Monthly Archives: August 2006

Ben Martin (piano)

Keyed-Up recital series

Octagon Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Ambrose Bierce, that most crotchety of commentators, once described the piano as an instrument played by “depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience”. But if, by some miracle of time travel, the long dead Bierce could have been present at Ben Martin’s recital, I’m sure he would have completely altered his dyspeptic view of the piano. Because, by even the most stringent of critical criteria, Martin’s recital in the Keyed-Up series could fairly be described as an uplifting listening experience.

His performance of Schubert’s Sonata in E flat was extraordinarily fine, so much so that there seemed to be far more to the performance than mere meaningful communication between musician and listener. On the contrary, the recital seemed an act of profound communion between pianist and composer – a rare phenomenon and all the more to be cherished for that.

For those who came to the recital in the hope of being dazzled by keyboard fireworks, the performance may have been something of a let down because this was a presentation devoid of conventional glib virtuosity and cheap appeals to the gallery. Instead, we heard a master pianist mining mostly quiet masterpieces for every imaginable, subtle nuance. Martin has at his disposal the means to coax a myriad pianissimo shadings from the instrument and they were employed in a magically musical way.

But there was much else on offer, too, not least a superb reading of Handel’s Suite No 1, the Prelude of which was informed by a quality of extemporisation that could hardly have been bettered. In passing: one wonders whether Saint Saens had the Prelude in mind while writing the first movement of his Piano Concerto in G minor: there are fascinating allusions to it in the keyboard’s utterance before the orchestra comes in for the first time.

Arnold Bax’s music is seldom heard. Many musicians tend to put it in the too-hard basket. Certainly, the Sonata in G sharp minor guards its secrets jealously. But, in his ability to reveal the Celtic demon that lurks behind the printed note, Martin is clearly privy to them all. In fact, the qualities of mind and heart brought to bear on the work were at such a level that it placed the critic in the pleasant predicament of having to do little other than to sit back and salute artistry of the highest order.

Also on the bill were short pieces by Delius and Vaughan Williams as well as Martin’s own Sonatine.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2006

Before I Get Old (Chris Edmund)

New Theatre, W.A.Academy of Performing Arts

Before I Get Old
Before I Get Old

  Reviewed by Neville Cohn

In a program note, playwright Chris Edmund points out that the genesis of his newest play was an old-boys’ school reunion he’d attended in London two years ago.

It is a stunning achievement, a disturbingly articulate resurrection of the pain and anguish that so many would have experienced during years at high school.

A cast of sixteen do wonders in a production that deserves the highest praise for the way in which it has overcome what must have been a most challenging logistical exercise, with the cast breathing life into 34 roles. Certainly, rapid costume changes and the need to abandon one persona and adopt another in seconds were object lessons in how to do this sort of thing well.

This unsettling theatre experience is not for the squeamish although to place things in perspective, the events, set in a Hertfordshire school, even at their worst, can hardly be compared with, say, Dickens’ appalling Dotheboys Hall.

But it will certainly be disconcerting theatre for those whose expectations of a play about English school life derive from the absurd blandness of, say, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books or the school-centred stories carried by weekly editions of Girl’s Crystal and Champion papers in the 1950s. Before I Get Old is light years away from the superficial folderol that is Blyton’s twee school world.

On the contrary, Edmund’s play is the essence of gritty realism.

Edmund took what I’d imagine was a calculated risk (that pays off impressively) in presenting what is, in effect, a highly episodic offering, a fast-paced string of vignettes with snappy dialogue that touches on more than the school experience (which in any case does not function in a vacuum).

I cannot imagine anyone who might have attended a state-run high school (or any school for that matter), whether in Australia or abroad, failing to identify with at least some aspects of a play that reveals the uglier side of the educational experience. Certainly, it is often very close to the bone.

Although the action centres around a school in the early 1950s some 35 miles north of London, the play’s themes are universal and timeless and that is what makes it such a powerful offering.

With singular skill in articulating the upheavals of adolescence and the selfconscious awkwardness that comes in its train, Edmund, sparing nothing, shows us the fraught and fragile nature of the teenage psyche.

Through what might be described as a series of flashbacks, Edmund reveals all this and more with a compassion and insight that make for theatre of high order.

In less than completely sure hands, a play of this nature can so easily descend into embarrassing bathos. Not here. Consider, for instance, a vignette set in a rear row of the local cinema. With its sweaty, clumsy gropings and a literally vomitous moment (unwise drinking under age?), it encapsulates part of the teenage rite of passage with an unerring touch.

Edmund’s play casts a wide net. Who are more sensitive to the behaviour of family, parents in particular, than teenagers? And here, too, Edmund’s spot-on explorations of sometimes heartrending familial dilemmas – parental and sibling illness, alcoholism, problem gambling – make an indelible mark. So, too, do scenes that focus on the at-times unintentional cruelty of schoolmates – and on the vulnerability and need for acceptance by peers that is so often masked by desperate bravado.

In an ensemble piece of this nature, where teamwork is of the essence, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals – there were no weak links in this cast – but it would be ungracious not to particularly mention Richard Flanagan (right) as the hapless Conger. Balaclava-clad, and with a striking resemblance to, of all people, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, Flanagan gave a striking performance as a gawky student not always keeping pace with his peers.

As both playright and director, Edmund has scored a triumph. Nothing so justifies the existence of WAAPA’s theatre course than a production of this quality. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2006

The Magic of the Plucked String

Jonathan Paget (guitar)
Stewart Smith (harpsichord)
Joshua Devlin (percussion)

Conservatorium Auditorium


reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Jonathan Paget



Many critics – or, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say that many arts editors – tend to turn their noses down at lunchtime concerts. True, there are the ever present – and very real – problems about available space on newspaper pages for such endeavours. Yet, these presentations, whether under the auspices of this or that university or church, often yield surprisingly high listening dividends. And there was a golden dividend available to those, regrettably few, who gathered at the Conservatorium Auditorium to listen to an all-Spanish program.

Prime focus of all ears was Rodrigo’s much loved Fantasia para un gentilhombre but here presented in a most unusual transcription for guitar, harpsichord and percussion. How, I wondered, would this sound? Would this be yet another unfortunate massacre of a masterpiece forced into some utterly inappropriate mould?

I listened with some apprehension but, within moments, my concerns evaporated as I listened with the utmost care. And as measure followed measure, I was converted utterly to this re-ordering of Rodrigo’s masterpiece. In fact, I cannot too highly praise both the work of those who arranged it and the musicians who breathed life into it at a performance that I shall not easily forget – and for all the best reasons.

Smith brought rare qualities of musical taste and refinement to his task. His contribution was a model of its kind. The same could be said of Paget’s performance, not least for the manner in which he made light of Rodrigo’s often excruciatingly demanding measures.

Throughout, both Paget and Smith shaped to the demands of the score like sangria to a goblet. Joshua Devlin did well, too, in the discreet part for percussion although initially perhaps a shade too tentative.

But looking around and seeing too many vacant seats, one might ask where the aficionados of the genre were, the sort who will break doors down to gain entrance to a recital by, say, John Williams, but remain indifferent to what is on their very doorstep – but then, Williams is now based abroad and so he can be thought of as ‘imported’ when visiting his homeland. Fie on these musical snobs. They were the losers in neglecting to attend this astonishingly fine performance.

Earlier, Paget did wonders in a transcription of Albeniz’s Sevilla. And Smith, who is as versatile as he is gifted, brought a fine sense of style to two early baroque organ pieces by de Santa Maria and de Arauxo.

This program had the stamp of distinction.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

Andrew Eikner (piano)

Hale Auditorium


reviewed by Neville Cohn


In his recital on Wednesday, visiting American pianist Edward Eikner paid tribute to Mozart in the first half of his program – and offered an all-Spanish second half.

It was a recital of sometimes disconcertingly varying standards with moments of insight cheek by jowl with episodes that left a good deal to be desired.

Mozart’s much-loved Sonata in A, K331 was a case in point. The famous rondo alla turca was a splendid offering with agile fingerwork maintaining a blistering pace, the jangling, faux-Turkish Jamissary flavour of the writing altogether convincing. But in the concluding variation of the first movement, tone sounded hard and strident. In the minuet, the playing was sadly below par with clattering clusters of wrong notes and little evidence of the elegant stateliness that lies at the heart of the writing. And in the exquisite slow movement from K330, one listened in vain for a revelation of its interior mood of grave dignity.

The first six of Granadas’ Spanish Dances, some reservations aside, provided very much more satisfying listening, especially Rondalla Aragonesa with its pleasing tonal colourings and tempo nuances which, no pun intended, struck exactly the right note. No 3 in D, too, was presented with bracing attack and follow-through. Villanesca was altogether persuasive. With its repeated figurations, there is always the risk of tedium setting in – but in Eikner’s hands, interest was maintained throughout in this buoyant, clear-toned offering.

But tone tended to edginess in the outer sections of Oriental – and in Andaluza, that most famous of the collection of dances, notes cried out for reflective, lyrical treatment. Certainly, the direction that the pianist play dolce in both pieces was quite overlooked as was the need to play cantabile in the poco andante section of the first of the set. Falla’s celebrated Fire Dance was despatched in noisily energetic fashion.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn