Philip Glass: Complete Etudes for Solo Piano

Sally Whitwell
ABC 481 6592

To record the complete works of any respected composer is a daunting and emotionally grueling task, let alone a composer still living. Sydney pianist, Sally Whitwell, has said of the recording of the complete Etudes for Solo Piano (2 books of 10 Etudes each) that it was almost like a love affair.

Clearly, Whitwell is a passionate advocate for the music of international master of minimalism, Philip Glass. So much so that her talent has taken her to perform Glass in Los Angeles, and even New York, in the presence of the composer.

“His signature repetitive structures … pull you into a unique meditative space (if you let them)”, said Whitwell.

But if you harbour a pre-conceived notion of minimalist piano music, you may be surprised by the highly melodic elements that are evident herein these Etudes.

The range of emotions explores the composer’s shifts in state of mind. Each Etude presents a differing element and artistic demand. Some are heroic, thick textured (particularly using the middle register of the piano in abundance), whilst others are simplistic, lyrical and even romanticized. Some deliberately use little or no pedal, and others will resonate more with carefully considered pedalled sonorities. Particularly appealing are the sometimes quirky high register fragments of tunes that chirp out, over a more dense chordal repetition.

It could be argued that the repetitions are akin to the monotonous cycle of urban life, the constancy of “motoric” ideas (eg traffic motion, like trains).

Whitwell’s artistry here is dynamic. Articulation and expressive nuance is impressive. Her love of this music is clear, and she brings to these etudes a refined sophistication. This double CD recording places her without doubt at the forefront of exponents of Philip Glass, and should give Whitwell the international recognition she deserves.

Family Connections: A personal response

Last week I and my friend Justyn Reis had the pleasure of attending a vocal recital by soprano Charlotte de Rothschild, sensitively accompanied by my old friend, pianist @Barry Walmsley. It took place at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel, Sydney.

What a delightful and interesting night it was! “Family Connections” was the theme and she presented songs by composers who had been connected with her illustrious family in their day. Those represented included Cherubini, Mendelssohn, Spohr, Chopin, Rossini, Sullivan, Poulenc, Barber and Bernstein. Mme de Rothschild explained the story behind the connection before each item. For those of us with an interest in the history of art-song this was fascinating in the extreme.

Hearing rarely-performed songs of Cherubini, Chopin and Spohr was especially remarkable, as was Liszt’s setting of Heine’s “Du bist wie eine Blume”, so different from the Schumann setting we all know. The five songs by Charlotte’s ancestor Mathilde de Rothschild (1832-1924) were really excellent compositions and stood proudly alongside those songs of more well-known composers. A highly enjoyable concert.

Vincent Colagiuri (posted Friday, 4 August 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Vincent-Colagiuri-Musician )

Three evolutionary perks of singing

All together now – three evolutionary perks of singing

Image 20141211 6030 14ko55u
Cranking out a tune cements our social networks.
Julie/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Susan Maury, Monash University

We’re enjoying the one time of year when protests of “I can’t sing!” are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music – and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation – plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

This is a question currently of great interest to evolutionary theorists, linguists, psychologists and musicologists. The debate took off when psychologist Steven Pinker stated his opinion that music is a spandrel – a useless evolutionary by-product of another, useful, trait. In this case, he suggested that music is a spandrel of language development, providing no advantage and serving no purpose.

There are strong links between music and language development, although there is no consensus on the actual nature of the relationship. Arguments include theories that:

  • language developed from music
  • music sprang from language
  • they both developed from a proto-language that was musical in nature
  • they developed concurrently.

A strong body of research conducted with choirs indicates that membership has many benefits to individual wellbeing and physical health. It is possible these effects are due to people – the singers – participating in something they enjoy doing. Or, there may be something more elemental taking place.


janwillemsen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

If these findings are viewed through an evolutionary lens, though, there is compelling evidence that music making provided some very specific benefits for our ancestors. Specifically, there are three theories which have been proposed that, if true, may explain these effects while suggesting that group singing is still beneficial to all:

  1. singing creates a shared emotional experience
  2. singing increases social bonding
  3. singing improves cognitive function.

Sing us a song, you’re the hominid

Our hominid ancestors used music to create shared emotional experiences. This would have been particularly important for early hominids struggling to survive, because emotions serve as a kind of “red flag” to our cognitive processing systems, signalling that something critical requires attention.

Emotions prioritise the many options that we may have at any given time, and reduces “data overload” from the bombardment of senses that we experience. Hominids, like many other primates, could have developed very small social groups, or even no social groups.

But the ability for a large group to work cooperatively together was more advantageous than individuals attempting to survive alone. In order to cooperate, individuals needed to subsume their individual priorities for action, and learn to delay gratification so that the good of the group could take precedence (such as forgoing eating or sleeping in order to build a shelter). Group singing likely provided a rewarding, positive activity where emotional empathy could be developed.

Only Boys Aloud at a Britain’s Got Talent audition.

We know that interacting with music today is, for almost everyone, both an emotional and overwhelmingly positive experience. Music is also used to reinforce positive moods and manage negative moods. Adolescents regularly use music as an effective mood regulator.

Others put music to targeted purposes; many athletes use music to put them in a mood state that supports peak performance (and research shows it to be an effective strategy). Music’s ability to change or reinforce a mood relies on the same principle of emotion contagion.

Social significance

Second, music engagement would likely have led to increased pro-social behaviours. This would be supported by a shared emotional state, which relies on empathic skills (empathy) to spread.

But music is also at the centre of where we first learn to be sociable – in the mother-infant bond. Infants are mesmerised by their mothers’ infant-directed singing. It is a communication tool between mother and infant, and is highly companionable in nature.


Mary Helen Leonard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Listening to a mother sing has an immediate and profound impact on an infant’s arousal and attention, including physical responses. These musical communications are highly effective despite the infant not understanding the linguistics involved. They are also universal; lullabies are recognisable as such in virtually every culture on Earth.

There are strong indications that group music making and social behaviours are still linked today. Individuals with Williams Syndrome, in addition to profound cognitive deficits, are known for both their love of music and their incredible sociability.

Music therapy has been shown to reliably improve social behaviours in individuals on the autism spectrum. Choir members consistently report that social bonds are one of the primary benefits of choir membership.

More experimental studies indicate that instrumental jazz musicians use the communication centres of their brains when coordinating play, and that guitarists and even audience members experience synchronised brain waves when a duet is played (see video below).

Studies also show that musical interactions increase both empathy and pro-social behaviours in children.

Taken together, the evidence points to a strong link between co-creation of music and improved social bonding.

Getting ahead

Finally, evolutionary theorists argue that it was their musicality that allowed hominids to develop what is known as the “social brain”, while others argue that the complex brain we enjoy today developed to keep track of large social networks. It may have been a bit of both.

By creating a shared emotional experience and increasing members’ pro-social behaviours, group singing supported complex social networks. Tracking and managing complex social networks may have led to the development of the neocortex. This brain region supports the suite of abilities known as executive function, which provide the skills necessary to make and implement long-term plans.

It also supports cognitive flexibility, which is a style of fluid cognition that allows humans to successfully pair concepts that don’t generally go together, resulting in creative, insightful, and elegant ideas and solutions.

We already know that a positive mood state supports cognitive flexibility, while stress and anxiety act as inhibitors. Co-creating music may support improved cognitive skills through other pathways as well, although these links have not been explored.

Of course all theories concerning the use of music by early hominid groups is conjecture, resting on the scant pieces of evidence the fossil record leaves us as well as what we know about our own musicality today. But the questions are important, because it can inform us about our own relationship to music.

The ConversationIf the theories outlined here are correct, it may benefit us both as individuals and as a community to normalise and promote music co-creation. Participating in singing ought to be more than a once-a-year activity.

Susan Maury, PhD candidate in Psychology, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Charlotte de Rothschild: Sings a story of her Family Connections

In her Sydney-only recital, British soprano Charlotte de Rothschild will weave a fascinating story of her famous family’s connections with the great composers of Europe.

With her reputation as an international artist and after years of research, no-one is better placed than the soprano Charlotte de Rothschild to tell the unique story of the Rothschilds and their musical associations.

This is the musical story of her family which started via the family’s founder Mayer Amschel Rothschild. Under his direction and genius, his five sons (hence the five arrows of the family crest) were sent to France, Germany, Austria, Italy and England to create the banking dynasty that has become so famous throughout Europe today.

Charlotte is the latest scion of the family to immerse herself in the rich heritage of her forebears, acting both as chronicler and voice of her family history. She has put together a celebration of songs and a collection of delightful anecdotes and she takes the listener on an aural journey through the Rothschild musical vaults, including some previously unknown works by various famous composers. These were either friends, teachers or relatives, such as Liszt, Poulenc, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and her ancestors, Meyerbeer and Mathilde de Rothschild. Mathilde was a very talented composer who wrote beautiful songs. She was taught at the age of fifteen by Chopin, who was so impressed that even during his last illness, when he took few pupils, he found time for “the Rothschild girl”. Her works were published by the major houses of Europe under her own name as “La Baronne Willy de Rothschild” or “Freifrau Willy von Rothschild” (she married a cousin). She was asked by many leading singers of the day to compose for them. Her most famous song “Si vous n’avez rien à me dire”, also known as her “Romance”, was the first of a set of five songs written for her friend Adelina Patti.

Some of this music was discovered in the form of a Livre d’Or – a musical autograph book, started in 1826 by a previous Charlotte de Rothschild, who obviously invited any composer who visited her to write either a song or piano piece into her book. The collection was added to by her daughter Mathilde and the book passed on through the female line, being added to well into the 20th Century by composers such as Bernstein, Hahn and Milhaud. Finding this musical autograph book was confirmation of Charlotte’s research over the years.

