Tag Archives: WASO

Just Classics 2 The Gold Collection

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Sara Macliver (soprano)

Fiona Campbell (mezzo soprano)

Benjamin Northey (conductor)

476 3341 Just Classics Gold

ABC Classics 476 3341

TPT: 61’58”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

I can’t recall hearing a finer version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man than on this compact disc. Bass drum and tam tam are used to thrilling effect; it’s a perfect overture to the compilation.

Much of the offering consists of much loved classics that are heard time and again on radio or in live performance – but there is not a hint here of familiarity breeding indifference. On the contrary, there is the most appealing freshness to the playing, even in so hackneyed a piece as the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in Dvorak’s Furiant No 8, the WASO brass section is very much on its collective toes.

Many of those listening to Respighi’s Bergamasca will recognise it instantly as the theme music for Marian Arnold’s much loved, long running Listeners’ Requests on ABC Classic FM.

Fiona Campbell is in exceptional voice in Mahler’s Ging heut’ Morgen. Producing an immaculate stream of fine mellow vocal tone, Campbell makes magic of this much loved lied. And soprano Sara Macliver is no less persuasive in Song of the Pistachio Harvesters from Ravel’s Five Greek Songs, informed as it is by a most appropriate sense of languor.

Also on disc is Saint Saens’ faux-Oriental Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah; woodwinds are very much on their toes here as in Dance of  the Little Swans from Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake.

Take a bow, WASO! Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is given first rate treatment with Benjamin Northey presiding over events to frankly thrilling effect as the score’s satanic revelry is suggested to the nth degree. And the striding motif from the Montagues and Capulets episode from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fairly sizzles with intensity.

The West Australian Symphony orchestra does not frequently feature on ABC Classics label so this recording is particularly welcome. Certainly, recording engineers Karl Akers and Gavin Fernie have ensured the WASO is heard to very best advantage here; recorded sound is uniformly excellent.


Piers Lane (piano) with W.A.Symphony Orchestra

                       

Perth Concert Hall                                           

and in recital at

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

In one of the most compelling performances from the W.A.Symphony Orchestra this year, it became again abundantly clear that when the right person is on the conductor’s podium, the orchestra is capable of formidable feats. With Czech-born Jakub Hrusa presiding over events, the WASO strings were wonderfully on their mettle in the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Absolute clarity, accuracy at high speed and buoyant momentum brought this listener to the edge of his seat. Later, we heard Piers Lane in top form as he brought infallible fingers and unflagging energy to what came across as unusually macho Mozart.

 

I’ve not before heard the Piano Concerto K482 (or any other by Mozart for that matter) given such virile treatment. It is one of Mozart’s most brutally demanding piano scores – and Lane, firing on all musical pistons, was more than up to the challenge. This was as far from the Dresden-china-delicate, tinkle-finger school of Mozart piano playing as one could imagine. This was heroic, robust stuff that in less than assured hands might well have sounded grotesquely inappropriate. It’s a measure of Lane’s superlative musicality and musicianship that he brought it off in so triumphant a way. And the peekaboo insouciance that informed the finale was a delicious contrast to what had gone before. Bravo!

 

Woodwind and brass choirs were quite rightly given special acknowledgement at concerto’s end.

 

An account of Dvorak’s Noonday Witch was less uniformly satisfying; it lacked the  energy and precision that had informed the Smetana performance. However, in Janacek’s Taras Bulba, which Hrusa conducted from memory (as was the Dvorak work), the initiative was retrieved in a way that ensured that the inherent turbulence of the score was evoked to splendid effect. Anguish, terror and horror are the emotional building blocks of the score and how effectively Hrusa and the WASO brought that home to the listener as one massive climax after the other was hurled into the auditorium.

 

On Sunday, Piers Lane came to Government House Ballroom. Whether in so hackneyed a piece as Mendelssohn’s Bee’s Wedding or enchanting the ear with a series of waltzes by Schubert – how rarely these little gems figure in recitals these days – Lane was at the top of his game with flawless fingerwork and an intuitive grasp of style.

 

Brahms’ gigantic Sonata in F minor is not for timid pianists. It requires fearless fingers, great feats of memorisation and endurance to stay the course – and on all three counts Lane was beyond reproach. In the opening allegro maestoso, he negotiated ferociously difficult chordal leaps with majestic aplomb – and in the sonata’s more introspective moments, he mined the music for all its intimate subtleties. Lane did wonders, too, in navigating a sure way through the goblinesque moments of the scherzo.

 

Apart from the ubiquitous Bee’s Wedding, the second of the group of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words was lovingly fashioned, with a warm-toned legato line to staccato accompaniment. It was one of the gems of the afternoon.

 

Of a bracket of Chopin Nocturnes, I particularly admired opus 15 no 1 in F; the melancholy beauty of its outer sections was impeccably essayed – and in the central episode Lane did wonders with its churning figurations. In the Nocturne in D flat from opus 27, which is some of Chopin’s most deeply probing music, Lane responded with an answering depth of feeling and the sort of cantabile tone that would surely have tempted even the grumpiest bird from a twig.

