Classical Music


Conductor Paul Dyer and Baroque oboe soloist Emma Black with the orchestra

As part of their 30th birthday season the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir presented HANDEL’S ANTHEMS AND FIREWORKS .

The first half began with the four coronation anthems Handel wrote for George II and Queen Caroline in 1727 and which have been performed at every coronation since. The Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir gave a stylish, vivacious performance of great aplomb. The most famous anthem, Zadok the Priest, opened with pulsating, throbbing strings and then the thundering choir exuberantly burst in delivering a vibrant, very energetic and thrilling rendition.

My Heart is Inditing, the next anthem we heard , with delicate strings, featured a wonderful quartet of male voices followed by another quartet of sopranos and baritones, then the push and pull of interweaving, melding voices of the full choir in strong , dynamic melodies and cascading voices that at times were like erupting fireworks. Continue reading AUSTRALIAN BRANDENBURG ORCHESTRA : HANDEL’S ANTHEMS AND FIREWORKS


Sam Bernstein described his son, Leonard, as “my gift to Uncle Sam…how could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein!”  

On this the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth it is time to reflect on what he has meant to the world, let alone Uncle Sam.  His importance to musical culture cannot be underestimated. He was composer, conductor, inspirational teacher, lyricist, motivator, soloist and many, many more disciplines besides.  He rubbed shoulders with presidents, prime ministers, emperors, kings, queens and above all with normal people like you and me.  

As a composer he was no giant like Beethoven or Schubert or even Gershwin but he did compose West Side Story, a giant of a musical.  Anything he composed after that did not measure up, which is when his conducting skills came to the fore. His demise as a composer coincided with his appointment as musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958.  He was an egotist. In his eyes, the rewards were as much about glory and adulation as it was about money. In his younger days, he loved being the centre of attention and always made a beeline for the piano at parties. If there was no piano he either sulked or left.  Continue reading THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN STORY IN BRIEF


I suppose it started because I was besotted with acting and singing.  Psychiatrists would have a field day – something to do with deprivation as a child, not enough cuddles or lack of affection in ‘ze formatif yearz’.  So when I hit Sydney, arriving from Canada in the late 70s, I first sat for my taxi-driver’s licence because I’d been told that even a good actor had to eat, then went in search of a theatrical agent.  I finished off with Tom Richard’s School of TV Acting in Brookvale. I progressed to walk-on roles in Channel Ten’s now defunct Arcade and Young Doctors with Delvene Delaney.  Then came my big break – playing a rebellious priest in Elijah Moshinsky’s new Australian Opera production of Boris Godunov.  This was followed by roles in Rigoletto with a young Yvonne Kenny, Lucia de Lammermoor with Jennifer McGregor, Madama Butterfly and many others.  Taxis took a back seat for a little while, so to speak.

Meanwhile I started taking singing lessons from Kevin Mills, an ex-Sun Aria winner and AO member.  For a few months he struggled vainly to teach me how to sing tenor arias. It wasn’t till later I discovered what the problem was – I was a natural baritone.  Finally, in a fit of desperation he referred me to someone at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music called Russell. Russell, unfortunately, was having personal problems.  So off he went on a much needed holiday and left me in what turned out to be the capable hands (and fingers) of a young student who was about to sit her final musical exams.  She couldn’t have been more than 23 at the time. Friendly in an engaging manner, she had long dark hair, was married to Greg, a French teacher at Riverview College (a Jesuit college in the harbourside suburb of Lane Cove), and was almost too keen to laugh at my jokes.  I took to her instantly. Continue reading TWIRLING A BATON


The story of Verdi’s Shakespearean operas is not the operas he did compose but the one that he longed to set to music all his life but never somehow managed.  And that was King Lear. Verdi loved Shakespeare. He always carried an Italian version of Shakespeare’s plays with him and for a long time had envisaged setting the play to music.  He talked to his librettist about it constantly but never made any concrete attempt to fulfil that dream.

For a composer who wrote 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi continuously complained of having to write music for a living.  As time went by, following his purchase of Sant’Agata his frustrations grew worse. All he wanted to do was devote himself to farming.  He used various reasons with the opera companies and his publisher, Ricordi, to try and weasel himself out of contracts, from being unable to work with some singers or the libretto wasn’t ready in time or he didn’t like the set or the costumes etc etc.

