Monthly Archives: July 2009

Petite Messe Solennelle (Rossini)



Conservatorium Chorale

Music Auditorium, WAAPA


reviewed by Neville Cohn


After enormously industrious years during which he churned out opera after opera (many of them masterpieces), Rossini devoted nearly all the rest of his life to laziness. As time ticked by, he began to worry how he’d be received at the gates of heaven. Would the shameless old wizard be ushered in with ceremony or turned away to a less than attractive eternity elsewhere? So he devised a sacred choral work that he hoped would be his entry ticket to celestial bliss. But, Rossini being Rossini, he couldn’t resist the temptation to send up the Mass – and a good deal of Petite Messe Solennelle is firmly tongue in cheek. It most certainly is not small and a good deal of it is anything but solemn. Most importantly for posterity which couldn’t care tuppence whether Rossini got into heaven or not, it’s full of good musical things.


A rare airing of the work on Thursday drew a full house to hear it to the

accompaniment of piano and harmonium – but one wondered why the second piano called for in the score was not used bearing in mind that such an instrument was already there onstage.


It is no small challenge to direct a work of this nature with a choir consisting of students from first through to final years, many with voices still very much in the process of development. Under these circumstances, the general quality of ensemble, despite occasional raggedness, was encouragingly disciplined with quality of corporate tone, for the most part, commendable. Certainly, momentum was very well maintained throughout.


Rossini’s Mass is peppered with solos and the standard of some of these was less than one might have wished. But two contributions stood out for their general excellence. Ryan Sharp – not to be confused with the racing driver of the same name – produced at all times a stream of finely shaped, warmly mellow tone. This is a voice that holds great promise.


As is often said, good things are worth waiting for – and this was most certainly the case here with the concluding Agnus Dei which was memorable for a frankly thrilling performance by Bernadette Lucanus. Clearly the beneficiary of the most skilled training, the musicianship she brought to bear on her solo, in which she clothed each note in beautifully refulgent tone, was one of the high points of the evening.


Micheal McCarthy, who works tirelessly in the cause of choral music, presided over events with distinction.


Lavish laurels to David Wickham whose musicality and musicianship at the piano deserve the highest praise. Stylistically, tonally and expressively it was musicmaking at a very high standard. And at the wheezing harmonium, Stewart Smith was no less on form, his solo near the conclusion of the Mass a model of its kind.

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.

The History Boys (Alan Bennett)

Hackett Hall, Floreat

Beverley Jackson-Hooper (director)

A Playlovers production

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Since Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays was published in 1857, British school life, especially, but not exclusively, boarding school life, has spawned an avalanche of plays and novels ranging from the hugely influential Fifth Form at St Dominics by Talbot Baines Reed to Chris Edmunds’ riveting Before I Get Old. And Enid Blyton made a fortune writing twee novels about life in girls’ boarding schools.


The History Boys is meatier fare by far, with sexual undercurrents that would have been unthinkable in the works of Baines Reed and Blyton. Allan Bennett’s play is a distinguished contribution to the genre.


Hector, played by Tom Rees, is, on the surface, a teacher who grips his students’ attention by his quirky and not ineffective instruction methods – and his pillion-perching students’ genitals while roaring across town on a motorbike. The imagination boggles at the contortions that would have been needed to accomplish this curious feat.


Hector’s fate is sealed after this deplorable sex-on-a-bike activity is observed by the headmaster’s wife while peering through a shop window. There’s understated artistry on the part of Rees; his characterisation of the loquacious paedophile teacher was entirely convincing. So, too, was Kenneth Gasmier’s clipped-speech portrayal of Armstrong, the headmaster, coming across as a pompous, self-important windbag obsessed with the need for his students to gain enough credit to get into uni, preferably one of  “The Two”. Near play’s end, his clumsy dismissal of the paedophile Hector had the ring of truth.


