Monthly Archives: November 2009

Piano Grande!

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville Cohn

If you have not previously heard of Bo An Lu, make a note of the name. If his account of the first movement of Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor is anything to go by, this sixteen-year-old is on a fast track to the stars.

Seemingly unruffled by one of music’s greatest challenges – and a TEE exam the following day – Bo An employed fearless fingers to hurl massive blocks of sound, Zeus-like, into the auditorium. By any standards, this was a remarkable achievement not least for expounding Tchaikowsky’s musical argument in so lucid, mature and heroic a way. Mark Coughlan provided excellent backing on a second piano.

Fazioli  pianos are few and far between in Perth – and to have two of these magnificent and very costly concert grands temporarily under a single roof would have been a first for the city. And nine fine musicians fronted up to put these instruments to the test with both players and pianos emerging with honour enhanced. This was a piano extravaganza to cherish.

A gem of the afternoon was Romance by Rachmaninov. A particularly tricky logistic challenge for three musicians and six hands at a single keyboard, it was an admirably expressive offering by Graeme Gilling, Emily Green-Armytage and Lyn Garland.

Very much noisier Rachmaninov – his Suite No 2 for two pianos – was essayed by Green-Armytage and Adam Pinto who generated very high decibel levels for which the Ballroom was really too small a venue. The Concert Hall would have been preferable for this.

There was also some delightful insouciance in the form of  Poulenc’s L’embarquement pour Cythere which came across courtesy of Garland and Coughlan.

Also at this concert marking Zenith Music’s 40th anniversary, was the quite remarkably poised seven-year old Shuan Lee who, with his father Yoon Sen Lee, gave us an arrangement for two pianos of themes from Yellow River Concerto and Homeland.

Gilling and Coughlan also played, most sensitively, Percy Grainger’s Blithe Bells – a re-working of Bach’s serene Sheep May Safely Graze – and were joined by Garland and Pinto in Smetana’s Rondo in C, frankly charmless music that sounded a simulation of peasants engaged in a heavy-footed, bucolic dance. There was also music by Mozart in the form of a movement from a sonata for two pianos played by Kathy Chow, another gifted 16-year-old, and Yoon Sen Lee.

At this memorable offering by of some the city’s most accomplished pianists, the crowded audience included many of Perth’s leading piano teachers.

Barry Palmer, whose speech had the inestimable advantage of brevity, paid tribute to the Cranfield family who have made so singular a contribution to the music life of the city.

Vocal Evolution

Royal Schools Music Club

Sir Thomas More College Chapel

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Vocal Evolution 2009 competition

In many decades of attending – and writing about – concerts, I had never experienced a program presented by a male vocal harmony chorus ie until the weekend when I heard a performance by Vocal Evolution at Sir Thomas More College Chapel on the campus of the University of Western Australia.

Only brief moments into the curtainraiser –  an altogether beguiling account of Blue Skies –  it became unambiguously apparent that Vocal Evolution is a male voice ensemble of high order. From first note to last, its singing was an essay in ultra-professionalism with nary a wrong note, let alone a discord or a lapse in intonation.

Corporate tone could hardly have been bettered – and chording was everything one could have hoped for. With a unanimity of attack that most critics dream about but seldom encounter in reality, there was abundant evidence as well of care lavished on diction. Every word was as clearly enunciated as one could possibly expect it to be. It was an object lesson in how to do this sort of thing very well.

Vocal Evolution’s performance suggests it is an ensemble that rehearses regularly and intensively. Certainly, there were no passengers in this vocal group which harmonises with the ease that comes only from rehearsal that is totally focussed.

It is hardly surprising to learn that Vocal Evolution has won a swag of awards for its singing. At the Australian Association of Men’s Barbershop Singing National Convention in Hobart last September, Vocal Evolution won gold medals in every category it entered which, on the evidence of Saturday’s performance, is hardly surprising.

This is no stand-and-deliver group. On the contrary, the ensemble has a repertoire of discreetly choreographed movement that adds a pleasing visual dimension to the performance, enhancing the overall quality of excellence that informs everything Vocal Evolution presents. It is, moreover, clear that the singers relish performing – and this adds a further dimension to the overwhelmingly positive impact of the singing.