 

Not the least of the pleasures of this recital was Lane’s linking commentary at which he is so inordinately skilled. He is one of the very few musicians who does this sort of thing very well unlike so many others whose progress to the microphone is observed with a sinking feeling.

 

Lane romped through Schulz-Evler’s excruciatingly difficult take on Strauss’ Blue Danube and then brought the house down with Dudley Moore’s riotously funny Beethoven spoof played on the Ballroom’s magnificent new Fazioli grand piano.

 

Present at this packed-out and noisily appreciative recital were Mr Fazioli, head of the famous Italian piano-building family – and the Governor of Western Australia and Mrs Michael who cut the bright yellow ribbon wrapped around the piano before the recital began. 

 

By any standards, this Fazioli instrument is a magnificent piano and just the sort that’s needed for the increasingly frequent concerts given at this venue. It was altogether appropriate that the honour of ‘christening’ the piano was given to Lane, one of our most cherished musicians.


overview of 2008 music in Perth

 

 

 

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.


OPERA IN THE PARK

OPERA IN THE PARK

Samson and Delilah (Saint Saens)
W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Supreme Court Gardens

 

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

Despite competing events such as a concert at Leeuwin Estate and the Western Force versus Chiefs rugby match, some fifteen thousand spectators turned up for what has become one of the most loved Perth institutions: the annual Opera in the Park presentation in Supreme Court Gardens.

Seated on rugs or lawn, mums and dads with kiddies in arms or prams, surrounded by an agreeable clutter of eskies, picnic baskets, chicken salad and chardonnay bottles, were an exemplarily well behaved audience experiencing what for most would probably have been a first encounter with Saint Saens’ operatic treatment of the biblical story of Samson.

In passing, it’s worth mentioning that, despite the immense inherent drama of this ancient story (which, prior to Saint Saens’ work, was given at least eleven operatic treatments including one by Rameau to a libretto by none other than Voltaire) no one has so far succeeded in creating a setting that is fully worthy of it.

Seldom heard anywhere in the antipodes, the ancient story of the Bible’s muscle man and the faithless temptress Delilah is, for much of the work and especially in Acts 1 and 2 – dare one whisper it? – as arid and featureless as the desert sands that surround Gaza where the opera is set. Thousands of years later, Gaza is still very much in the news – and for all the worst reasons.

Stuart Skelton in the eponymous role was star of the evening, a tenor ideally suited to the role. For much of the performance, he produced the most agreeable stream of mellow sound in phrasing that was the hallmark of refined musicianship. Certainly, he adapted chameleon-like to the many interpretative nuances of the part. The closing moments of the opera were particularly affecting as Samson – his locks shorn by Delilah (an event that, oddly, is not mentioned in the work), his strength dissipated as a result and, in Milton’s chilling phrase ‘eyeless in Gaza’ – calls on the Lord who gives back Samson’s strength to bring Dagon’s temple crashing down on the Philistines.

Bernadette Cullen sang Delilah. Some occasional hardness of tone aside, she presented her arias with considerable expressiveness – but in Softly Awakes My heart, that most famous excerpt from the opera, strings sounded rather too thin and scrappy, the semiquaver accompaniment lacking that pulsing quality that is so crucial an interpretative requirement.

Acts 3 and 4 yielded some of the most satisfying listening dividends of the evening. The fake-Middle Eastern Bacchanale dance sequence – imitated again and again down the years by composers for trashy, Arabian Nights-type movies – came across in fine style. Laurels to Joel Marangella; his sinuous oboe line was heard to excellent advantage here.

Under Brian Castles-Onion’s direction, the W.A.Opera Chorus and vocal soloists did sterling work in making the listener aware of the cauldron of seething emotion that makes the closing Acts such compelling listening. Very much earlier in the piece, it was much to the credit of the choristers that they made the frankly tedious declamations that the composer gave to them sound better than they in fact are in operatic terms. Indeed, most of the choral work in Act I supports the argument, often put forward, that Saint Saens’ biblical epic might have had greater acceptance as an oratorio than as an opera.

But there are most certainly moments that make for the grandest of grand operatic effects. This is most powerfully the case with Delilah, towards the close of the work, relishing her moment of triumph after cutting Samson’s locks, with the High Priest (Bruce Martin) gloating over the muscle man’s downfall, only to have their comeuppance in the ruins of the temple.

For many an older member of the audience, this may well recall the closing moments of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1950’s movie epic starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the film’s eponymous roles.

Smaller roles were taken by David Dockery (Abimelech) and Robert Hoffmann (Old Hebrew).

 

 

Adding to the pleasure of the evening was an unexpected bonus for all during the interval: a white-clad, gracefully gyrating gymnast held aloft by a big, illuminated helium balloon sailing to and fro above the gathered, fascinated throng, the balloon’s track path controlled by ropes gripped by two hefty young fellows on the ground. (The previous night, this delight sailed across PIAF goings-on at Kalgoorlie, with Port Hedland next on the list.)

I cannot readily recall an Opera in the Park presentation that scored so well on so many counts. Presenting Samson and Delilah would have been a calculated risk. That so many attended suggests that it is not necessarily the case that only safe, top-ten operas should be presented at these events. Let’s have more works that are less frequently encountered here. What about Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin, Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore or Smetana’s The Bartered Bride?

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn