Monday, August 26, 2019

Pianist channels Chopin but orchestra disappoints

ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three
Ravel, Rachmaninov, Hindson and Mussorgsky
Canberra Symphony Orchestra
Llewellyn Hall, August 21

Reviewed by Tony Magee

Pianist Andrea Lam takes a bow with CSO after playing Rachmaninov
FOUR musicians shone brightly in a concert at Llewellyn Hall, presented by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Wednesday last.

Benn Sutcliffe played a superb saxophone solo and integrated himself in the wind section beautifully during the Mussorgsky/Ravel piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, which closed the concert.

Harpists Rowan Phemister and Jo Baee played lush and swirling glissandos of voluminous proportions during Ravel’s “La Valse”, which opened the concert.

Katherine Day on celeste was outstanding in her moving and beautifully respectful deliverance during Matthew Hindson’s wonderful piece, “The Stars Above Us All”, which opened the second half, as well as her contribution in the Mussorgsky.

In a brilliant piece of programming, conductor Nicholas Milton held the fading moments of the Hindson piece and then let silence speak for itself, allowing the audience to reflect on the themes that inspired it – the unstinting, unrelenting devotion of the parents of children undergoing treatment for long-term health issues. The orchestra then segued seamlessly into “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

“The Stars Above Us All” was the highlight of the evening for me. Every single musician in the orchestra seemed at one with the purpose and sensitivity of the piece. It was beautiful.

BUT the standard of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra as a whole has dropped considerably.

The woodwind section was frequently out of tune, the brass section variable in success. The second violins and violas were sometimes out of tune, often delivering a scraping, whining sound. The cello section was acceptable but with some tuning blemishes and missing their usual richness of tone and ensemble sonority. The double basses, first violins and percussion sections were all excellent.

Nicholas Milton is a superb conductor, but despite his best efforts, the orchestra failed to deliver the climaxes necessary to make the opening piece, Ravel’s “La Valse” blow the roof off the hall. The string section did, however, achieve some of the rich, sweeping lushness, almost of Mantovani proportions, that this piece needs and is famous for.

The “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Rachmaninov followed, with piano soloist Andrea Lam.

Ms Lam is a highly experienced pianist and has a sparkling and very accurate technique. This work, as with most Romantic concertos, needs a pianist of massive weight technique to deliver a sound of richness and intensity when required, but the power was not there.

Even so, it was a creditable performance. In particular she played the second movement with sensitivity, beauty and grace. The orchestra, once again, did not deliver on climaxes and still had some tuning blemishes. At the conclusion, a European man sitting next to me whispered “brak miesa”.

As an encore, Ms Lam played Chopin’s posthumously published C sharp minor Nocturne with superb delicacy and beauty. It was also a highlight of the evening. Her performance reflected the accounts of Chopin’s own playing, that being varying degrees of delicate pianissimo.

The only part of “Pictures at an Exhibition” that really worked well, was the final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev”, where the orchestra did start to hit their straps and deliver an earth-shattering climax and conclusion to the concert. 

LET me draw three comparisons with professional full-time American orchestras from cities much smaller than Canberra. These figures are from the 2018 US census.

St. Louis, population 302,838. The St. Louis Symphony boasts hundreds of acclaimed recordings on major labels Telarc, EMI and RCA and has attracted conductors of the calibre of Leonard Slatkin, whose tenure was from 1979 to 1996. Current music director is Stéphane Denève, formerly music director of the Brussels Philharmonic.

Cleveland, population 383,793. The Cleveland Orchestra is ranked as one of America’s “big five”, the others being New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. In 2012, Gramophone Magazine ranked the Cleveland Orchestra as number 7 on its list of the world’s greatest orchestras. It has released hundreds of superb recordings for CBS / Columbia (now Sony Music), over the last 60 years, being brought to international standard in the 1960s by George Szell, a tradition that continues under current music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Pittsburgh, population 301,048. Ranked within the next five within the United States and brought to the forefront of international concert playing by Fritz Reiner, André Previn and Lorin Maazel. It tours regularly throughout the US and internationally. The current musical director is Manfred Honeck.

