Monthly Archives: October 2009

La Fanciulla del West (Puccini)

W.A.Opera Company and Chorus

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Millie Schuman

goldenwest-245 copy

Dario Volente. photographer: James Rogers

Compared to the dizzying amounts of money that go towards the running of the nation’s flagship opera company in Sydney, most of the provincial opera houses scattered around the country are obliged to do their best to mount worthwhile performances on the equivalent of a frayed shoe string. Yet, decade in and decade out, opera goers in smaller Australian cities are offered seasons that somehow defy fiscal logic to produce handsome performances using the very best local talent that modest monies can afford and importing the occasional singer from interstate or abroad.

It would have been a calculated risk on the part of the West Australian Opera Company to mount this production in the sense that it is a significant departure from its more usual, safe-as–we-go, policy of offering sure box office hits such as Carmen, La Traviata, La Boheme and Marriage of Figaro.

If, as I’ve been told, Fanciulla del West has never been mounted here before, then this rarely heard opera has arrived here 99 years after its premiere in the US in 1910.

Unlike Puccini’s many, more frequently encountered, operas, Fanciulla is almost totally devoid of memorable melody with virtually none of the inbuilt aria allure of, say, Puccini’s La Boheme, Turandot and Butterfly. But in dramatic terms, it packs a knockout punch and it is greatly to the credit of the WAOC that this crucial dimension of the performance was present to such a high degree.

Star of the evening was Argentinian tenor Dario Volonte as the Mexican bandit masquerading as Dick Johnson. Blessed with a supple, agile, finely trained voice, he was a joy to hear. He seems incapable of an ugly sound. That, allied to a convincing stage presence, made his performance memorable.

No less significant a player in this doomed scenario was John Summers as Sheriff Jack Rance, as thoroughly nasty a villain as one could ever encounter in opera. Clad in black, with a character to match, Summers gave a wonderful portrayal of the sinister Rance. Wearing his unpleasantness like an invisible cloak, he portrayed Rance as if to the manner born.

Can there ever have been a stranger Bible class than that in the Polka Saloon in Act 1 with Minnie presiding over a remarkably orderly collection of miners, cowboys, assorted toughs and ruffians as students? Rather charmingly (and improbably), this scene has flashes of comedy; it’s the light relief that throws the ugliness of characters like Rance into bolder relief.

Fanciulla has often been slammed by American critics. I dare say that some of this ire stems from a silly parochialism, a belief that no one other than a true blue American should set an opera in the Wild West. Yet, no one has ever done it more imaginatively in the genre than Puccini. Its plotline boils down to a variant on the eternal triangle theme. Minnie – in an environment where there are virtually no other women – becomes a constant focus of fascination and desire on the part of the rough and ready crowd that patronises her establishment. Rance and Johnson are both infatuated with Minnie and the tensions between the three are skillfully exploited by the composer – and the three principals were almost beyond reproach in the playing out of the story. Vocally and theatrically, they came up trumps again and again.

Consistently in character, not least in conveying the tense rivalry between bandit and sheriff, this was memorable music theatre. Throughout, Anke Hoppner was vocally impressive as Minnie.

Many in the opera chorus, in their long, all-weather coats and akubra-type headgear, looked as if they might have been mates of The Man from Snowy River.

It was at times problematical to identify characters playing smaller roles, what with their sometimes luxuriant beards and moustaches, a task made more difficult due to often rather dim lighting which, I hasten to add, was entirely appropriate in generating a sense of locale and time.

Stuart Laing as the archetypal innkeeper, Tom Wood as Joe, James Clayton as the Wells Fargo man and Andrew Foote as the captured bandit Jose came across convincingly in smaller but significant roles, as did the snappily dressed David Dockery as Sid who narrowly averts being lynched for cheating at cards.

The all-purpose Act 1 set, cleverly lit, established and emphasized atmosphere. Occasionally, the set resembled a claustrophobic, concentration camp interior with an eerie – possibly inadvertent? – simulation of barbed wire. Clever use of projected period images also did a great deal to establish period and place. Indeed, the visual aspect of the production very substantially contributed to the overall impact of the production.

