Monthly Archives: May 2009

Mass in B minor: J.S.Bach

Burhan Guner

Burhan Guner


U.W.A. Choral Society

Burhan Guner: conductor

Katja Webb (soprano), Sarah-Janet Dougiamas (mezzo), Roberto Abate (tenor) and Robert Hofmann (bass)

Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Stuart Hille

There are many sections of Bach’s ‘Mass in B minor’ which radiate unique inspiration and a masterful handling of the technique required to evoke and develop it.  So much of the ‘Symbolum Nicenum’ (Credo), as an extended example, has an incandescence and spiritual profundity rarely attained by other composers.  But then there are other tracts of the Mass, particularly in the ‘Gloria’ (containing nine separate divisions), where one perceives a relative lassitude in the presentation and unfolding of ideas.  Perhaps these ‘weaker’ moments – remembering we are discussing ‘weakness’  at the masterpiece level – result from Bach’s habit, born of necessity, of reusing material.  One can always assume this to be a standard practice in his larger works.  He used material from past works in present works and he reused material from present works in future works.  This is certainly the case in the ‘Gloria’ where one is all too aware of hearing something one has heard before, probably in a cantata.  So what is the cumulative effect of a merger of the strikingly original and the annexed?

There isn’t one: either the writing is brilliant, good or mediocre…for J.S.Bach.  This Mass contains it all.  Besides, one doesn’t get to sixty five years of age, marry twice, raise twenty children on a musician’s salary, travel and then compose vast amounts of music, often in great haste, without ‘borrowing’ and reworking old material!  Composers have done this throughout history but Bach, due to his eminence within the firmament of great composers and therefore subject to greater scrutiny, makes it more obvious.

Yet not only do a large number of musicologists describe the Mass in B minor as “sublime” or “supreme” but this determination has also become a part of the general collective thinking.  Perhaps it would be more practical to describe the work as a collection of the sublime, the good and the purely utilitarian, bordering on prosaic (and written over a substantial period of time).  In a quirky fashion, it is the variety of creative fashioning which makes the music even richer.

The ways in which the music is held together should have little to do with the performance of it.  They are, in a very real sense, separate considerations, although, it must be said, that the better the performance of a poorly written work, the more noticeable its flaws become.  On this occasion the UWA Choral Society’s reading was courageous though sometimes uneven.  While there were some areas where the singing deserved high praise for its clarity of line and balance of harmony, there were others which were less successful because of inaccuracies in exact pitching and a blurring of the contrapuntal texture (inexact rhythmic definition).

The opening of the Kyrie asserted its presence with a stamp of authority.  Through dynamic strength, inner balance, nicely rounded phrases and a comfortable tempo, one’s sense of positive anticipation was wakened.  This was indeed a bold statement.  But there were a few worrying signs: the sopranos pitching of high notes and the tenors and basses pitching of lower notes.  However at this stage, these were not sufficient to cause anything more than a ruffle in the texture.

By the time the duet ‘Christe eleison’, sung by Katja Webb (soprano) and Sarah-Janet Dougiamas (mezzo), had concluded, the previous choral concerns seemed to be forgotten.  This is probably due to Webb’s good rhythmic clarity and accuracy of pitch, and Dougiamas’s full, rich tone (although it could have been projected with slightly more penetration).  As a unity they formed a convincing exchange, a well poised reciprocity.

With the second ‘Kyrie eleison’ the balanced give-and-take shown by the vocal soloists (above) was not mirrored by the choir.  Concerns began to resurface.  After such a clear and spirited opening to the Mass, the four sections now seemed more intent upon displaying divisional prominence rather than working towards an overall unity of sound.  Consequently, the counterpoint, which is always reliant on balance, became muddied – blurred by singers more concerned with allegiance to the division rather than to the whole.  One could see Burhan Guner (conductor), while keeping a firm grasp on the tempo, was attempting to tone down the sopranos and basses.  If he could detect unevenness in the fabric while being so close to the action, it requires little imagination to sense how it sounded at the rear of Winthrop Hall.  Even experienced choristers, such as these, need to be reminded, from time to time, there is no place for divisional ‘egos’, if one can put it that way, in contrapuntal singing.

In the Gloria, taken as a whole, these difficulties of balance and pitch didn’t vanish but became less assertive.  Some of the places within this beautifully symmetrical architecture – the spirited trumpet in ‘Gloria in excelsis’ and the very fine texture of the ‘Laudamus te’ – were like scarabs in the design.  Yet there were other places where new problems were exposed.


The most significant of these, shown in both the ‘Et in terra pax’ and the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, was a growing tendency, throughout the choir but most notably in the sopranos, to be too casual with ‘gap-fills’ (the string of smaller notes between more prominent notes in the melodic line).  These needed to be better articulated, through awareness of breath control, without becoming exaggerated.  However, when the line is too relaxed, as it was on this occasion, the prominent notes become altogether too conspicuous.  Similarly, the ‘Cum sancto spiritu’, although well paced and better pitched, was uneven in its flow because the gap-filling was somewhat perfunctory. 

  The Gloria also allowed the soloists greater prominence.  It is curious to note that Bach only introduces the tenor as a true soloist towards the conclusion of the entire composition.  We first hear him (Roberto Abate, in this performance) in duet with the soprano.  His melodic line, at this point in the work, seems more utilitarian than florid, so Abate was put at somewhat of a psychological disadvantage as soon as he sang his first notes.  Not surprisingly, therefore, he and Webb didn’t quite ‘knit’ their respective parts into a persuasive duet.  This is unfortunate because both singers have vocal qualities.  They both displayed excellent pitch control and good penetration.  Their duet – ‘Domine Deus’ – is placed at the core of the Gloria’s frame, the central line of its equilibrium, yet Bach uses music from an earlier cantata and does so in a rather matter-of-fact manner.  Whether this, in any way, explains the business-like nature of the tenor’s part, I can’t say.

The bass soloist (Robert Hofmann) was first heard in the ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, the penultimate section of the Gloria.  One was immediately struck by the clarity of his diction (and that’s quite a rare compliment to pay a singer).  In purely musical terms, he showed an evenness of timbre throughout his range, a most desirable quality in sacred vocal music, although his penetration could have more incisive.  Also, while his pitch accuracy is to be commended, he projects the notes with a little more breath than they warrant.  The horn (corno da caccia) was deftly handled in this rendition and formed a nice discourse with the bass voice.

The ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, which closes the Gloria, yielded some good details in the choral parts.  As a unity, they functioned with greater accord here and the two soprano lines (remembering Bach ‘splits’ the choir into four, five, six or eight parts at various stages throughout the work) touched their high notes with pleasing precision and just the correct degree of force.  But elsewhere there were problems afoot.

One always hesitates before mentioning troubling features within the male vocal parts because, quite frankly, good tenors and basses are far from aplenty.  The UWA Coral Society’s male singers are, generally, proficient and very effusive.  They form the bedrock of the harmony and they do this well.  Notwithstanding, several times during their performance they showed a lack of precision or definition in terms of rhythm.  In the first item of the Credo, for example, they were noticeably lacking internal cohesion.

This was to an extent that one could have sworn some of their numbers had been caught off-guard.  In other words, some appeared to enter correctly and some didn’t.  Fortunately the sound settled with better rhythmic bonding as the second half progressed but the seeds of uncertainty had been sown.

A great deal depends on the register of the first note of entry: the higher the entry, the more likely problems will ensue in the tenors (who have an almost universal tendency to ‘fudge’ pitches in their higher register anyway).  And although it wasn’t substantially manifest in the ‘Et incarnatus est’, both tenors and altos were tentative in their entry and unfolding.  With everything having its equal and opposite, the male vocal parts were beautifully negotiated in the ‘Confiteor’ (Confess).  It’s in sections where everything seems secure that one is reminded of those areas where they were not…and to question why there’s a difference.

The only other word of caution one could offer the choir, after hearing its performance of the ‘Sanctus” and ’Hosanna’, both of which are swift-footed, is to not overexpose the beat.  In the ‘Hosanna’ there are relatively long passages based on single syllables so the natural inflection of words can’t be used as a steadying factor.  But in their effort to sustain the beat the choir strongly accented the first of every bar and the music lost its fluency at a time when it most needed it.  I’m not sure what Burhan Guner could have done, or even if there is such a gesture in the ‘conductors’ manual’, to reduce the accentuation of the beat.  I suppose the best any conductor can do is to remind the choir beforehand: “Think but don’t accent the beat, unless notated”.