Now let’s bring it a little closer to home. Hobart, Tasmania, population 206,097 from a state population of 531,529. The Tasmanian Symphony is ranked in with the standards of playing of the Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, Adelaide and Western Australia Symphony Orchestras, which are all outstanding. TSO has toured to Israel, Greece, South Korea, Indonesia, Argentina, United States, Canada, China and Japan, as well as throughout Australia. Previous conductors include Barry Tuckwell, Nicholas Braithwaite, Dobbs Franks, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and currently Marko Letonja. Previous concertmasters have included Canberrans Wilfred Jones and Barbara Jane Gilby.

In a city of almost half a million people and one of the most affluent societies in Australia, Canberra currently has a professional orchestra which is not full-time and not up to scratch.

First published in an edited format in City News Digital Edition, August 22 and also on Tony's blog, Art Music Theatre, August 26.

Blood on the Dance Floor

Written and performed by Jacob Boehme
Ilbijerri Theatre Company
Tuggeranong Arts Centre, August  24 only, season closed.

Reviewed by Samara Purnell

Flamboyant Jacob Boehme
A flamboyant Jacob Boehme burst into the bar, where the audience was enjoying a pre-show drink. Bejewelled and with heavy makeup, he ushered us to our seats and began to set the scene of gays and queens during the HIV epidemic of the 80’s. Each funeral attempted to outdo the previous ones, as they “dropped like flies.”
Throughout the almost hour-long performance, Boehme tells his own story through elements of dance, monologue, sound and video installations.
Born of an Aboriginal father and a white mother, the fair-skinned Boehme explores, processes and explains his identity as an Aboriginal, gay man living with HIV, (blak, gay and poz as he describes himself). The underlying concept is blood - carrying both the HIV virus and his Aboriginal heritage.
Boehme uses a barrage of lingo and terminology with no holds barred. One shocking revelation is that some young gay men are actively trying to catch the HIV virus, perhaps for a sense of belonging.
 “Are you clean. Are YOU clean? ARE YOU CLEAN!” Jacob Boehme demands, breaking the fourth wall to continue direct, personal interaction with the audience, as the voices in the soundscape ask the same question. Graphic descriptions of the casual, anonymous gay sex scene and one night stands and the relentless questioning of being “clean” grows louder and more menacing until the words give way to an overwhelming sound, like a runaway train.

Jacob Boehme. Photo Bryony Jackson

The insecurity, anxiety and fear of rejection upon telling a new partner the potentially relationship-ending information of being HIV positive, drives the script. So too, Boehme’s recalled conversations with his dying father, who was aware and for the most part accepting of, his son’s homosexuality.
The choreography by Mariaa Randall is meticulously thought out and deliberate, simple in its demands, but effective in its depiction of the stories being told and Boehme’s responses and processes – the expressions of fear and vulnerability, hope and sarcasm are clearly portrayed. Elements of indigenous dance are woven throughout.  
Director Isaac Drandic seamlessly weaves video by Keith Deverell and a soundscape by James Henry into Boehme’s performance, silhouetting him against a stark, white backdrop and a red screen of blood cells. One short sequence that was less directly related to the storyline was a dreamtime story about a fish dying in a cave, presumably a story told by his father or a metaphor for a slow death.
The demise of Boehme’s friend, with the “beautiful green eyes”, rejected by his mob upon returning to country with HIV was tragic. The description of his suicide and callous disposal left the audience in tears. “Blood on the Dancefloor” was also funny, engaging, passionate and poignant, ideally suited to the intimate space as he creates a very direct personal contact with the audience, taking them into his experiences. The steeply tiered seating of the venue gave an added sense of vulnerability to Boehme, as the audience looked down onto his performance.
Boehme hopes that by inserting the information about his HIV status between the horrifying facts he doesn’t cook and that his laundry liquid comes from Aldi, his new love will not reject him.
“Blood on the Dance Floor” aims to shine a light on the issue of HIV in the indigenous community and help them find a voice amongst those living with it. It is a moving and multi-faceted story about love, family and belonging and how our bloodlines define us.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