Puccini calls for a big orchestra and the WASO sounded very much on its mettle, with Aldo Salvagno doing wonders in setting meaningful, workable tempi and extracting a  host of Puccinian subtleties from his forces.

The Classic 100

Australia’s 100 favourite symphonies

ABC Classics 480 2832/ 480 2837  8 CDs

reviewed by Neville Cohn

480 2842 Symphony 100 Box 3D

It was an event unique in the music history of Australia: a countrywide vote for the nation’s favourite 100 symphonies, an event hosted by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was not the first time that the ABC  – and the record label ABC Classics – had instituted an initiative along these lines – but not in relation to symphonies.

In earlier years, there had been nationwide voting to establish Australia’s tastes in chamber music as well as the piano repertoire, favourite Mozart moments and many other music genres along these lines.

This symphonic countdown was a particularly remarkable experience. After voting had closed, the ABC began the mammoth task of broadcasting each of the 100 symphonies in their entirety, starting with the symphony at number 100 ( by co-incidence, it was Haydn’s Symphony No 100).

It was a fascinating experience, not only listening to the works in their order of popularity but also to messages  – reactions, opinions, congratulations, reservations – from those many enthusiasts across Australia who phoned in to the ABC to share their views on the whole enterprise.

Has any other radio station anywhere provided such a mammoth listening experience?

The collection on the ABC Classics label – on eight compact discs – contains the ten symphonies voted as most popular in their entirety with a number of the remaining 90 symphonies each represented by a single movement. It’s not an ideal arrangement and

I’m certain that the compilers would have wanted all 100 symphonies to have been available in toto. But I imagine that the full collection would have been so expensive as to be beyond the pocket of many, if not most.

One would have to wonder how some of these works got onto the list – and how many votes were cast in total? Without this crucial component, one can only speculate.

Were the numbers so small as to be an embarrassment? I rather doubt that – but one cannot be sure.

How many voted for Ross Edwards’ Symphony? How many votes were cast in, say, New South Wales or the Northern Territory – or Christmas Island?

How many voters plumped for, say, Tchaikowsky or Sibelius? How did Brahms fare in Tasmania, say, or Haydn in Norfolk Island – or Messiaen in W.A.?

It seems to me that if such an ambitious enquiry into Australia’s symphonic tastes was undertaken, why not get the figures out there? And if whatever reason, voting numbers are to be suppressed, then why not provide percentage figures in relation to the total vote count which would certainly be of great interest.

Intriguingly, how many votes were cast in favour of symphonies that didn’t make the list at all? Which were they? How close did they come to inclusion?

The answer could well be revelatory – or not. Without these figures, one is left to surmise.

How many would have voted for Australia’s No 1 symphony – Dvorak’s New World, a worthy winner, although possibly a surprise to those who might have felt that  Beethoven’s Ninth or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth would be first over the line?

Audience tastes, of course, vary over time and place. Consider these results from a poll taken in 1938 by New York radio station WQXR. It makes fascinating reading:

Beethoven’s Fifth came out on top with 23.9% of the votes, Beethoven’s Seventh came second with 18.3% and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth came third with 16.5%.  Beethoven’s Ninth, Third and Sixth were respectively fourth, sixth and twelfth.

At the time, it was suggested by some commentators that it was only a matter of time

before the Seventh outstripped the Fifth. Time has shown that it didn’t happen. It  probably never will.

(I wasn’t able to obtain figures for other composers: placings for Dvorak, Mozart, Haydn and Mahler which would have made interesting reading.)

If, for whatever reason, the ABC Classics compilers didn’t want to reveal the voting numbers, it would surely have been a straightforward enough task to disclose the percentage voting figures as was the case with the New York radio station.

Although some of the recordings of the Top Ten works are of leading overseas orchestras, a very considerable number of the tracks on these eight CDs are by Australian orchestras, although one would wonder why the W.A.Symphony Orchestra is represented by only one track. The WASO’s form has come along impressively in recent years and it’s a shame it doesn’t have more representation on compact disc.

