The Unanswered Question is normally heard as an orchestral work but this performance presented the original, more intimate version for string quartet, flute quartet and cor anglais. For this quasi-dramatic performance the instrumentalists were spaced around the audience in the darkened auditorium, their music illuminated by stand lights. Under the steady hand of Wesson, the piece unfolded with gently sustained chords in the strings punctuated by a “question” from the cor anglais and answered by the increasingly animated flutes. The sense of stasis generated by the string chords was not entirely effective due to wavering pitch but the interaction between the groups was compelling.

The propelling rhythms of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was a complete contrast. A montage of Reich’s recordings of trains, train conductors, interviews with Holocaust survivors and general station noise exploded from the speakers. The string quartet interacted with the recording, drawing our attention to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech and mechanical noise. It was a slick performance with all four string players navigating Reich’s complex changing metres in synchronisation with the recording. The funky syncopations of thrumming train wheels and the bustle of station noise generated a sense of journey, the thrilling feeling of seeking a destination.

The clatter of vintage early 20th century trains were replaced by the calm hiss of pneumatic doors in Kate Milligan’s Migrations. Her recordings of the Paris metro underpin her new work, in a stylistic nod to Reich. The flutes returned to the stage and their rushing air and spitting sounds together with the slowly accelerating string rhythms took the audience on a distinctly more modern journey. Milligan’s field recordings included snippets of buskers (the melody taken up briefly by the instrumentalists) and the chatter of people at a station. The use of sine waves droning at the edge of audibility (apparently generated from the geographical location of current displaced people around the globe) added an ominous edge to our contemplation of travel. The last sounds we heard were the chatter of people fading into the distance. The silence afterwards was achingly lonely.

The works on the program spanned a century and Milligan’s work was a reminder that, 100 years later we haven’t travelled very far regarding the humanitarian right of being free to choose one’s location and destination. The synergy between the works on the program and the compelling performances confirms POP’s capacity to deliver an engrossing evening of music.

Picture top: The string players from POP L-R: Jasmine Middleton, Shannon Rhodes, Adrian Biemmi and Liz Moss. Photo Finlay Cooper.

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

A project for the climate crisis

Sete Tele and Lisa Hirmer, ‘Drinking Water’ ·
Moores Building ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

“Drinking Water”, a project by Australian dance artist Sete Tele and Canadian interdisciplinary artist Lisa Hirmer, cultivates a timely awareness of (and appreciation for) water as a precious natural resource.

A field of floor tiles, scattered over the ground level gallery of the Moores Building, frame an assortment of furniture, plinths and tableware containing varying levels of water. Piles of photographs have been spread over these plinths, and arranged on the floor, depicting various methods of improvised, small-scale water gathering.

Photo: Lisa Hirmer

As the Fremantle Biennale’s website explains, Tele and Hirmer began this iteration of their project by enlisting Fremantle locals to participate as volunteer “water collectors”. Together the artists and participants workshopped survival water gathering techniques, before designing and implementing a collection method bespoke to each person’s home.

The resulting photographs in this exhibition presumably document the efforts of this community, showing buckets, ice-cream containers, dewy plants, and hands squeezing wet cloths. Lacking any explanatory text, these loose photographs act as an informal archive; capturing multiple moments of water collection in a human-scale format that can be re-sorted and rearranged.

Resembling the remnants of a domestic ritual, these images seem to collectively speak to personal interactions with the natural landscape, our communal relationship with water, and our place as citizens within a wider ecology. However the lack of personal presence from the participants in the exhibition space is keenly felt – with this absence emphasised by the sounds of the bustling café surrounding the show.

Exhibited as a part of “UNDERCURRENT 19”, the second edition of the Fremantle Biennale, the considerations raised by this project could not be timelier in our current era of climate crisis.

“Drinking Water” runs until 24 November 2019.

All photos: Lisa Hirmer

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