WEST SIDE STORY - Opera Australia - Sydney Opera House

Directed by Joey McKneely – Musical Direction by Donald Chan
Set designed by Paul Gallis – Costumes designed by Renate Schmitzer
Lighting designed by Peter Halbsgut – Sound Designed by Rick Clarke
Presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 20th August to 6th October 2019

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

An acknowledged musical theatre masterpiece, “West Side Story”, along with a short list of other musicals you could count on one hand, pushed the boundaries of the form. This reworking of the familiar Romeo and Juliet story, now transferred to 1950’s New York, with young  street gangs replacing the feuding families of the original, boasts a thrilling score by Leonard Bernstein which miraculously captures the excitement and tensions of the city in which it is set, lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim that convert the vernacular of the warring  New York gangs into poetry, and most of all, the extraordinary movement repertoire created by Jerome Robbins for his brilliant dances, all of which still excite after more than 60 years.

Each component is remarkable, but together, especially when performed as well as they are in this production, are guaranteed to induce goose bumps and feel as fresh and inventive as when they were first premiered in 1957.

The Jets in "West Side Story" 

Director, Joey McKneely, who also reproduced the Jerome Robbins choreography, has drawn together an attractive young cast, each around the age of the character they’re portraying.  Some are making their professional theatre debuts in this production so obviously dance prowess was a paramount consideration in the casting for this work. The dancing throughout is brilliant with obvious attention being lavished on making sure every phrase and detail is correctly executed by the young dancers who attack the choreography with style and pizzazz.  The results are exhilarating. 

However, the acting is less convincing and despite obvious commitment, some lack the experience and acting skills necessary to invest their roles with sufficient gravitas, often resorting to shouting and posturing rather than being immersed in their characterisations.

Replacing Todd Jacobsson who was ill on opening night, Daniel Assetta stepped into the role as Tony. Though he sang attractively he had trouble sustaining some of the top notes in his solos, possibly through nervousness, but had more success with his duets with Sophie Salvesani (Maria) which were quite lovely. However his acting tended to stop when the music did, and there was little real chemistry between them. 

Sophie Salvesani (Maria) - Todd Jacobsson (Tony) 

Sophie Salvesani was a lovely Maria, bringing a clear sweet soprano voice to the role, and acting affectingly, particularly in the finale scene when, standing over Tony’s lifeless body, she threatens to shoot the onlookers.

Chloe Zuel (Anita) leads her friends in "America" 

Both Noah Mullins and Lyndon Watts as the gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo, brought plenty of energy and attitude to their roles, but it is Chloe Zuel as the fiery Anita, who digs below the surface to create a truly memorable characterisation, acting, singing and dancing with assurance.

The Paul Gallis setting for "West Side Story" 

Peter Gallis’s towering metal settings are effective in evoking the ladders and scaffolding of the New York landscape, and Renate Schmitzer’s attractive costumes are unusually colourful. However, it is the music, brilliantly interpreted by 31 members of the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of Donald Chan, who, reputedly has conducted more than 3000 performances of “West Side Story”, together with the brilliant dancing of the cast, which are the stars of this production and which remain in the mind well after the curtain has descended. 

Chloe Zuel (Anita) and Lyndon Watts (Bernado) lead the dancers at the Gym.

                                                  Photos by Jeff Busby

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.