Jordan Sibley was particularly credible as Irwin. With unfailingly clear diction, he came across as a rather repressed young school master so ashamed of having graduated from one of England’s lesser universities that he pretends to have been at one of “The Two”. When challenged on this point by one of the students, his pathetic attempt at covering up his lie was the stuff of fine theatre. His timidity and vacillation are no less apparent towards play’s end when he turns down a sexual favour offered by the bold and crass Dakin, played by Christian Dalton.


Irwin accepts a pillion ride from Hector. There’s an accident. Hector is killed but the young schoolmaster is sentenced to a living death in a wheel chair. Sibley was most impressive here, conveying a sense of quiet dignity in the face of a ruined future.


Beverley Lawrence was a polished Dorothy Lintott, a worldweary teacher who has seen it all. Bitterly, rhetorically she rails at the sadly few professional opportunities for women historians. Samuel Moscou was an altogether credible Rudge, the refreshingly straight-talking class jock, who, to Armstrong’s near-euphoric surprise, also gets his ticket to an Oxbridge future. Tim Burrows as Posner was convincing as a young man uncertain of his sexuality.


There’s no real weak link in the cast as a whole. It is only in a brief dance sequence that some of the boys seemed selfconscious and awkward.



Set designs by Cassandra Fletcher and lighting by John Woolrych did much to enhance and advance the changing moods of the play.


Some Kind of Beautiful


James Brookes (director)

Downstairs at the Maj

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Until I attended a performance of Some Kind of Beautiful, I had thought of its author Belinda Dunbar exclusively in terms of her role as deputy general manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, a busy and efficient person in arts administration.


On a Saturday evening performance at Downstairs at the Maj, I encountered a very different incarnation of Dunbar: playwright.


Some Kind of Beautiful is a slice of life that has about it a refreshing sense of reality. Nothing jars in Act 1; its repartee had the ring of truth. It could all well have happened.


It’s not a scene of unalloyed domestic bliss. Initially, we hear Kate (Julia Jenkins) in a monologue mulling over what’s recently transpired. Paul, her partner, much loved, adored even, has succumbed to a particularly nasty cancer. She’s young, rather inexperienced and clearly devastated by the passing of an adored, fulfilling partner years her senior. The household, in the process of being dismantled, is a clutter of half-filled packing cartons – books, ornaments, a miscellany of domestic detritus.


Her meditation is abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of two women one of whom delivers a brutally frank revelation. Paul was still legally married to her at the time of his death, after an illness through which Kate had nursed him lovingly. As Barbara (Helen Searle) brings Kate cruelly up to date, speaking of some aspects of Paul that reveal him as a not entirely attractive person, we find that he hadn’t bothered, hadn’t cared – or simply ‘forgot’- to tell Kate about his married state.


He’d never bothered to dissolve the marriage formally and – a thoughtless man – he’d never updated a will drawn up years earlier in which the prime beneficiary is his charmless wife. And although they haven’t had anything to do with one another for years, the will is no less valid than on the day it was drawn up. Of course, there’s nothing in it for Kate who only came on the scene much later.


Bitterness and withering anger are widow Barbara’s close companions through most of Act 1.  Flinty, insensitive and full of anger, she holds forth with an unending stream of vindictiveness and like some beer-fuelled youth with a souped-up car, goes roaring through the lives of others causing terrible damage to innocent bystanders on the way.


In the midst of all this, her daughter, Destiny (Maree Cole), wise beyond her years – and certainly more rational and considerate than her incandescently angry mother – tries to ameliorate the bitterness of her hate. Sensing the injustice towards Julia, Maree tries to reason with her mother to give Julia (who is an innocent party) a break.


A secret, carefully kept for years, emerges with the force of a cyclone. Paul may have fathered Destiny but Barbara is not her biological mother but the offspring of another woman casually impregnated by Paul who, for all his attractiveness to women, is an arch-poep, an uber-idiot who probably thought as deeply about the consequences of his tomcat behaviour as having another tinny (probably paid for by someone else).


There are no weak links in this cast; each makes a thoroughly worthwhile contribution to the performance, no less so than in Act 2 where the writing tends to discursiveness and the narrative line, so sure and logical in Act 1, weakens.


