Tag Archives: W.A.Symphony Orchestra

FAUST (Gounod) W.A.Opera Company and Chorus W.A.Symphony Orchestra

FAUST (Gounod)

W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra
His Majesty’s Theatre

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

 

 

What elevates this production of Gounod’s Faust to a special category of excellence is its unequivocal and powerful anti-war message. Of many presentations of Faust encountered over the decades, most of them significant in one way or another, not one – until now – has so effectively conveyed the madness of armed conflict. In every other production I’ve seen, the Soldiers’ Chorus scene, that most instantly recognisable of all Faust excerpts, has featured in an unambiguously celebratory way with flags fluttering, soldiers proudly marching and sweethearts and parents jovial, proud and smiling.

This has become an operatic cliché, that is to say, until this production which sweeps away this jingoistic hokum, a patently false notion of war as fun. Instead, we’re given a stunningly different dramatic statement. Here we see disfigured and dying soldiery, the maimed on crutches, some on stretchers, others pasty-faced, shell-shocked, blankly staring. It made for powerful viewing and listening (not that it’s ever likely to stop old men with too much power sending young men – and now women – to often pointless deaths).

Also memorable was that other crucial episode in which the devil reveals his Achilles heel, cowering as dark-clad choristers show him the sign of the cross as they sing the Chorale of the Swords.

Bruce Martin was a good choice as the Devil; he has cornered the local market insofar as diabolical types are concerned. And here, his sardonic, leering presence (with his improbable retinue of muscle men in Arabian Nights-style garb) could hardly be faulted.

Keith Lewis was unfailingly expressive in the eponymous role although occasionally his voice let him down with a cracked note her and there high on the register. But in visual terms, he appeared far too youthful in the opening scene. Faust, after all, is a very old man with fading libido, contemplating suicide, when he has his satanic encounter and, in what turns out to be a very poor bargain, sells his soul in return for youth and women.

In this production, though, he seemed, to begin with, little more than middle-aged, neither grey-haired nor balding as one would expect of someone nearing the end of life. And removing his spectacles for his transformtion did almost nothing to make him look any younger.

His scene in which Faust stabs Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, to death – his knife guided by the devil – came across powerfully, even more so because – in a rare departure from the norm – Siebel, too, is fatally knifed by Faust.

For much of the evening, Elisa Wilson, as Marguerite, shaped to the demands of her role like wine to a goblet. Sounding more vocally assured than I can readily recall in some time, she was, variously, modest, coquettish and – pregnant with Faust’s bastard child – deranged.

This latter incarnation, though vocally persuasive, bordered on melodrama, Marguerite’s pasty white face more appropriate for, say, a distressed heroine in some 1917-era silent movie; it was over the top. But there was compensation in her aria about the King of Thule; it was altogether pleasing.

And the descent to Hell, in a clinch, of Faust and Mephistopheles was, visually, a moment of such inconsequence as to almost entirely drain it of dramatic force. Unusually, the closing scene, traditionally set in a prison, was an insane asylum. And instead of Marguerite’s soul being seen to be borne aloft by angels, as Gounod envisaged it, we see her dying against a tableau of asylum inmates gesturing heavenwards and watched by two nuns who charmingly keep their charges under control by bashing them with wooden clubs.

There was some inspired casting in smaller roles. Fiona Campbell, unrecognisable as Siebel, the young man charged with protecting Marguerite, was, as ever, in glorious voice. (Why is this exceptional singer not heard in more substantial roles?). Also a delight was Sarah-Janet Dougiamas as Marguerite’s neighbour Marthe Schwerlein. Every note and gesture was here made meaningful; she, too, is a singer to watch. Mark Alderson as Wagner and Lucas de Jong as Valentin made the most of minor roles.

In this Olympic season, it was conductor Stephen Barlow who thoroughly deserved a laurel crown, drawing from a reduced W.A.Symphony Orchestra in the pit, some of the most persuasive accompaniments I can recall hearing at an opera at His Majesty’s Theatre. Strings sounded gratifyingly fine and oboist Joel Marangella and Alan Meyer (clarinet) provided outstanding contributions.

There were any number of imaginative directorial touches such as placing the chorus under umbrellas with what was presumably the pre-recorded sound of rain heard in the background. Dressing the chorus in dark blue or black was an inspiration, adding memorably to the brooding, oppressive nature of much of the opera. But most unusually for a WAOC production, the chorus was not always quite synchronised with the accompanying orchestra.

