2003 – Music in Perth

An Overview                                           2003

reviewed by Neville Cohn

The death of an elder statesman of music, a visible greying of concert audiences, the possibility of the Terrace Proms collapsing ­ and the first ever performance in Perth of one of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas made 2003 a memorable year year for concertgoers.

After a long illness, emeritus professor Sir Frank Callaway, arguably Australia’s best known music educationist in international terms and founder of the University of Western Australia’s School of Music, died, full of years and honours.

Mere hours after his passing, a message of congratulations he’d dictated from his sickbed was read out to an emotional gathering to launch long-time colleague Wallace Tate’s book The Magic Touch, a treatise on piano technique and one of the most significant works of its sort to come off the printing presses in years.

The W.A.Symphony Orchestra notched up 75 years, a notable milestone marked by the publication of Marcia Harrison’s book Celebrating 75 Years as well as the commissioning by the WASO of fifteen Australian composers to produce 15 short works for orchestra. The last of these, by veteran musician Peter Sculthorpe, featured in the WASO’s last Master Series concert for the year. The 15 works will be released on an ABC Classics CD in 2004.

Of all W.A. music organisations, incidentally, it is only the WASO management which has tackled the endless problem of audience coughing in a practical and effective way by continuing through 2003 to offer throat lozenges gratis to anyone wishing to use them. It’s a long-standing initiative that might to advantage be emulated by other concert managements,

Almost entirely unsung, not only this year, but going back decades, are the St John Ambulance volunteers who front up for duty night after night at major concert venues around the town in case there’s a call on their first aid skills.

The Terrace Proms, the brainchild of emeritus professor David Tunley, a music fest that brings St George’s Terrace alive and jumping on one Sunday each year, was imperilled in 2003. The continued existence of this admirable initiative depends on an injection of capital. Are any white knights on the way?

Musica Viva, like many other concert-giving organisations, is concerned about a greying audience with dismayingly fewer younger people taking up the slack. In an admirable and resourceful way, Music Viva, the world’s biggest chamber music entrepreneur, reached out to younger folk through its Menage series this year, mounting high-level performances in venues patronised by young people – taverns, gay bars and the like. Whether this will have a positive medium- to long-term result, remains to be seen.

Similarly concerned, the WASO will also be making a pitch for young adults through its WASO Lounge series that’s aimed at patrons up to 36 years of age – and the orchestra’s Early Childhood program aimed at kids from the ages of two to six years continued to be of pivotal importance as have been the performances the WASO provided for primary and secondary school children.

The W.A.Opera Copmpany’s production of Cavalleria Rusticana was its most impressive effort during 2003. Superb sets with voices to match made this a memorable event. And reassuring evidence of substantial youthful potential was on show at the Australian Opera Studio’s admirable production of Die Fledermaus.

Over time, there has often been cause for complaint about the quality – or lack of it – of electronic amplification of high-profile, out-of-doors concerts. But at Jose Carreras’ performance in Supreme Court Gardens, the standard of amplification was superb, the best I can recall in twenty years. It’s a shame, though, that the star of the evening left something to be desired. It was left to a supporting act – soprano Rachelle Durkin – to take out top vocal honours.

There was more good news on the amplification front at the Octagon Theatre where an excellent sound system has been installed.

An increasing trend towards informality in concert giving, a breaking down of barriers between onstage musicians and audiences was often apparent in 2003. Whereas a generation ago, it would have been unthinkable for male musicians to come onstage wearing anything other than white tie and tails (still a feature of WASO concerts), nowadays most musos opt for lounge suits or even more casual attire.

Perth’s first taste of Wagner’s Ring cycle was a fine concert version of Gotterdammerung with Susan Bullock magnificent as Brunnhilde and Philip Kang unforgettable as a dastardly Hagen.

Minimalism guru Steve Reich fronted up – in trademark baseball cap – at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre in a celebration of his work. And TaikOz was far and away the noisiest offering of the year.

A noticeable trend during 2003 was the increasingly high profile of the tango, as much locally as around the world. Sparked by the ubiquitous Astor Piazzolla’s seemingly endless essays in the genre, tangos were much in evidence in recitals around the town, notably at the Terrace Proms where Cathie Travers and friends mined Piazzolla’s repertoire for a selection of tango gems that charmed the ear. And at Roger Smalley’s 60th birthday concert, we heard Travers’ The Tower, a finely crafted essay in tango mode, presented by the Australian Piano Quartet.

During 2003, a pageant of astonishingly accomplished young musicians from abroad came to Perth, among them a parade of world class violinists who appeared as soloists with orchestras, among them pint-sized prodigy Pekka Kuusisto in short works of Sibelius with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – and, in recital, Julian Rachlin with pianist Itamar Golan were flawless in recital for Musica Viva. And Perth’s Jessica Ipkendanz rose to violinistic heights in ensemble with pianist Raymond Yong. An older musician, violinist Shlomo Mintz was magnificent in the Sibelius Concerto.

Young baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes is clearly on a fast track to the stars. So, too, is Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, stunning in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the WASO which scaled the heights in response to Paul Mann’s visually flamboyant conducting of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

One of 2003’s odder offerings was an arrangement by Hans Zender of Schubert’s Winterreise with tenor Steve Davislim doing his best in ensemble with Zender’s extraordinarily fussy reworking of the piano part for small orchestra.

Two very different singers made their mark in 2003: Tim Freedom, of pop group The Whitlams, who seduced the ear with a stream of mellow sound and perfect diction in concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – and counter-tenor Andreas Scholl who reached for the stars in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

© December 2003


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