In so uniformly excellent a presentation, it is perhaps invidious to single out this item or that but it would be ungracious not to particularly mention Nexus’ account of You are my Sunshine (a near-faultless essay in pianissimo singing) and a memorable account by 3 Men and Adrian of Come Fly With Me.

Africa (by Toto) provided untrammelled listening pleasure; it deservedly brought the house down.

Are there any commercial recordings of Vocal Evolution? If this performance is anything to go by, there ought to be.

Although intended for performance at Callaway Auditorium, a last minute hitch prevented this happening which placed committee members under huge pressure to find another, suitable venue – very quickly. And this they did: St Thomas More College Chapel fitted the bill admirably, not least for its fine acoustic.

Immediately prior to the concert, the Royal Schools Music Club’s AGM took place.

Every committee member of every arts association in Australia should attend the RSMC’s Annual General Meetings to learn how to do this sort of thing in the most efficient way. Instead of the often meaningless time wasting on trivial matters that can make such meetings a seemingly endless, mind numbing experience, the RSMC committee gets through the agenda in minutes. Not a moment is wasted and the main business of the evening – the music – gets under way.


A tribute to Don Walker, Neil Finn and Nick Cave

Performed by:

Craig Beard, Anthony Schulz, Adam Starr, Daniel Farrugia and Simon Starr

ABC jazz 271 0972                  Total playing time: 60.37mins.

reviewed by Mort AllenFrock

The development of western art music owes a debt to the development of jazz.  Improvisation and sound colour (timbre) are the two areas which immediately come to mind.  Working ‘against’ the beat or ‘syncopation’ is probably more reciprocity than influence.  However, timbral variety is the parameter that one most looks for, in both stylistic endeavours, these days.

In this respect, the disc only contains one track which could be called truly effective: ‘The Mercy Seat’ (an apparent collaborative effort between Nick Cave and Mick Harvey).  I use the word ‘apparent’ because there is no mention of the piece in the leaflet details.  In fact, the CD insert prefers to more pedestrian matters and isn’t particularly illuminative.  The original song of ‘The Mercy Seat’ is about the thoughts of an innocent man about to be executed so, by extension, one assumes the title to refers to ‘The Throne of God’.  The group give their take on the original and do so with sensitivity and style.  While the piece itself becomes (one might suggest inevitably so) harmonically icebound, it has an intriguing combination of colours – highlighting an ‘otherworldliness’ – nicely evoked by the performers.  Nick Cave, I notice, appears to be the ‘Holy Ghost’ in this trilogy of tributes.  The spectral quality of ‘The Mercy Seat’ would make his position very plausible.

Neil Finn equates, if one is meant to make direct connections between the disc’s title and three composers, to The Son.  He’s certainly a very obedient son; so to speak, because his melodic writing has textbook simplicity – statement/climax/dénouement – and his use of rhythm doesn’t set foot into unfamiliar territory.  There were some, only some, interesting harmonic shifts in the four tracks that bear his name (one of which was written in synergy with Tim Finn) but, for the most part, the harmonies were fairly straightforward.  His ‘History Never Repeats’ should not have been included on this or any other disc.  This is a most disappointing addition.  The listener is left wondering where the opening material is going to lead the ear. History (perhaps) doesn’t repeat but it does develop – one event leading to another – but this music doesn’t.  True, it does have a cute vibraphone sequence and a well-judged climax but the musical line hops from one idea, one gesture, to the next without providing a sense of growth or evolution.

God (Don Walker) has no trouble finding interesting formation material but appears troubled by what to do with it.  His ‘Khe Sanh’ and ‘Saturday Night’ both meandered, not to the extent of Finn’s ‘History Never Repeats’, through no fault of the performers.  There simply wasn’t enough really good substance with which to work.  In other words: what substance was there, was good…but it was spread too thinly.

While one could make heavy weather of the original compositions’ contextures, it needs to be emphasised that the disc, as a whole, is not and wasn’t intended to be, confronting.  Its material is stylistically and dramatically well balanced, although the actual quality of some of that material is questionable.  It is an easy listen: relaxing and pleasing.  It would suit a quiet night.