I admired Matthew Barclay’s choreography which, unlike most dance presentations in Faust, was cleverly woven into, rather than gratuitously imposed on, the action. Shane Collard, with clean line and strong presence, shows much promise.

John Gunter designed the sets, that of Act 1 – Faust’s study – cluttered with the detritus of a scholarly life, a place clearly foreign to any cleaning lady’s ministrations. Nigel Levings’ lighting design splendidly underscored the prevailing mood of the moment.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004


Pei-Jee Ng (cello)

Pei-Jee Ng (cello)

W.A.Symphony Orchestra
Federico Cortese, conductor

Perth Concert Hall

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Like some musical Julius Caesar, Syndey-born cellist Pei-Jee Ng came, played and conquered at the Concert Hall. If his account of Haydn’s Concerto in D is any pointer to the future, this lean and lanky teenager is on a fast track to the stars. Over many years attending concerts, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to this Haydn concerto. Ng’s interpretation places him well to the fore of those I’ve heard over the decades, not only for his remarkable physical command of the instrument (which is a major achievement in itself) but his ability to reveal the passionate demon that, for much of the work, lurks behind the printed note.

In performance, especially when his bowing arm is fully extended, Ng strikingly resembles the celebrated portrait by Augustus John of Madame Suggia, that greatest of Portuguese cellists of an earlier era. But there’s far more to Pei-Jee Ng’s presentation than an attitudinal likeness to Suggia. This was no casual reading of the notes. On the contrary, one felt, throughout, a total identification with the score.

pei

For much of the outer movements, Ng’s playing was the quintessence of ardour. From first note to last, this youthful musician drew the listener ineluctably into Haydn’s sound and mood world, drawing from his instrument the sort of tonal colouring that critics dream about but seldom encounter in reality. I was no less impressed by Ng’s ability to mine the score for every ounce of meaning but always within the bounds of taste and stylistic integrity. And his phrase-shaping was as natural and meaningful as the breathing of a great singer. Ferociously difficult cadenzas were essayed as if they had been written for him.

Federico Cortese took the WASO through an accompaniment fit for royalty – to which Ng responded with princely authority.

As curtain raiser we heard the Pulcinella Suite. It has always seemed to me a gross impertinence on the part of Stravinsky to set down his name on the score as if he, and no other, had been the author of the charming, often haunting, melodies and rhythms that make this such an appealing work. Nearly all the credit should go to the Pergolesi and some of his contemporaries from whose pens streamed the delights that Stravinsky stole – yes, stole (it is not too harsh a word for this) – and re-cast with trademark dissonances and some clever use of instrumental colouring. Surely, this absurdity, indeed dishonesty, should not be tolerated; Pergolesi’s name should be at least as prominent (more so, preferably) as Stravinsky’s on the score and in the program.. Cortese was impressively prepared for the work; under his guidance it flashed into delightful life. Robert Gladstones made an excellent contribution on horn – and oboist Joel Marangella was in exemplary form, too.

This was the WASO’s first performance of the work in 17 years. It deserves to be heard more frequently.


Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn

Master Series No. 4 W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Master Series No. 4

 

 

 

W.A.Symphony Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Edmund Percy

If there was a sense of occasion at the W.A.Symphony Orchestra’s 4th Master Series concert, it was entirely warranted. It is not often that a program contains two Australian premieres with, as concerto soloist, one of the world’s leading cellists – and a first half devoted entirely to music emanating from the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) with both conductor and concerto soloist hailing from that part of the world.

David Geringas has made a specialty of interpreting cello works by modern composers; his international reputation to a significant sense rests on these performances. He has, unquestionably, a marked flair for music of recent vintage, with a finely-honed technique guided by a first rate musical mind. This combination of gifts enables Geringas to make even the most challenging works seem both musically logical and approachable. This was certainly the case in Peteris Vasks’ concerto. But this is not to suggest for a moment that Vasks’ concerto is in any sense light-weight. On the contrary, it is a work created with the utmost seriousness of purpose, a response in sound to the cruelty of Soviet domination of the Baltic states of which both Vasks and Geringas had experience.

Understandably, there is much about the concerto, especially at climactic points, that has an intensity that inflames the imagination. And that sense of anguish that informs so much of the writing brought one face to face, as it were, with the composer. In response to rapturous applause, Geringas played, as encore, “two pages” from Vasks’ Book for unaccompanied cello. Here, too, the master cellist scaled Olympus, dipping his bow in the stuff of high inspiration to produce a stream of sound that had a near-vocal quality. It was musical magic.

Although Veljo Tormis’ Overture No. 2 is not the sort of music I’d travel a long way to hear again, there was no doubting the technical skill brought to bear on the instrumentation. The score, one felt, might have been used to better purpose on, say, the sound track of a film noir, than in its own right at an orchestral concert.

An account of Schubert’s Great Symphony (No 9 in C) made for rather less uniformly satisfying
listening, largely due to conductor Arvo Volmer’s penchant for over-enthusiastic tempi. Especially in the “Andante con moto”, there was a good case, surely, for allowing it to unfold in a more expansive and reflective way to allow its many felicities to register to better advantage.
 

 


Encounter

Encounter

 

 

W.A.Symphony Orchestra
PETER McCOPPIN(conductor)
Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Edmund Percy

 

What a shame so many stayed away from the WASO’s first program in its 2001 Encounter series. The loss was theirs, their deplorable lack of adventurousness causing them to miss one of the city’s most enterprising orchestral presentations in some time. Repeated assertions that Perth is a significant centre for music ring hollow in the face of such lack of enthusiasm by concertgoers who would probably storm the box office if, say, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony or Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto were on the bill – but are reluctant to attend anything that might be even remotely challenging about a compilation.

Using the dance as program theme, WASO compilers put together a bill that ranged from the haunting, gentle Pavane for a Dead Princess to Aaron Jay Kernis’ very much more recent Big City.

It is still fashionable in some quarters to dismiss Gershwin’s An American in Paris as trivial and
unworthy of the concert hall, a downmarket effort that doesn’t deserve to appear on symphony orchestra programs. This perpetuates the silly slander that the Broadway genius isn’t to be taken seriously.

Canadian conductor Peter McCoppin, though, identified so strongly with Gershwin’s masterpiece (which he directed from memory) that some of the doubters may well have been converted. Certainly, by allowing the work to speak for itself in all its upbeat glory, familiar notes sounded as if being heard for the first time – a considerable feat of musicianship.

Throughout the evening, McCoppin provided a linking commentary, rather too generously, perhaps, as his leisurely and rather honeyed conversational style contained the seed of a certain tedium. With baton in hand, however, he rose impressively to the occasion.

Peter Exton has probably played the solo part of Ross Edwards’ Maninyas Violin Concerto more than anyone else with the possible exception of Dene Olding for whom the work was written. Last year, the W.A.Ballet Company mounted a choreography to Edwards’ work with WASO associate concertmaster Exton as soloist night after night in the pit of His Majesty’s Theatre for the duration of the season. This steeping in Edwards’ idiosyncratic style is now yielding handsome musical dividends. I was especially taken by the central movement in which conductor, soloist and orchestra sound as one in musical thought and intention. The lengthy, emphatic and dramatic unaccompanied violin solo that introduces the movement gives way to some of Edwards’ most introspective writing, music that captures, like a butterfly in the gentlest of hands, a quality of serene stillness. The striving of all concerned to evoke that sense of quiet rapture that lies at the heart of the central section provided the highpoint of the evening. It compensated handsomely for the occasional pitch fluctuation in the solo line in the concerto’s outer movements.

Like Samuel Barber’s celebrated Adagio, which is part of a much longer work but has assumed a life of its own, the slow movement of Edwards’ concerto has a message so meaningful and unambiguous – and sounds so complete in its own right – that it, too, might eventually come to have an existence separate from the concerto as a whole.

The much-vaunted New Era Dance by Aaron Jay Kernis – written to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – was something of a fizzer. It opened few new windows; its use of dance rhythms and cacophonic dissonances is hardly innovative. And resorting to sirens and whistles is not really novel, either; the former was made use of by Edgar Varese as long ago as 1926. And for some of the time, the piece seemed an exploration of the noise-making capacity of the orchestra.

Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, on the other hand, made for more fulfilling listening, music that does not so much beckon to the attention as seize it in a tight grip. A distillation of a much longer work written for Martha Graham’s dance company, it is primarily concerned with fury, grief and vengeance in sonic terms – and among many musicianly contributions here, those of the hornists, flautist Mary-Anne Blades and oboist Joel Marangella stand out particularly.