Roberto Abate, nicely accompanied by flute obligato, was finally heard to full advantage in the ‘Benedictus’ and he rewarded our waiting with a performance which displayed a good sense of dynamic shaping, well controlled breathing, and a most pleasing and accurate sense of pitch.  In fact, all the soloists, at various points during the performance, brought these same qualities into focus. 

The closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ uses the same music as the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ from the Gloria (which is itself a remodelling of music taken from an earlier cantata).  The tempo here, though, is one of majesty and brilliance.  In its performance, the choir, very much to Guner’s credit, mirrored this beautifully.  It brought to a conclusion a most interesting and valorous account of one of the most challenging works of the repertoire.

NB. It would have given me much pleasure to mention the names of key instrumentalists, who presented their parts with poise and excellent baroque style, but having been denied a program booklet, despite asking twice, makes that impossible.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach)

Jane Davidson

Jane Davidson

Daniel Sinfield



Dolphin Theatre



reviewed by Neville Cohn





Half a loaf is better than none, as the old saw goes. And experiencing Offenbach’s zany Orpheus in the Underworld to an accompaniment not by orchestra but a single piano might not have been ideal – but it was certainly better than nothing in this part of the world where Offenbach’s work seldom gets the exposure it warrants.


With the lightest of directorial touches, Jane Davidson brought this comic opera to sparkling life. Certainly, her young charges seemed positively to relish coming to grips with this much vaunted although seldom mounted work locally.


It was an inspiration to use an English version of the libretto by Jonathan Biggins, Phil Scott and Ignatius Jones. With its many witty Oz allusions, it prompted gales of laughter from a capacity audience.


Kathleen How as Public Opinion, dressed up as Moonee Ponds’ most distinguished representative, brought the house down again and again. Here was a Dame Edna Everage clone at her most vivacious and effervescent with her mauve-pink hair do, trademark bunch of fake gladioli and those unforgettably tasteful spectacles, all ensuring the laughter level was high.


On the debit side were a number of singers whose pitch was not quite spot-on but, time and again, the sheer vivacity with which they tackled their roles went quite some way as compensation. And this cheerful energy, not least in the galop finale, ensured a constant chuckle level. And allusions to that most recognisable of Gluck melodies – Che faro senza Euridice – were consistently musical.


Laurels to Daniel Sinfield who seemed positively to revel in the role of  Pluto disguised, not, as in Offenbach’s original as a shepherd cum beekeeper but as a black-clad tough on a motorbike, singing and strutting about the stage as if it was his natural milieu. His diction was first rate.


In a smaller role, Dudley Allitt was altogether convincing as the Hades-based, creepy John Styx. With a sepulchral pallor and his hands unctuously clasping and unclasping, he did Offenbach proud – not least for absolutely first rate diction, an object lesson on how to project speech impeccably.   


A thousand flowers, as the Chinese say, to Juliet Faulkner who breathed life into a piano reduction of the orchestral score. Surely, she deserved better than being labelled in the printed program solely as repetiteur. The latter would certainly apply to her work as rehearsal pianist – but on stage, she was a pivotal participant in the production.


Standing to one side of the stage close to the piano while giving discreet cues to the cast was music director Francis Greep.


Décor was basic but effective as was the lighting design by Jake Newby – and the splendid costumes were designed and made by the cast.

Stephanie McCallum (piano)




Octagon Theatre



reviewed by Neville Cohn





It would be unreasonable and manifestly unfair to expect an absolutely unwavering standard of excellence from any musician, even the most experienced and committed. In the nature of things, any performer can have an off-day. And this an overriding impression of Stephanie McCallum’s recital in UWA’s Keyed-Up recital series at the weekend.


Let it be said at once that Ms McCallum is one of the brightest and most enduring stars on the Australia’s fine music scene. She has numbers of well-received compact discs and a formidable list of live concert successes to her credit.


McCallum’s program for the Keyed-Up series incorporated the complete set of Beethoven’s Bagatelles opus 33 which she recently committed to compact disc – and it was one of the most positive highlights of the evening, with care lavished on minute detail. These seven miniatures, lovingly fashioned, came across like a chaplet of finely facetted gemstones.


I particularly liked Roger Smalley’s Morceau de concours. In McCallum’s hands, it came across as one of the composer’s more approachable offerings, a study in tonal levels, with an abundance of subtle sonic shifts and much trilling – a technically formidable piece which was commissioned as a compulsory item for those taking part in a recent Sydney International Piano Competition.


Schumann’s Fantasie in C, one of the composer’s most passionate utterances, was given a frankly disappointing, very uneven, performance with scatterings of inaccuracies and moments when momentum faltered as the soloist, playing from the score, seemed to be searching for notes.


In Liszt’s Ballade No 2, too, McCallum’s performance was marred at times by a less-than-total engagement with the music, with error-strewn moments that lay cheek by jowl with episodes in which there was a thrillingly virtuosic identification with the score. Yet more Liszt was no less uneven. Wilde Jagd is not for timid pianists and, on past form, one would have expected McCallum to take its hurdles in her stride but, as in the Ballade, the playing was uneven.

Los Tres Rios (The Three Rivers): Lorca in New York


Downstairs at the Maj

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth


reviewed by Jo Donnellan


Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), poet, playwright and musician, wrote:

 All the Arts are capable of possessing duende, but naturally the field is

 widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require

 as interpreter a living body.

(Duende: the creative magic flowing from the very core of the soul).

Five musicians and four dancers brought their living interpretations to the intimate downstairs cabaret theatre of His Majesty’s in a programme reflecting on Lorca and his experiences in New York.

The programme interwove traditional songs of Spain, that Lorca collected and arranged for piano and voice, between dances and instrumental items. Thus the three rivers to which the title refers: music, dance and the spoken word, flowed through the evening.

With two exceptions, all dance offerings were of the introspective cante jondo, ‘deep song’ flamenco genre which was of great significance for Lorca. Choreographies by José Torres and Antonio Vargas were arranged by Deanna Blacher.

A sombre opening: four beautiful women in dark tailored trousers, bare-armed in waistcoats, smooth hair unadorned, seated on wooden chairs on a dimly-lit stage, clapping in bulerias rhythm to flamenco guitar and percussion accompaniment. With piano accompanying the mezzo-soprano in a love song Los Cuatro Muleros, the dancers rose one by one and began moving to the twelve-beat rhythm, building atmosphere by the peremptory tattoo of their feet on the resonant floor and by the supple weaving of their arms.

Torres’ Solea por bulerias followed. The name of the dance comes from the word soledad, translating approximately as solitude. Invented by a male, the quality of this dance was reflected in Ashanti Suriyam’s intense, almost aggressive, expression. Tension was created by the arms moving as though against the resistance of a weight of water. Danielle Ricercato’s exquisitely flared fingertips gave an aching quality to the filigrana, the delicate folding and unfolding of the fingers. Sofia Pradera’s expressive eyes conveyed a poignant mood.

Nola Formentin came into her own in two light-hearted songs, Las Tres Hojas and Las Morillas de Jaen. Her confident, disarming stage presence underpinned the dark timbre and clear top notes of her voice. Neville Cohn, every inch the storyteller with his cloud of white hair and confiding manner, explained the origins of the songs and paid tribute to Lorca’s pianistic and compositional skills. Cohn’s piano accompaniment supported the singer without dominating proceedings.

There followed a charmingly feminine rendition of Dos Muchachas, ‘two friends’. The classic tall blonde Ricercato, as Amparo, sat at her embroidery whilst the servant Lola, played by Karen Henderson, mimed the washing of linen. The two danced together, separated by wealth and class but united in their longing for ‘love in the orange grove’; the whole evoking a rustic, wistful, sensuous atmosphere.

José Giraldo (flamenco guitar) and Marcus Perrozzi on percussion displayed their skill and verve, elaborating on the theme from the film Orfeo Negro, set in the Carnevale of Rio de Janiero. Perrozzi brought brio to his engagement with many different drums. Giraldo announced the plaintive melody and embroidered the variations with masterful restraint and sureness.

In 1929, Lorca seized the chance to travel to New York. Arriving with barely a word of English, the Wall Street crash in progress, his first experiences were daunting. Then he discovered Harlem with its negro spirituals (now called gospel songs), blues and jazz music, the diverse population, the accepting atmosphere: here was nourishment for his wounded soul.

Ashanti Suriyam choreographed the tap dance in Harlem Surprise, her evocation of that sector of New York in 1929. There were several surprises. First, the pianist entered carrying a trombone. Formentin, a plain wool poncho in place of her opulent Spanish shawl, rendered with great sincerity a moving spiritual. Suriyam, in a short orange dress, exploded onto the stage, tapping frenetically with Ricercato, Henderson and Pradera playing hand-held percussion including the tambourine. Inviting the (by now mellow) audience to clap along was a risky ploy. Surprise of surprises, the substantial Perrozzi proved to be a light-footed and accomplished tap-dancer as the singer demonstrated her versatility, playing trombone in the exuberant final ensemble.

Torres’ Tientos por Tangos opened the second half. The four dancers wore the long, flounced skirt with train, the bata de cola, so graceful and so fiendish to manage convincingly. Richly embroidered silks enfolded their svelte torsos. Henderson’s beautifully poised head and seemingly boneless arms combined compellingly with the incisiveness of her foot percussion. The dance evolved into a Tangos, the lighter mood embodied in the final turn and sassy flick of their skirts.

A classic flamenco solea followed for guitar and cajon, the simple wooden box capable of so many subtleties of sound while doubling as a seat. Giraldo’s distinguished appearance, his strong fingers plying the guitar strings, brought us a sense of his native Madrid.

Next a song, En el Café de Chinitas, of two brothers vying with each other for courage and skill in the bullfight. There followed the Sevillanas del Siglo XVIII, the regional dance of Seville as performed in the eighteenth century. Accompanied by piano and song and by their castanets, Henderson and Pradera drew on their ballet backgrounds in this energetic version with its high extensions, springs and turns. Dressed in bouffant orange costumes and ballet slippers, they embodied lightness and joy. The pianist set a stinging pace, challenging the dancers’ timeliness towards the end.

The contrasting couple, Neville Cohn and Deanna Blacher, provided an electrifying tribute to Lorca’s friend and colleague the famous dancer La Argentina, with Albeniz’ Cordoba and de Falla’s Andaluza. The pianist, dressed in quiet blacks, facing away from the audience, began the flowing introduction, drawing with apparent ease handfuls of lyrical melody from the piano. With contained dignity, resplendent in Spanish costume, Blacher carefully adjusted her castanets and took up her pose. The authority of her opening dry trill caught the audience mid-sentence. From then, not a sound was heard but the magic of the combination: music distilled from Moorish, Sephardic and gypsy heritage, rendered on these two contrasting instruments with consummate skill and feeling.

It is not possible to play melody on castanets; the right hand is tuned a little higher than the left, that is all. Blacher used graceful sweeping movements of the arms and subtle changes of pose to complement the melody. In doing so, she added a further layer of virtuosity, as the fingers must adjust to the changing orientation of the castanet shells as the arms move.

In festive floral costumes and flourishing large fringed shawls, the dancers showed their individuality and beauty in Vargas’ Tarantos por Tangos, Henderson opening with a cascade of rapid perfect chaîné turns. Skilful arrangement provided episodes of activity and quiescence rather than a continuous barrage, giving each dancer her moments of prominence.

The traditional bulerias finale in ebullient party mood gave the dancers an opportunity to let their hair down a little with their own improvised solo spots.

Flamenco is an evolving art, capable of a range of expression, from the rawest primitive heartsong to the polished cabaret entertainment seen here. The four young dancers are in command of their technique and stagecraft. They are exploring their individual essence, that which transcends technique. Producer and director Deanna Blacher allowed them a degree of autonomy in this production. Judging by audience response, her confidence was not misplaced.

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