"West Side Story" comes to the Canberra Theatre from 10th - 27th October 2019


Charlotte Gearside and Ensemble in "Legally Blonde" 

Directed by Jim McMullen - Musical Direction by Richard Daley
Choreographed by Sarah Tulley - Set Designed by Ian Croker
Costumes by Chelsea de Rooy & Jill McMullen
Lighting Designed by Phil Goodwin - Audio Designed by Peter Barton
Presented by The Canberra Philharmonic Society.
Erindale Theatre, 22nd August to 7th September, 2019

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

The Canberra Philharmonic Society has come up with a bright, chirpy production of this light-hearted musical, which, with it’s not-too-convincing message of female empowerment, or ‘Never judge a book by its cover’,  depicts the experiences of pretty blonde, Elle Woods, who decides to  follow her snobbish boyfriend into law school.  There she discovers her ultra-feminine appearance works against her progress, until she reveals a sharp legal mind which wins her the respect of her peers, and unexpected romance.

Nick Valois (Emmett) - Charlotte Gearside (Elle Woods)

Charlotte Gearside is perfectly cast as Elle Wood, and carries the show with a strong, confident performance which showcases her formidable singing, dancing and acting skills.  She receives strong support from her two leading men, Patrick Galen-Mules as the snobbish Warner, and Nick Valois as the ever-reliable Emmett, both of whom have good stage presence and sing attractively.

Hannah Maurice (Paulette) - Charlotte Gearside (Elle Wood)

As the big-hearted hairdresser, Paulette, Hannah Maurice almost steals the show revealing a huge voice and comedic talent with her show-stopping performance of “Ireland”. Ian Croker, who also designed the spectacular set, provides another memorable performance as the smarmy Professor Callahan, his performance of “Blood in the Water” providing a memorable highlight.

 Kat Bramston gives a nicely under-stated performance as Elle’s rival Vivienne, and Meaghan Stewart, Amelia Juniper-Grey, Amy Campbell, Courtney Hayden, Tim Maher and Liam Jones stand out in the large ensemble,  all making the most of their opportunities in supporting roles.
Director, Jim McMullen made full use of clever set and lighting design to keep the show moving along at a fast bat guiding his large cast through a series of imaginative scene changes and spectacular production numbers for which choreographer, Sarah Tulley, who certainly knows how to fill a stage with interesting movement, has created some spot-on choreography to challenge her large ensemble of brightly costumed dancers, all of whom perform with considerable panache.

However, despite all the good work, it was a pity that on opening night poor sound balance between Richard Daley’s excellent, but over-enthusiastic band meant that many of the lyrics of the songs were unintelligible, particularly in the opening scenes, detracting considerably from the overall enjoyment of an otherwise admirable presentation.

                                                     Photos: Ross Gould

This review first published in the digital edition of  CITY NEWS on 23rd August 2019


Written by Jaki McCarrick
Directed by Jordan Best
Echo Theatre production
The Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 31 August

Reviewed by Len Power 24 August 2019

‘Belfast Girls’ is the first play to be performed by Echo, a new professional company in the Canberra/Queanbeyan region.  Under artistic director, Jordan Best, Echo plans to shine a spotlight on female playwrights.

The author of the play, Jaki McCarrick, was born in London of Irish parents.  She moved back to Ireland at age 12.  Initially trained as an actor, she has gone on to a successful writing career with the plays ‘Leopoldville’, ‘The Naturalists’ and ‘Belfast Girls’.

‘Belfast Girls’ is the story of five women who make the journey by ship to Australia under the Orphan Emigration Scheme.  Between the years 1848 and 1851, over four thousand Irish females took passage on ships from Ireland to Australia under this Government scheme.  While the voyage gave the travellers hope for a fresh start and a better life, the reality was that many found prejudice and hardship that was little different to their life in Ireland.  The scheme was abandoned by 1852.

The play shows the experiences of five young women thrown together in close quarters during the long voyage to Australia.  Past hardships and experiences and their personal differences provide the drama for these characters’ lives as the journey progresses.