Invisible to the audience behind his sheet music on the grand piano positioned to a corner on the stage, Tim Cunniffe is a discreet presence; the songs he has written for the actors fit seamlessly into the action. There is no jarring effect at all.



 Presented by Festival Baroque Australia

                                                Perth Town Hall

  reviewed by Stuart Hille                                              

Soloists: Sara Macliver (soprano), Catherine Jones (cello), Leanne Sullivan (baroque trumpet).


Sara Macliver

Sara Macliver

With:  Julia Fredersdorff (violin), Giulia Panzeri (violin), Katherine Corecig (viola), Sophie Walker (cello), Tommie Andersson (theorbo), Stewart Smith (continuo).



photo credit-  Frances Andrijch



To preface this critique of the Concerto Paradiso I’d like to draw upon an anecdote of an occasion during which I presented a pre-performance talk to one of the ABC’s ‘Mostly Mozart’ concerts.  I wished to stress to the audience, Mozart’s uniqueness by comparing his Symphony no.38 (‘Prague’) to an orchestral suite by one of his contemporaries: Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, both of which we had heard in the previous concert.  The suite was a benign, orderly affair and displayed the utmost in practicality or workmanship.  It certainly wasn’t remarkable.  Dittersdorf’s was a fashion-conscious, hermetically sealed world.  A few seconds later, the ‘Prague’ began and immediately, as I recounted to the audience, the heavens suddenly opened and rays of genius pierced the mediocrity.

I mention this occasion for two reasons.  The first of these relates to the fact that nearly all the items on the Concerto Paradiso program were, it their own ways, equivalents of Dittersdorf’s orchestral suite: innocuous, verging on a trifle dull but always very functional.  Each composer had clear command of figured bass and contrapunctus – all a composer really needed in the era of the baroque.  But there was one work – a Handel aria from ‘Alcina’ – that, like Mozart’s ‘Prague’ symphony, transported the listener to an entirely different world.  It’s akin, I imagine, to casting a spell: we lean forward because we strain to catch every musical strand, we watch carefully in order not to miss a gesture, and our listening suddenly becomes far more acute and sensitive.  And we then realise that the baroque period, like the classical, was hugely populated by functional and capable writers; but in every generation, or its equivalent, a creative beacon illuminates the minds of people, not simply entertains them.  



The second reason relates to the way in which the performers respond to such an occurrence.  Their reaction, it would seem, is entirely instinctive.  In Handel’s aria, the featured soloists – Sara Macliver and Catherine Jones – answered in a fashion that was quite breath-taking in its sensitivity, poise and accuracy.  Moreover, the small accompanying ensemble (including the omnipresent Stewart Smith) demonstrated beautifully balanced rapport.  They picked up and embellished any small melodic gestures in an attempt to nurture the music even more.  This rendition had the imprint of class and lambency.  Macliver’s ability to just ‘touch’ high notes (the placement of which, I should add, lifts this piece out of the ordinary) was most gratifying because it seemed effortless.

Initially, one questioned the need for a solo cello but as soon as the rendition began, the reasoning became apparent.  The cello has the capacity to not only combine with the soprano voice but also to extend its range.  Again, this shows Handel thinking beyond rigid, set definitions used by his contemporaries.  The piece isn’t a duet but an aria which is allowed to blossom in its registral breadth.

Catherine Jones was the very essence of baroque utilitarianism throughout the concert: at one moment she would become soloist (most notably in Vivaldi’s ‘Sonata no.6 in Bflat RV47’…a disappointing composition) and at another she would immediately join the accompanying ensemble.  One assumes this was a common baroque practice.  Requiring the musician to be as versatile as possible makes abundant financial and artistic sense.