Apart from the top ten in toto, single-movement excerpts from 19 other symphonies round out the eight CDs of the set – ten hours listening time.

John Exton: an Appreciation

born Buckinghamshire, England 28 March 1933

died Perth 13 September 2009John  Exton

My first encounter with John Exton as performing musician was at a recital about 25 years ago in which he played a work that Bach had written for unaccompanied cello. John, though, most unusually, played it in a transcription for viola. I was at the time struck by the profound musicianship he brought to the task. It was a novel take on an established masterwork – but John, more often than not, approached life on his own, often unusual, terms.

Alan Bonds, who teaches violin at the University of Western Australia, recalls long ago domestic chamber music sessions presided over by John.

“It might start with a snack and a drink followed by an hour or two of  Haydn and Mozart quartets, more refreshments, then Beethoven or Schubert dragged out, then, after a midnight snack, Brahms might make an appearance – the quartets or sextets –  which often saw us to dawn. A swim at the beach might follow. I vividly remember John’s son Peter, then about 10 years old, appearing at the door of the living room around 2am, asking ‘Are you all totally mad?’ ”

John viewed the world through a singular prism, a man of very strongly held views, not easily swayed by a contrary opinion and not infrequently obdurate in defence of a point of view.

Young John took up the violin at the age of eleven and in 1950 became leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He then read music at Cambridge, as a scholar, research student and later Fellow at King’s College.

He studied composition in London with Matyas Seiber who is believed to be the only composer to have met his end as a result of being sat upon by an elephant – and, after winning the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition, he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola  in Florence.

Two years’ National Service, involving work in acoustics with the R.A.F.,  bore fruit some fifteen years later in connection with an electronic studio in Perth.

Returning to Cambridge in 1960, John married Gillian Chadwick, a cartographer at Clarendon Press, and spent the next three years composing in an ancient thatched cottage with roses over the door and a huge open fireplace. He was awarded a Doctorate of Music by Cambridge University in 1964. He was then Director of Music at Bedales School in Hampshire for three years, before coming to Perth with sons Peter and Stephen. Gill recalls “we saw there was more room here, so we filled some of it with Jane. We bought an old house in Claremont, and John did things to it which gave him enormous satisfaction.“

During study leave from UWA in 1972, John visited several electronic music studios in USA and worked in one in Cardiff, Wales – and bought a fine 18th-century viola, an instrument after which he had long hankered but only played consistently from this time.

John would often swim against the tide. Although a product of Cambridge University, where the retrieval and preservation of early music performance practice was an article of faith, John would have none of it. His interest was in live performance – and he disapproved of recordings which he felt fossilized the experience of a piece of music.

As Alan Bonds points out, however, although John might have had little time for the music of, say, Elgar or Vaughan Williams, he would nonetheless use some of their works for the Student Chamber Orchestra at UWA and direct them with diligence and fidelity to the score – and there were adventurous excursions into lesser known repertoire by, inter alia, Purcell and Skalkottas.

Bonds, too, recalls with pleasure John’s immaculately prepared recitals with, among others, Madame Alice Carrard in repertoire which ranged from Bach to Webern.

John’s compositions range from orchestral pieces such as “Ryoanji” for 40 strings and percussion to works for solo oboe and solo violin. There are also seven string quartets and some electronic music works. An affinity for instrumental music and instrumentalists did not deter him from creativity in vocal music, producing, for instance, a setting of Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts for a concert by Kings College choir and a “Story of Christ’s Nativity according to St Luke for Bedales School. A highlight of his work in Perth was presiding over a performance of Bach’s St John Passion.

John’s interest in Buddhism, mainly Zen, had its origin around 1970 and developed

steadily. After a second trip to India in 1993, he encountered Theravada Buddhism which became important to him.

At John’s funeral, wife Gill said: “Our family has always been close and dear to us and some of our most valued times have been around the candlelit dining table, camping in the bush together and building our house in Kalamunda which we completed as a family team.”