But in the case of Shakespeare’s Macbeth he seemed relatively happy although he did whinge about the soprano chosen to sing Lady Macbeth.  Eventually he settled for Marianna Barbieri-Nini. His librettist was Francesco-Maria Piave and his instructions to him were precise: short verses and “concise sublime language, except for the witches’ chorus” which had to be coarse.   Continue reading SHAKESPEARE IN VERDI’S OPERAS


Above : Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s PianoTrio was heard in this concert. Featured image : Hourglass Ensemble pianist Anna Rutkowska-Shock.

Hourglass Ensemble is in the middle of an exciting two-concert set arranged over consecutive weekends in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room. Australian works feature prominently in both programmes.

The first concert, ‘Heart of Australia’, started this journey on July 20 in breathtaking style. Two Australian compositions from the last two decades were complemented by the expressive innovations of Fauré in his full-bodied Piano Quintet No 1 in D minor.

The programme began with pianist Anna Rutkowska-Shock presenting an impressive rendering of Carl Vine’s Sonata for Piano No 1  (1990). Vine’s delicate densities and meticulous architecture of layered intricacy were in good hands here.

This was a performance of powerhouse clarity, featuring fine voice leading, even of fleeting fragments within the complex textures. The range of nuance displayed, and especially virtuosic playing on the soft end of the spectrum was exemplary.

Rutkowska-Shock dazzled us with the dexterity that this piece demands, whilst taking us on an expressive journey with a wash of artistic colour. This sonata makes sense only via decent
deciphering of the compositional structures and a combining of seemingly disparate elements is achieved with appropriate preservation of the precious momentum. This pianist had all such requirements well considered.

Rutkowska-Shock  continued to offer comprehensive keyboard vistas and a broad timbral palette to the chamber works which fleshed out the remainder of the concert. The instrumental forces and musical textures grew through the successive works.

Above: Hourglass Ensemble’s cellist James Larsen

The distinctive soundscapes of Nigel Westlake filled the Utzon Room space in his Piano Trio from 2003. Violinist Thomas Talmacs and cellist James Larsen demonstrated fine sympathetic
accompaniment. Their ensemble playing with the piano was of fine calibre here as the lines combined with precision and care.

The demands of the sparse, more melodic and quite filmic writing
from this local master of atmosphere were well met in this nicely paced performance with vividly created imagery.

For the final work on the programme, the Hourglass team members expanded to piano quintet mode
as they dug right in to the earliest composition heard on the night.

Fauré’s Piano Quintet No 1 in Dminor was an effective way with which to complete  this concert. The deeply expressive blend of
instruments at the heart of this work, with its well-constructed densities  supplied a satisfying full sound. The intricate busy tapestry heard especially in the opening composition by Carl Vine were reflected in this early twentieth century composition.

This was lush and large playing throughout, which consistently showed the ensemble’s ability to speak in a unified complex voice.  Density and clarity comfortably existed side by side. As in the stunning opening performance  of the Carl Vine sonata,  this work was continually well-crafted by the gifted players.

July 27 sees the Hourglass Ensemble return to the Utzon Room venue for another evening concert. The next programme in this set expands on the length of this concert to feature more Australian music, including the clarinet quintet ‘Songs From the Bush’ by composer Ian Munro.


I managed to contact Alexander Briger the day before he flies to Melbourne for the final preparations with the Australian World Orchestra and their concerts in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.

Australian World Orchestra you may ask?  It’s not a new idea, admits Briger, there are other orchestras based on a similar format.  There’s Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which Briger much admires and there’s Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra.  But unlike the Australian version they’re made up of leading European players who do not have a country as a common denominator. The difference with The Australian World Orchestra is that 50% of the players are ex-pat Australians in top orchestral positions abroad and the rest command leading positions in Australian orchestras.  

The germ of the idea came to Briger in 2006 while conducting the AWO’s Japanese equivalent in Tokyo; they comprised only Japanese players based in Japan.  Briger’s brainchild was more ambitious. But how to do it? He contacted uncle (the late) Charles Mackerras who liked the idea and suggested they perform Beethoven’s 9th in their opening concert.  First player to be sounded out was Nick Deutsch, oboe-player extraordinaire for the Leipzig Gewandhaus and other famous orchestras. He bubbled with enthusiasm; other ex-pats were approached and they all wanted to be part of it.   Continue reading ALEXANDER BRIGER AND THE AUSTRALIAN WORLD ORCHESTRA



Last weekend the Acacia Quartet returned to the Independent for another eclectic program of mostly modern music. They opened with the program’s namesake ‘Fratres’ or ‘Brothers’ written by one who is considered the most widely performed modern composer in the world, Estonian Arvo Pärt. Fratres was written a year before what is considered his most popular piece ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ in the 1970s after an inspiring study of medieval and Renaissance period music. Converting to Orthodox Christianity made things extremely hard for Pärt as it clashed with the values of his Soviet cultural censors causing them to ban Fratres and any work with a hint of religion included. Finally negotiating an exit to Berlin for himself and his family Pärt was free to spread his music throughout the world. 

