Tag Archives: Octagon Theatre

Stephanie McCallum (piano)




Octagon Theatre



reviewed by Neville Cohn





It would be unreasonable and manifestly unfair to expect an absolutely unwavering standard of excellence from any musician, even the most experienced and committed. In the nature of things, any performer can have an off-day. And this an overriding impression of Stephanie McCallum’s recital in UWA’s Keyed-Up recital series at the weekend.


Let it be said at once that Ms McCallum is one of the brightest and most enduring stars on the Australia’s fine music scene. She has numbers of well-received compact discs and a formidable list of live concert successes to her credit.


McCallum’s program for the Keyed-Up series incorporated the complete set of Beethoven’s Bagatelles opus 33 which she recently committed to compact disc – and it was one of the most positive highlights of the evening, with care lavished on minute detail. These seven miniatures, lovingly fashioned, came across like a chaplet of finely facetted gemstones.


I particularly liked Roger Smalley’s Morceau de concours. In McCallum’s hands, it came across as one of the composer’s more approachable offerings, a study in tonal levels, with an abundance of subtle sonic shifts and much trilling – a technically formidable piece which was commissioned as a compulsory item for those taking part in a recent Sydney International Piano Competition.


Schumann’s Fantasie in C, one of the composer’s most passionate utterances, was given a frankly disappointing, very uneven, performance with scatterings of inaccuracies and moments when momentum faltered as the soloist, playing from the score, seemed to be searching for notes.


In Liszt’s Ballade No 2, too, McCallum’s performance was marred at times by a less-than-total engagement with the music, with error-strewn moments that lay cheek by jowl with episodes in which there was a thrillingly virtuosic identification with the score. Yet more Liszt was no less uneven. Wilde Jagd is not for timid pianists and, on past form, one would have expected McCallum to take its hurdles in her stride but, as in the Ballade, the playing was uneven.






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

Tankstream String Quartet

Tankstream String Quartet

University of Western Australia Music Society

Octagon Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Although young in years, the members of the Tankstream Quartet display an impressive maturity in whatever they program, richly fulfilling the promise already evident in its earliest presentations. Listening to the ensemble after a break of some years, I was almost immediately aware of a more pronounced depth of insight in its approach, not least an expressive range that has broadened.

Certainly, this was the case insofar as the Tankstream’s reading of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet from opus 76 was concerned. Here was a reading that was invariably within the line and contour of the 18th century.

Among its many virtues is the ensemble’s unusually precise synchronisation but, happily, without it sounding in the least mechanical or impersonal. On the contrary – and significantly – its playing here was informed by a subtle rhythmic ebb and flow that gave added meaning to their performance. And that this was successfully achieved in the ultra-dry, cruelly exposed acoustics of the Octagon (which makes the slightest lapse in ensemble or intonation instantly apparent) is all the more praiseworthy.

The finesse of its playing is as much the result of inherent musicality and self-discipline as the direction it has received from established masters of the medium.

Tankstream was no less convincing in Carl Vine’s Quartet No 3 which it presented with a searing intensity and more than a little virtuosity that gripped this listener’s attention from first note to last. At its most extrovert, the quartet’s presentation was informed by a harsh, grainy-toned aggressiveness that sounded entirely appropriate.

Has any of the playing of this exceptional string quartet been preserved on compact disc? If not, it certainly deserves to be.

With hotly contested competition wins in Melbourne and Osaka, Japan to its credit, the Tankstream players are clearly going places, including Copenhagen. And one of the ensemble’s more unlikely albeit prestigious upcoming dates will be strutting their stuff at a banquet at Fredenborg Palace in the lead-up to the wedding of Tasmanian Mary Donaldson and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. According to a newspaper report, the Australian government is footing the bill for that once-in-a-lifetime gig. Perhaps by then, the ensemble will have some demo CDs to hand out as freebies to assorted royals from here and there. And if present form is any guide, the four will acquit themselves splendidly in that palatial environment.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004

Slava and Leonard Grigoryan (guitars)

Slava and Leonard Grigoryan (guitars)

Octagon Theatre


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan has visited Perth on a number of occasions, invariably performing with expressiveness and technical finesse. At the Octagon Theatre, he was joined by his younger brother Leonard in a
recital that would have tested the mettle of the most adept and experienced of musicians ­ and both came through with banners flying.

The brothers Grigoryan are not the only sibling guitar duo on the international concert circuit, of course. There are other, longer established, ensembles I have heard in the past. But what places the Grigoryan siblings in a special category of excellence is that, unlike other similarly constituted ensembles, there is nothing in the least mechanical about their co-ordination. More often than not, the strictly, indeed implacably, metronomic approach to rhythm favoured by some other guitar duos can all too easily sound rigid and emotionally cold. There was not a hint of this in the playing of Slava and Leonard. In fact, the subtle nuances of tempo that informed their playing mark them as musicians as much as virtuosos.

True, there was some tendency early in the evening in an extract from Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin for earnestness to take precedence over effervescence. But by the time the duo launched into Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, the guitarists were firing on all pistons. And despite some occasional loss of definition on the part of Leonard, the sizzling intensity brought to bear on the climaxes that dot the Deciso and Allegro movements made for rivetting listening. As well, ceaseless vigilance regarding precise intonation was another factor contributing to listening pleasure although in the slow movement, one felt a need for rather more imaginative treatment of the notes.

How refreshing for once to hear a guitar compilation so markedly off the beaten track instead of the more usual fare by Albeniz, Barrios and Sor. A case in point was two movements from Retrato by the Brazilian composer Radames Gnattali. The siblings were in stunningly agile form in rapid ensemble work, achieving a brilliance that swept all before it. Here, the brothers staked an irrefutable claim to be considered in international terms ­ and all the more notable when considering that the younger Grigoryan is still a teenager.

Violinist Paul Wright made a guest appearance in ensemble with the elder Grigoryan in extracts from Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango in which both musicians succumbed to the Muse in a way that would surely have drawn approving nods from the composer had his shade hovered over the proceedings at a crowded Octagon. This was wonderfully evocative playing as guitar and violin explored the music’s contrasting moods of sultriness, passion and world-weariness.