Gardening was a long term delight and wife Gill says “he admired nature taking its course and interfered minimally with a mower or hand saw when grass grew or trees fell down. He grew vegies in Kalamunda when the family was at home but not by method. Results were variable.”

His garden, John said, had no weeds, for weeds were plants you don’t want and his were all welcome – and kangaroos came regularly to keep the grass short.

John Exton is survived by wife Gillian, children Peter, Stephen and Jane and eight grandchildren.

Neville Cohn

Stuart Hille contributes this recollection:

On, or very close to, John’s last teaching day within the (then) Department of Music, I came into his office to ask him a question about a particular student.  By this time, I had just returned from my studies in the USA and had taken up a teaching fellowship at UWA.  Of the many tutorials and lectures I gave, at least four were related to John’s course titled ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’.  Every student undertook this course over his/her first two years of the Mus.B. program.  It was a rite of passage about which, even to this day, I have never heard a word from a past student that wasn’t praiseworthy.

Without this two year course students would have had no understanding of modern counterpoint (or how counterpoint, in general, functioned, for that matter), harmonic and linear – including dodecaphonic – negotiation of atonality, and a assortment of related areas of creative techniques of prolongation.  John had designed and re-designed the course in his quest to make its content as creatively and mentally stimulating as he could, mindful of the knowledge he would, initially, need to clear away the musty, derivative and lazy thinking of the secondary school system.  And it was presented to students with a wit they wouldn’t have previously encountered, and in a manner that left no doubt about the depth of knowledge, and adoration of the art of music, of its presenter.

So, on this final day, I knocked on the door and entered the room.  There was John, standing up and leaning on a floor to ceiling bookcase (a position he often adopted when completing the cryptic crossword of The Australian newspaper) and he was discarding, what I assumed to be, a clutter of useless papers and files….clearing out the premises, as it were.  But, to my astonishment – no, my horror – he was throwing out ALL the folders and sheets, two year’s worth of indispensable education, of the entire course.

“What are you doing?” I asked with genuine dismay.  “It’s useless now.  This ‘lot’ (sic) won’t know what to do with it” he replied.  I then responded: “Well I do and I’ll take it” as I, presumptuously, reached into the rubbish bin and rescued every file.  I added: “And I’ll take these too” as I reached across for the other files awaiting to be similarly disposed of.  John then said: “You’re welcome to them Stuart.  Good luck!”.  My telling of the incident is poor because it disguises the fact that he and I were both somewhat outraged that such a vital body of information had nowhere else, other than the trash bin, to go to be further utilised.  The reader would need to have been present to hear the tone with which these words were spoken.

Over the years since, I have browsed through this course material and I have thought of ways to up-date it in places and to extend its reach to include ways of rhythmic variation, timbre as a unifying parameter, and even, during an additional year to start to introduce some higher level analysis (rather than the usual abrupt bolt to Schenkerism).  On the whole, I think John would have been pleased with the evolution of his course and I feel it’s about the finest tribute I could make to commemorate such an intensely gifted and creative thinker.

Each page brings back a memory of the day it was presented to me, as a student in class: “Stravinsky went slowly downhill after Le Sacre” or, my personal favourite: “The organ’s nothing more than a box of whistles…it’s true, think about it”.  So many gems, as they appear now, that felt like nasty stings at the time.  These memories show an important part of John’s educative strategy: to hit them when they least expect it and, while the gap thus created – between conscious searching and shock – is there, insert the new information.  This is the essence  of masterful teaching.

I don’t know what I’m going to do the new ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’ and perhaps, for the time being, it doesn’t matter.  I didn’t extricate the files to assuage John’s dark feelings about the department, for that was not my concern.  I delivered them for what they contained and how they could be further enriched.  It was unimaginable to me to try to visualise this mass of intelligence, insight and experience being ditched with the daily collected refuse of sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts.