The inspiration of the Gregorian chant is clear in Fratres with unusual pitch and chords used in the music. First violin, viola and cello play over a singular drone from the 2nd violin which gives the piece an earthy, solid foundation from which to naturally grow. Sections of the work are completed with a repeated staccato pattern from the cello, its predictability making the work extremely satisfying and assuring for the audience.  Continue reading THE ACACIA QUARTET : FRATRES @ THE INDEPENDENT


Anime and classical music lovers – this evening is for you!

Celebrate some of the most iconic music from the films of STUDIO GHIBLI – played in the style of Chopin by Australia’s quirkiest pop culture pianist in this brand new solo concert!

Natalya is a classically trained performer who brought you WORLDS CONNECTED: Music from Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts in 2018. Following its great success, she’s back with another virtuosic program which will feature some exciting arrangements that distill the essence of Chopin into his instantly recognisable Nocturnes, Preludes and Waltzes, and cleverly infuse the melancholic themes from the iconic Ghibli films such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro and many more. Continue reading NATALYA PLAYS: MUSIC FROM STUDIO GHIBI- CHOPIN STYLE


Above and featured image : SYO members with Chief Conductor Alexander Briger.

This winter concert from SYO in City Recital Hall was an exciting and entertaining romp through two very well known and loved orchestral works. Both well known works on this challenging programme were played with considerable energy, enunciation and elation.

The talented young orchestral players displayed formidable stamina and finesse as they were guided through some fine interpretations by conductor Alexander Briger.

To begin the afternoon, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite was explored in turn with impressive restraint and exuberance by SYO. With nice shaping of Copland’s simple, sparse language here, very accessible and detailed vistas welcomed us into a very evocative world.

This performance world’s neat excitement was awash with a myriad of colours. Smooth interest was maintained thanks to continued seamless shifts between full orchestra, the timbres of SYO’s separate instrumental groups and well-balanced solo lines pitted against the orchestra.

SYO’s playing of ‘The Gift To Be Simple’ hymn in this work was a true highlight. It grew from initial moments of sweetly chiselled intimacy through to tutti declamations of unbridled joy. This was thanks to some impressive unison focus and charismatic tracing of line.

To conclude this concert event we had a decent serving of bold and brash Beethoven as SYO gave a powerhouse rendering of his Symphony No 5. Conductor Alexander Briger ensured there was still plenty of space amidst the rocketing tempi choices of the outer movements for nice subtleties and conversation across the orchestra.

The swoop of material developed across the various sections of the orchestra was clear despite the ambitious tempo. Despite the large orchestral forces employed there was considerable buoyancy and lightness in the playing. This resulted particularly from the realisation of Beethoven’s involved sections of character contrasts within and between movements.

The unified orchestral power spoke with a contrasting strident poetic beauty throughout the less-hectic second movement of this famous symphony. This leisurely and forward-leaning Andante con moto breathed easily as it elegantly stated its famous case . Following this interlude the large orchestra was once more harnessed to launch into faster movements where it effectively expressed Beethoven’s vibrant musical  shapes and brusque, complex thematic combinations.

This symphony was taken at such a keen pace its rendering would have greatly challenged a group of musicians of even much more collective experience  than SYO.

However, the success and safety of this orchestra getting through the substantial work owed much to the clear and driving persistence of its chief conductor as well as some admirable section and full-orchestra leading from concertmaster  Ben Tjoa.

This Beethoven performance was quite elevated and spontaneous. It was by no means a scramble despite the obvious athletic efforts and collective brave, hard work of these capable musicians. This milestone and fresh interpretation deserves repeat performances and perhaps even a chance at being recorded orbroadcast.

Here, the two large and popular landmark works of the orchestral canon were  well programmed for variety and effect. They were admirably tackled by SYO, leaving us with some fine chances to revisit these key works from Copland and Beethoven and refresh our love of them.

Sydney Youth Orchestras continue to have a busy 2019. On September 21 the SYO collaborates with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Festival Chorus in a performance of the Dvorák Requiem at Sydney Opera House.




