Tag Archives: Intonation

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.

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.






Perth Concert Hall/Octagon Theatre


reviewed by Neville Cohn 



As we’re often told in newspaper, radio and TV advertisements, the homegrown product is often superior in quality to the imported variety.

This was very much the case when considering the relative merits of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Prague Chamber Orchestra, both of which featured in the 2004 Perth International Arts Festival.

Consider the ACO. Listened to in the air-conditioned comfort of Perth Concert Hall, which made this splendidly refurbished venue and its near-perfect acoustics all the more welcoming after a savagely hot and humid day, the Australian Chamber Orchestra staked yet another claim – quite irrefutable in my view – to be recognised and acknowledged as the nation’s foremost chamber orchestra and a major player on the world stage.

From the cluster of microphones suspended above the ACO, it could be presumed that its performance was being recorded. I very much hope that this was the case because, in decades of listening to live performances, I cannot recall a more satisfying account of Haydn’s Symphony No 49, know as the Passione.

Not the least of the pleasures of listening to the ACO is the precision of its intonation. Tuning backstage before making its entrance, the ACO is invariably spot-on, pitch-wise. This, in turn, enhances one of the ACO’s other strong points which is the care it lavishes on phrase-shaping. And the uniformity of tonal sheen in string playing was yet another fine feature of the performance.

Literally from bar one, this meticulous attention to moulding the various instrumental lines, and the resulting quality of harmonic tissue, yielded listening dividends of the most satisfying sort, not least in relation to beautifully realised tonal light and shade that added significantly to the tension generated in the opening Adagio. And how splendidly the second movement took off with its bracing attack and follow-through that did not so much attract the attention as seize it.

Horns and oboes were unfailingly stylish in the third movement. And in the finale, the joie de vivre with which these youthful players embraced the music, offered at an
unfaltering pace, thoroughly warranted the gales of applause that greeted its conclusion.

As always, Richard Tognetti kept the performance on track with the utmost economy of gesture. Certainly, with this intense focus on the minutiae of presentation together with an ability to present the ‘big picture’, as it were, yielded phenomenal listening dividends. And for this critic, in the presence of such musical distinction, there was little to do other than to sit back while acknowledging artistry of the highest order.

Emma-Jane Murphy, who has had a long association as principal cellist with the ACO, made a rare appearance as soloist in Tchaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

In the accommodating acoustics of the Concert Hall, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, playing in ensemble with the Australian Intervarsity Choral Societies Association and four vocal soloists, seldom sounded less than adequate in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. But in the far more unforgiving, dry acoustic of the Octagon Theatre, the PCO fared significantly less well.

Because of an acoustic that robbed string tone of much of its bloom (an effect made the more obvious when listened to from as close to the stage as the fourth row), small lapses in intonation and ensemble became glaringly obvious. And with little lift to the phrase as well as a tendency to clip phrase ends made this all-Mozart program a less than satisfying listening experience.

Prague, of course, was the city which, more than two hundred years ago, hosted the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. So there had been an added frisson of anticipation as the PCO launched into this curtain-raiser. Sadly, the players’ presentation of the overture faltered on a number of grounds, not least due to an unwanted raspiness as bows bit strings.

At a performance, only days earlier of Messiaen’s dauntingly complex Harawi, there was a phenomenal display of musicianship and musicality on the part of French pianist Cedric Tiberghien. He faced another great challenge in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414, a challenge fully risen to only from the beginning of the cadenza of the slow movement.

Although, up to that point, he had brought notational accuracy and clarity to the piano part, Tiberghien’s playing on this occasion lacked that elusive X factor, difficult to define but instantly recognisable when it manifests itself, that had made his Messiaen offering such magical listening.

Trills were not quite evenly spun, the opening Allegro’s mood of blithness was not compellingly evoked, there was more than a little bass-register humming along on the part of the soloist – and that dreaded acoustic again ensured that some of the gloss was removed from the tone Tiberghien generated at the keyboard of a Steinway which would surely have sounded more satisfying in a more acoustically sympathetic environment.

But, after his retrieval of the initiative towards the close of the Andante, Tiberghien gave us playing that, notwithstanding extraneous features over which he could have had no control, was stylistically convincing and commendably expressive.

Listening to Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor from the rear of the hall was a happier experience compared to what had earlier been heard from close up. The Octagon’s acoustical dryness sounded less ferocious from that vantage point. But one longed for rather more elegance to the shaping and tapering of phrases and a more uniform tonal sheen, especially on the part of the higher strings in the slow movement. Certainly, more might have been made of the serene and melancholy theme that makes this one of Mozart’s most beguiling essays in tranquillity. There was robust treatment of the minuet and the woodwinds (which had sounded unattractively blurred from close up in the Don Giovanni overture) came up trumps in the trio section of the minuet. And in the finale, the grittiness of string sound worked to the advantage of the performance, enhanced by strong, even fierce, rhythmic emphases.

© 2004