The performers combine with fluid interaction, as good jazz players do, and they’re always listening carefully to each other, ready to pick up and develop small gestures.  Perhaps some areas of improvisation could have been ‘tighter’, and perhaps the vibraphone could have been less dominated by the usual ‘dead’ (i.e. no pedal, motor off) sound, but the disc, taken incorporatively, forms a cool-ish oasis and is recommended to those of less analytical inclination.

Mort Allen 2009.

Between Heaven and Earth

Sandrine Piau (soprano)

Accademia Bizantina

Stefano Montanari (conductor)

Naïve OP 30484Pau

reviewed by Neville Cohn

If you have not yet heard of Sandrine Piau before, I urge you to hurry to the nearest CD store to purchase a copy of this all-Handel compilation.

French-born Sandrine Piau is a sensationally fine soprano. Her singing doe not so much engage the attention as seize it in a vice-like grip. Much of the singing on this CD could fairly be described as electrifying; her singing inflames the imagination and quickens the pulse.

Listen to Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno from La Resurrezione and the brilliance with which she stamps her authority on the music. The suppleness and agility of her voice are phenomenal and she brings fearless attack and follow-through to the phrase.

Piau’s account of  With darkness deep from Theodora is given a deeply meaningful reading although the pronunciation of the English text is not always entirely convincing. An admirable ecstatic edge is brought to the singing of Rejoice greatly from Messiah.

In As steals the morn upon the night, Piau is joined by Australian-born, Paris-based  tenor Topi Lehtipuu; it’s a pleasing blend of vocal timbres.

Piau is hardly less convincing in Let the bright seraphim from Samson to which she brings immense authority and superb breath control. Luca Marzana’s trumpet obbligato is first rate, too.

There are a number of instrumental interludes of which I particularly admired the Largo from the Concerto Grosso opus 3 no 2, made memorable by Molly Walsh’s beautifully controlled oboe line. And even that most hackneyed of orchestral interludes – Arrival of the Queen of Sheba – sounds newly minted. Throughout, the accompaniments provided by Accademia Bizantina under the direction of Stefano Montanari are a model of period performance practice.

Recital- Government House Ballroom

Sacha McCulloch (cello)

Faith Maydwell (piano)

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville CohnCelloPianoWeb

A recital of masterworks for cello and piano at Government House Ballroom at the weekend raised funds for the Australian Red Cross. Unusually at this venue, curtains at the rear of the stage were drawn back so allowing the late afternoon sun to bathe the stage in light.

It was an account of Brahms’ Sonata for cello and piano, opus 99 that provided the most consistent listening pleasure. Here, both musicians drew from deep wells of expressiveness in a way that allowed the sonata’s cumulative grandeur to register most positively on the consciousness.

Certainly, with Maydwell at the venue’s splendid, recently acquired Fazioli grand piano – and McCulloch impressive in coaxing noble tone from the cello, especially in the lower range – one was able to savour one of Brahms’ greatest inspirations. In fact, if this had been the only item on the program, it would have been an entirely fulfilling listening experience. I dare say that unfamiliarity with the Ballroom’s acoustics may have been a factor contributing to some less than immaculate cello intonation.

Rachmaninov’s Sonata for cello and piano is not for tinkle-fingered shrinking violets. On the contrary, it requires a cool head, an iron nerve and Olympian staying power to essay this formidably demanding score. I’m happy to say that on these counts, both musicians came up trumps with playing of an impressively committed kind. More often than not, there was bracing attack and follow-through in even the most dauntingly complex episodes, and these were almost invariably a model of what fine ensemble playing is all about. Again and again while traversing the musical equivalent of a minefield, the duo seemed to relish coming to grips with its challenges. I especially admired the quality of keyboard tremolos which brought an extra frisson to the scherzo.

This epic opus makes massive demands on the players but, some less than precise cello intonation aside, both musicians emerged from this titanic musical challenge with honour largely intact.

As curtainraiser, we heard Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart. Notationally immaculate playing with pleasing corporate tone compensated for some lack of buoyancy in presentation.

There was an extended interval with fizzy drinks on the house.