Above : Pianist Sally Whitwell played Phillip Glass during this concert. Featured image : composer Nico Muhly.

Omega Ensemble’s recent concert afforded its audience the chance to immerse itself in the delicate densities of modern American Music. Masterful composition deserves masterful playing. This was achieved easily here. The high quality of performance assisted the audience in a welcome refresh or discovery of the programmed works.

This programme had a compelling swoop, from the music of Phillip Glass and John Adams through to works from the last fifteen years by Nico Muhly. As well as preparation for this concert, Muhly has been working on an ABC Classics recording during this visit of all works featured in the concert, alongside the Phillip Glass Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The excitement and joy of this collaboration was obvious as the assembled musicians delivered Muhly’s acclaimed musical architecture and direct expression in the second half of the concert. The first half though belonged to American minimalist masters Phillip Glass and John Adams.

Who better to lead this event’s tribute to Phillip Glass’ music than pianist Sally Whitwell ? This appearance follows on from her world-premiere performances of the complete Etudes by Glass with the composer and the release of a recording of the twenty pieces on ABC Classics last year.

The two chosen etudes to open this evening, numbers 2 and 11, were executed with fine gradation of layers. There was beautiful organic movement towards any climatic moments. Glass’ reiterated, slightly changing shapes and emphases were nicely handled meditative musical ingredients here.

Quality interpretation of Phillip Glass continued when Sally Whitwell was joined by violinist Alexandra Osborne. Their performance of Glass’ Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano displayed great communication both between them as soloists.

These musicians succeeded in clearly outlining this master minimalist’s challenging and relentless motoric expression with seamless calm and pleasing contour.

Above : Omega Ensemble musicians.

Quite a highlight of the first half of the concert was the addition of Shaker Loops by John Adams in its string septet version. This was more joyous exploration by Omega Ensemble musicians of the subtleties of this work.

It was a performance brimming with energy and a clear complexities for the listener. As such an exemplary rendering of minimalism from late last century, it was style which nicely complemented the previous works by Phillip Glass. It obviously pleased the modern audience assembled.

Following interval we were able to immerse ourselves in the lush sound world of the most recent American Master in the programme, Nico Muhly. Instrumental works from 2004 (By All Means) and 2017 (No Uncertain Terms) sculpt influences from as far and wide as Weelkes, Byrd, Webern and Steve Reich into stunning Muhly-an microcosms.

The musical result of these creative structures from such an artisan as Muhly are busy textures in constant and extremely engaging flux. The continnuum of fresh ideas intersect and are emitted in fascinating streams of tonal colour combinations.

At this event these works contrasted with the reiterations of Glass and Adams but had a similar instantly contagious energy. It was a thrill to hear Muhly’s compositions live. They were played by Omega Ensemble with bold and joyous abandon.

Above : Baritone Brett Brown, who performed the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s ‘Unexpected News’ with Omega Ensemble in this concert.

The much awaited and widely publicised event in this concert was the world premiere of Muhly’s song with instrumental accompaniment, Unexpected News. This work has a directness and svelte sensuality of vocal line to match the matter of a fact description of gay rensezvous in C.P Cavafy’s poem ‘Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old’.

With inimitable clear complexity once more in his writing for extended instrumental ensemble with percussion, Muhly sets the subtle explicit nature of Cavafy’s brief statements with lovely filigree from well-blended instrumental fragments.

As throughout the entire concert, musical elements were brought together cleanly by conductor Gordon Hamilton. Baritone Brett Brown delivered Cavafy’s candid text on same sex union with deliciously  animated directness.

Brown keenly communicated his well-blended lines with both us and the ensemble. The premiere was an exciting birth of this work to the world and a fitting conclusion to a fine collaboration between all assembled musicians of and the visiting master Muhly to our shores,


This concert will see the Ensemble perform a rare chamber version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, along with a virtuosic Flute Sextet by Boccherini and Mozart’s much-loved String Quartet in D minor.

It has been suggested that Mozart may have written his string quintets K. 515 and K. 516 to impress King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and to surpass the quintets written by Boccherini. If true, this seems to have gone un-noticed by both the King and Boccherini. Boccherini’s divertimento Sextet for Flute and Strings contains all the drama and textures we have come to love and expect from his music with its Spanish and Italian inspiration. Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, described as one of his best quartets, will not disappoint with its achingly beautiful melancholic opening. Continue reading AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE PRESENTS BEETHOVEN 4