Jones performs on a loaned Gagliano cello (1770) which has a richly honeyed and mellow timbre.  In fact it is so creamy in tone that its voice can easily become obscured by other instruments.  Indeed, there were a couple of areas in Leonardo Leo’s ‘Cello Concerto in Dminor’ when, despite the soloist’s obvious rapport with the instrument and her technical skill with baroque performance, her sound became engulfed by the general texture (which was very modest).  Even the Perth Town Hall’s nicely balanced but ‘shiny’ acoustics couldn’t ameliorate a situation that is the result of an instrument that ‘speaks’ uniquely.  This Gagliano cello is a true solo instrument in that it doesn’t like to share attention.

Having said that, it should be added quickly that Jones has all the indicators of considerable prominence.  Her bowing is decisive, and her pitch and dynamic control are solid and reliable.  Clearly, as her biographical details indicate, she has chosen the ‘niche’ of baroque performance.  Her style and approach will become more rounded and her digital skill better sublimated as she continues to mature as an artist in this field.  Given the nature of the instrument she plays, and taking into consideration her prowess, one feels she could be better assessed in a performance of one of the Bach solo cello suites.  These works test a player’s artistry and skill at the ultimate level.




Another soloist featured on the program was baroque trumpeter Leanne Sullivan.  A baroque trumpet is a natural (valveless) instrument used in period performance.  One couldn’t tell whether Sullivan performed on a totally natural trumpet or on one of the slightly vented instruments.  Whatever the case, she demonstrated, with only a couple of minor exceptions, fine ‘lip’ control (natural trumpets, reliant solely on the harmonic series, need to be literally ‘lipped’ into tune on certain partials). 

When Sullivan had the opportunity, as she did in Torelli’s ‘Concerto in D’ and Cazzati’s ‘Sonata a 5 op.35 no.11’, to display her developing skills, she so clearly relished the moment.  Hers is the sound which most readily evokes the grandeur and restraint of the baroque.  Sullivan also showed her talent to blend with the voice (Sara Macliver) in Scarlatti’s ‘Mio Tesoro per te moro’ and ‘Rompe Sprezza’.  Together, the two soloists displayed superlative concord, based on finely judged dynamic balance.  Moreover, their interpretation was further enhanced by a lovely reciprocity with the continuo, cello and theorbo (Tommie Andersson).  The final section was a true Alessandro Scarlatti quirk: so brief as to be finished before the mind has registered it has begun!

Mentioning the theorbo, one feels some regret the program couldn’t accommodate a work featuring lute solo.  The theorbo (a large lute with a doubling of strings) is an accompanying instrument which, as Andersson sensitively revealed, serves its purpose beautifully in the gentle baroque fabric.  But, given Andersson’s expertise, it seemed a pity not to be able to hear him as a featured solo artist.  On this occasion that wasn’t to be but both Andersson and Smith, as they showed so consistently throughout the concert, gave every item solid and ever-sensitive harmonic bedrock. 

Similarly, the other (primarily) accompanying instrumentalists show staunch harmonic support and neatly crafted interweaving.  However, Julia Fredersdorff and Giulia Panzeri (violins) appeared to be particularly absorbed by constant tuning.  One can hardly complain because their intention was purely musically based.  Nevertheless, I can’t recall another concert where there was so much tuning up of strings prior to movements being preformed, baroque or otherwise.  The custom almost became an addiction and soon included violist Katherine Corecig, cellist Sophie Walker and Andersson on the theorbo.  This causes one to wonder if there is any clear evidence that feverish tuning was a common practice during the period.  My guess would be that no such proof exists and that the procedure is more a result of our modern day preoccupation with precision.  Even Ms Macliver felt it necessary to make a short aside to the audience to this effect.  She was, after all, waiting for the frenetic buzz of tuning and re-tuning to be resolved, as was the audience, so she could begin singing!   




Indeed, Macliver, after such a superb account of the Handel aria, deserved more than one of the bouquets handed out after the encore.  As much as it was to every one of the musician’s credit, it was her gentle unfolding of the music that lifted this concert into a sphere above most.  This program showed how the creative thinking of one genius can not only affect music history but it can also influence an entire concert’s complexion when placed in the context of his contemporaries.

Stuart Hille 2009.