by Neville Cohn
Perth, in world terms, may be a small city remote from the main highways of the international concert circuit but it certainly punches above its weight insofar as the range and vitality of its music life is concerned.
Many a much larger city would have been proud to host the equivalent of Perth’s tribute to the music of Olivier Messiaen, the centenary of whose birth in 1908 has been celebrated worldwide. Early in the year, Michael Kieran Harvey devoted three recitals over two days to the master’s complete Catalogue of the Birds based on the composer’s vast understanding of birdsong – with linking commentary by conservationist Martin Copley. Later in the year, we heard a first rate account of Messiaen’s youthful Les Offrandes oubliees played by an on-form West Australian Symphony Orchestra. As well, Simone Young presided over an unforgettably magnificent interpretation of L’Ascension.
It was good year for pianists, especially Yefim Bronfman, that prince of the piano, in turn magisterial and scintillating in Rachmaninv’s Concerto No3 in D minor – and Piers Lane marked the centenary of the birth of famed Oz pianist Eileen Joyce with a program of music that often featured in Joyce’s recitals. Sydney International Piano Competition winner Konstantin Shamray did a lap of honour around the country. His Perth recital was memorable for a profoundly meaningful account of Liszt’s arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Victor Sangiorgio brought refined musicianship and impeccable fingerwork to sonatas by Cimarosa as did Angela Hewitt to Bach’s massive 48 Preludes and Fugues over two recitals.
Joseph Nolan brought impressive virtuosity to two organ programs at St George’s Cathedral.
Dimitri Ashkenazy (son of the more famous Vladimir) was a matchless soloist with the WASO in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. Brahms’ Double Concerto was given a thrillingly passionate reading by the ACO with soloists Richard Tognetti (violin) and Tino-Veikko Valve (cello). Youthful soloists – Rebecca White (violin), Rachel Silver (cello) and Zen Zeng (piano) – were impressive in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Kossov. James Ehness’ artistry on the violin was wasted on Bernstein’s rubbishy Serenade. Natalie Clein’s account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto set the loftiest of standards by which all other performances of this concerto should now be judged.
Easily the most satisfying accounts of symphonies in 2008 were Alex Briger’s direction of Tchaikowsky’s Fifth, taking the WASO through a reading that brought one face to face with the composer. Another work by the Russian master – the Manfred Symphony – was tailor-made for Vladimir Verbitsky who seemed positively to revel in its massive sonic onslaughts. And in Sibelius’ Symphony no 1, Paul Daniel sounded in his element; it augurs well for his tenure as principal conductor of the WASO. Tadaaki Otaka’s direction of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser and the Venusberg Music, on the other hand, was a disappointment, one of the WASO’s few dull patches this year.
Graeme Murphy’s production of Verdi’s Aida was lavishly mounted at His Majesty’s Theatre. I cannot recall a more visually spectacular offering at this venue in 25 years – although the stage was simply not big enough to comfortably accommodate the vast cast. Aivale Cole was memorable in the eponymous role – and hardly less impressive earlier in the year as Helmwige in a concert version of Act I II of Wagner’s The Valkyries. Here, among others, Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde and Fiona Campbell as Grimgerde cumulatively generated the decibel levels necessary to blast a way through a huge orchestra at the Concert Hall. In The Magic Flute, Aldo di Toro was splendidly cast as Prince Tamino – it was one of the year’s best opera portrayals. At the other end of the size scale was the WAAPA production of Robert Ward’s The Crucible. This Australian premier season revealed a work almost entirely devoid of catchy melody, a challenging opus which brought out the best in a cast of student singers who, with very few exceptions, succeeded in articulating the opera’s often intricate vocal lines.
Margaret Pride’s Collegium Symphonic Chorus was stunningly impressive in Rachmaninov’s Vespers, sung in Russian for an audience that thronged St Joseph’s Church, Subiaco. The Giovanni Consort’s program at St Paul’s Chapel, Mirrabooka was one of the year’s most finely considered offerings, enhanced by an exquisite contribution by harpist Marshall McGuire. Tony Maydwell’s Summa Musica choir provided fascinating insights into sacred music resurrected after centuries lying on dusty library shelves in Bolivia. And the Soweto Gospel Singers from South Africa brought us earthy, powerfully atavistic song and dance at His Majesty’s Theatre,.
Of a deal of chamber music, Pekka Kuusisto (violin) and Simon Crawford-Philips (piano) presented a program that ranged from the zany to the profound. It was far and away the most novel and satisfying chamber offering in 2008. The Jerusalem Quartet, too, weighed in with a profoundly insightful account of Smetana’s Quartet No 1 – and Nick Parnell (vibraphone) and Leigh Harrold (piano) brought new life to classical favourites. Arnold Bax’s very rarely heard Quintet for string quartet and harp was given a charm-laden reading by the Australian Quartet and harpist Marshall McGuire.
Monday morning recitals in January look set to become a valued feature of the city’s musical life. One of the best of these featured Jonathan Paget and Stewart Smith in an arrangement for guitar and harpsichord of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. Paget’s CD – Midsummer’s Night – is one of the most promising debut recordings I’ve heard in some time.) Craig Lake is that rarity: a virtuoso of the theorbo, a guitar-like instrument with a very long neck. His account of Kapsberger’s Toccata was one of the year’s delights.
Cathie Travers, who is as versatile as she is gifted, was both composer and performer in The Healing Garden, gentle, meditative musings which were a response in sound to living on some hectares of tranquil bushland. One of the worst offerings of the year was Arvo Part’s hideously ugly re-working for piano trio of a movement from one of Mozart’s early piano sonatas; this was a grotesque and repellent piece. James Ledger’s Inscriptions, also for the same medium, brimmed with imaginative, attractive ideas.
Coughing, nose blowing and throat clearing blighted many a concert in 2008 with WASO concerts a major exception where outbursts of coughing have been blessedly fewer than at other events. This might well have been due to cough lozenges available free to anyone who calls at the WASO desk in the Concert Hall foyer. But there have also been the maddening irritations of compulsive keyring jinglers, lolly-wrapper cracklers and noisy program-page turners. Mercifully, there were no snorers this year.