The five actors give very committed performances.  Unfortunately, the strong Irish accents and the speed of their delivery made it difficult to understand what they were saying.  Some of the quieter speeches were lost because of a lack of projection.  As a result, trying to follow the story of the play was quite difficult.  During a storm scene in the second act, the sound effects were so loud that it was impossible to hear what the characters were arguing about and why they came to blows.

Depicting the cramped and dark quarters of steerage below decks on a sailing ship of this era on stage presents obvious difficulties.  The huge ship set designed by Chris Zuber to fill the large stage of the Q Theatre was impressive-looking but there was too much open space in the playing area of the women’s cabin to be realistic.  There was also a lack of atmosphere in the lighting design by Murray Wenham with bright lighting for the women’s cabin for most of the play.

Director, Jordan Best, has aimed for rawness and realism in her production but more attention to detail was needed.  It was especially difficult to feel any involvement with the characters and story when it was too hard to hear and understand the dialogue.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

Puccini and Mascagni brought to life by Canberra Opera

Gianni Schicchi and Cavalleria Rusticana, 
Canberra Opera
Belconnen Theatre
Opening night, August 23

Reviewed by Tony Magee

In an endearing combination of well seasoned and mature voices and acting skills, combined with the exuberance and budding development of youth, director Kate Millett has done an excellent job of keeping her casts moving and regrouping to create a small stage of continual visual interest and impact.

With the excellent coupling of the two short one act operas “Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, Canberra Opera swept their audience from high comedy, leaving us all chuckling at interval, to tragedy and drama in the second half.

The settings have been altered to relatively modern times. In the case of “Schicchi”,  the concept of a group of relatives squabbling over the contents of a will could be set in any time and place!

In addition, the two works were sung in English, generally with impeccable diction from the cast, which made the engaging stories easy to follow and grasp.

Senior cast members Janene Broere as Zita and Peter Smith as Simone, with mature voices, establish a convivial but frustrating family meeting along with the youngsters, searching for and eventually finding a will from her late husband, whose corpse still lies in the curtained bed chamber within the room. Disappointment follows upon reading its contents.

Enter Gianni Schicchi, played with commanding presence and a suitably robust baritone voice by seasoned performer Colin Milner. With daughter Lauretta in tow, who rushes up to eldest son Rinuccio, played and sung convincingly by Alastair Colgrave, (the two have obviously met before and are in love), Schicchi hatches a plan to try and sort out the mess.

He is viewed with deep suspicion by the elders. Any more plot summary would constitute spoilers, suffice to say that Schicchi turns out to be the deceitful rogue they suspected he might be.

In a compositional style which bears some similarity to “Turandot”, the opera is basically one continuous recitative with one main aria, that being the famous ‘Oh My Beloved Father” sung beautifully by Hannah Carter as Lauretta. There is also a short duet aria towards the end sung by Lauretta and Rinuccio - “You’re Mine Forever More”, which they performed very well.

Stephanie McAlister as Nella and Thomas Nolte-Crimp as Marco also stood out with engaging stage presence and acting flair, combined with voices of substance.

The excellent musical direction for this opera was by Michael Politi.

Cavalleria Rusticana after interval, presented the audience with a simple but highly effective set, suggesting a small village where everybody pokes their noses into everyone else’s business. With a much larger cast, there is a great deal of highly competent chorus singing with excellent harmonies and convincing and interesting staging.

The 1950s setting was beautifully understated, just a clever hint, with a 50s teenager and her portable period record player, sitting in her bedroom swooning over a record cover. As she dropped the needle onto the vinyl, it was timed to coincide with a little guitar piece (played beautifully from a keyboard by Colleen Rae-Gerrard), which although from the pen of Mascagni, could easily also have been an improvisation by Elvis Presley.

Anna Greenwood as Santuzza and James Penn as Turridu both presented their substantial lead roles with confidence and vocal dexterity. Penn is trained in an early 20th century old school style of operatic tenor, something that is not heard much these days. His English diction is wanting, but his power and projection made up for that admirably. 

As his rival Alfio, tenor Andrew Barrow presented as handsome a hero as one could possibly want. His voice is only at the beginning of development - adequate for the small stage and room, but clearly waiting to bloom forth into what could be a substantial voice as he matures.

In a beautiful orchestral break which divides the opera into two halves, the main theme which is well known to audiences was stated and played so beautifully by the small ensemble of musicians, with musical direction by Colleen Rae-Gerrard, who were also excellent throughout the entire evening. Curiously, it is never sung by anyone. Well deserved spontaneous applause erupted from the audience at its conclusion.

Conductor and new-comer to Canberra, Louis Sharpe, did a brilliant job of keeping a tight rein on the musicians and the cast. He is very skilled and a most welcome addition to Canberra’s musical family.

With the number of talented young singers in the cast, combined with the experience and wisdom of the more senior players, this all presents a great future for Canberra Opera. 

On the journey home in the car, my friend and I reflected on the fact that we’d had a great night out. You must see it!

First published in a slightly edited format in City News Digital Edition, August 24

Belfast Girls

L-R: Phoebe Heath, Isabel Burton, Joanna Richards, Eliza Jennings, Natasha Vickery as Sarah, Judith, Ellen, Molly, Hannah.

Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrick, diirected by Jordan Best for Echo Theatre, with set design by Chris Zuber,  lighting design by Murray Wenham,  music and sound design by   Peter Best,  costume design,  Anna Senior at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 24-31, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone,

IN her article ‘The Genesis of Belfast Girls’ [ ] (January 2018) Jaki McCarrick wrote “I’m also currently developing Belfast Girls as a screenplay with help from the Irish Film Board.”

I hope this happens because Jordan Best and her well-balanced cast have shown us how intense a close-up movie of these particular five young women’s journey would be. 

In their confined accommodation well below decks for the four months it took to sail from Ireland to Australia in 1849, even with occasional brief sorties to view the never-ending sea, or to invade the space of the violent crowd next door to their private enclave, we see the clashes between social classes played out in angry argument to the point of awful physical attack.

The drama, which shows Best’s tight directing, works from the personality of each ‘girl’ growing from cover-up and self-protection to revelations which bring them together – to a new understanding.  McCarrick, of course, has provided the actors with the words they say out loud, but I imagine for each one of the actors the analysis of their characters and developing how they could express them must have been a highly emotional experience.

The result for me was as if I was looking through the camera, focussing from one face to another, from one image of an action to the next, until a kind of relief from that close-up intensity as my camera panned along the group standing on deck, ready to embark in Sydney.  Coming, ready or not.

The acting skills, and the sense of equal standing among the five actors, are at the heart of this production.  But then the set design, with its great sail, puts the small scale of the girls’ cabin into the context of the seemingly interminable voyage ‘halfway round the Earth’ as one says.  And then again there is the essential mood created by Peter Best, linking the scenes as they appear and fade – and not forgetting the literally frightening storm effect, when sound and light explode.

Only afterwards did I think, of course: this is Peter Best, film composer from Bliss, through Crocodile Dundee, to Muriel’s Wedding!  Perhaps Jaki McCarrick should be approached for her film.

The history of the Irish Potato Famine and the advantage taken by the British to transport the Irish poor and literally starving women from Belfast to Sydney to provide wives and workers is now much better known because of this play.  Jaki McCarrick’s article is an excellent read to fill out what we learn in the theatre, from when she discovers the name – Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Sligo – among the four thousand ‘Belfast girls’ sent under Earl Grey’s so-called Orphan Emigration Scheme.

Jordan Best is to be congratulated for producing and directing this significant play.  Special thanks too to the Queanbeyan Palerang Regional Council and The Q Team Leader Stephen Pike for supporting the work of Echo Theatre.

Not to be missed.