Turbulent Heart – music of Vierne and Chausson

Steve Davislim (tenor)

The Queensland Orchestra

Guillaume Tourniaire (conductor)


TPT: 76’32”

Melba MR 301123

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Vierne: Les Djinns; Eros; Ballade de desespere; Psyche

Chausson: Poeme de l’amour et de la mer

More often than not, compact discs bearing the Melba label remind me of books published by the Folio Society. The latter, as is well known to innumerable booklovers around the world, sets immense store by the quality of its publications.

As its many members know, Folio books are a joy to look at and a tactile delight. Much time and thought are devoted to choice of type font. Illustrations are often specially commissioned, bindings are invariably first rate. As well, each book comes in a finely made slipcase. In decades of membership, I have never encountered a volume that disappointed.

All this invariably comes to mind when listening to compact discs issued by Melba. As with Folio, every aspect of a Melba label compact disc production receives the most careful attention.

Liner notes, often lengthy and detailed, are invariably of high standard as are illustrations in the liner note booklets which are finely bound. There is, as well, a transparent slipcase.

But, as some might ask, what is the point of all this fine packaging if the recorded contents are less than completely satisfying. Happily, Melba label CDs are everything one could have hoped for. And Turbulent Heart meets the highest expectations. The performances are stylistically impeccable, every note clothed in tone of the most appealing kind. This recording is just about the last word in excellence. I have returned to it again and again.

I would be surprised if this CD fails to win over an enthusiastic constituency. It is a marvellous presentation of music seldom heard. Stylistically impeccable, its presentation is a triumph. I recommend it unreservedly.

The Seamstress (Geraldine Wooller)

UWA Press

The Seamstress2

227 pages: SC: rrp $24-95

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Photo GW smiling

Geraldine Wooller. Photo is by James Booth.

Miniscule victories, quiet heroism, seismic reverses, a fling at happiness, stoicism in the face of catastrophe, wretchedly few wins in life’s lottery with more than a fair share of disappointment, discouragement and tragedy.  This, in essence, is The Seamstress.

It is Geraldine Wooller’s great gift to articulate, with compassion but without sentimentality, the lives of a family which she observes with an unblinking gaze. Utterly free of sentimentality, The Seamstress is a remarkable achievement which kept  this reader glued to the turning pages. I read it in a single day and into the night.

Wooller’s language is the essence of realism; it has the indelible tinge of truth. But it

is not the sort of novel for those who like the narrative to unfold in a strictly chronological way. This is quite different. The book is made up of a series of vignettes, often painfully and disconcertingly detailed. It’s rather like a chaplet of carefully polished literary gems, each set near-perfectly.

Newspaper reports often carry the words ‘ordinary people’ and, if the characters in this novel were flesh and blood, they, too, would probably be thought of in this way. But I’m not sure if there are any such beings. Have you met an ordinary man or woman? I certainly haven’t – and they definitely don’t inhabit this book.

In The Seamstress, we find vignettes, episodes that reveal with startling, even unnerving, clarity those moments that might for years following – generations, perhaps – scar a family history. Here, they come thick and fast.

I will not reveal any of these moments in this review. It is the author’s privilege to announce these disquieting upheavals which she does with unflinching honesty of purpose. What family is without moments such as these?

Running through the story like a fine thread is a near-faultless recounting of the dismantling of a much loved mother’s mind – and the very real sense of loss, bereavement even – which occurs before there is a physical death. It is like mourning for a mind that has, to all intents and purposes, died – and it is Wooller’s great gift to articulate the grief in coming to grips with a calamity the incidence of which is multiplying with frightening rapidity as medicine finds ever new ways to keep the body alive but lags far behind in preserving the disintegrating brain and a sense of dignity.

Jo observes her mother Willa’s descent into unreality with a restraint that is masterly. In a sense, all the other inter-family upheavals are a side show to the devastating main game. In its lucidity and poignancy, Woollard’s tale calls to mind William Styron’s Darkness Visible in which he describes his real-life battle with depression.

If you read no other book this year, let it be this. It is too satisfying to overlook.