In her Sydney-only recital, Charlotte will sing works by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Cherubini, Rossini, Liszt, Poulenc, Barber, Spohr, Hahn and Mathilde de Rothschild.
Venue: Cello’s (Level 4), The Castlereagh Hotel, 169 Castlereagh Street, Sydney
Date: Thursday, 27 July, 2017
Time: 7.30 pm
(Drinks and Canapes will be served on arrival from 7 pm; Recital will commence at 7.30 pm.)

Book online at Eventbrite

For more on the Family Connections, see http://www.charlottederothschild.com/rothschilds

Rhythm to Recovery

Faulkner, S.: Rhythm to Recover – A Practical Guide to Using Rhythmic Music, Voice and Movement for Social and Emotional Development, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2017)

(This review first appeared in The Studio (May 2017), published by MTA of NSW.)

Simon Faulkner has become one of the world’s leading exponents on the use of drumming for purposes other than performance. He has taken the primal, tribal and tactile elements of the art of drumming and applied them to heal and motivate people of all ages. In healing, his objective is not to replace the medical or psychological practitioners, but rather work with clinics, schools, and a diverse array of other providers in calming the individual, grounding personalities, and developing improved socialisation skills.

His Rhythm2Recovery method is powerful and transformative in the lives of those with whom it comes in contact. Hailed across the world, it is a methodology which everyone (regardless of musical experience) can use and enjoy. No prior musical experience is necessary for those wishing to utilise the techniques.

People who participate in the system learn such things as identity, group dynamics, behavioural limits, and risk-taking in a controlled environment.

Feedback in the Rhythm2Recovery workshops is immediate and friendly, thus providing participants understanding and directions for behavioural change.

The system debunks the notion that music is purely for experts, or for those for whom years of practice have been devoted. Instead, it asserts and affirms that everyone is musical, to some degree, and has the capacity to organise sound, participate in a group (no matter how disparate the members of the group) and use their bodies effectively in alignment with the musical rhythms.

Years of research by the author has given him the skills to use the language of rhythm to develop trust in individuals. He shows in the book how he uses his technique not only for musical outcomes, but more importantly to him, for therapeutic and social benefits.

Divided into two sections, the author has provided a readable work which states the theory, research and resources for his innovative and highly successful method, and then moves into a section outlining games, exercises and other applications.

In the first section, he details specific groups of people and how to work his programme with them, including in the areas of early childhood, individuals with special needs, youth, mental health patients, alcohol and drug dependent individuals, trauma victims, veterans, parents, aged people, and even in prisons, corporate management and staff contexts.

After reading the first part of the book which sets up the system with the research and theory, the second part reveals how to be hands-on with the approach, giving guidance on the delivery of highly accessible and rhythmic exercises in a sequential manner. Growing confidence in application, by using these initial patterns, will ensure the practitioner develops his or her improvisational skills, which ultimately leads to a feeling of empowerment.

The author deals with basic hand-drum technique, posture, WHS, as well as more specific knowledge, such as Bass and Tone, Flam and Slap, and Tablature, before breaking out into specific rhythmic patterns. There are games and exercises which could be used in a diverse range of activities (even by the school teacher).

Finally, there are five key points which summarise the findings: 1. Finding your base (or finding your place); 2. How these rhythms impact one’s life in developing better relationships; 3. The drum as your voice (and your heart); 4. The drum as a means of team building; and 5. The drumming system which provides a means to build community.

Rhythm2Recovery is a versatile system which elevates therapy from merely listening to the soothing tones of wonderful music, to the practical. It is engaging and motivating, and more importantly, empowering. Simon Faulkner is a convincing advocate for the use of rhythm in all our lives, bringing a much-needed equilibrium that most other systems rarely can offer.

Brandenburg Celebrates

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Brandenburg Choir
Artistic Director: Paul Dyer
ABC 481 1929

You can’t go past some of the great works of the Baroque if you want to celebrate joy, passion, triumph and elegance, all traits of the astounding Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

Brandenburg CAfter 25 years of continued success and audience favour, the ABO has carved its well-earned place in the history books for its attention to Baroque performance practice, its engaging programmes (both in live concert and in recorded format), as well as its ability to bring relevance to such music through its dynamic and striking performances.

Here on this CD, Paul Dyer not only has produced a recording of immense pleasure, but one which showcases the orchestra’s great mastery of the 17th and 18th century repertoire.

From a vibrant and driven opening of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, from Coronation Anthem No 1, to the Telemann Concerto in E minor for flute, violin and strings, this is virtuosity on an orchestral scale that is rarely heard. Take the 3rd movement (Presto) of the Telemann, for instance, which is truly breathtaking as the violin soloist powers through with the greatest of resolve.

Impeccable intonation and rhythmic vitality are hallmarks of this great ensemble and on this superb recording, listeners will rejoice with the orchestra, as they are swept up into a Baroque frenzy of decorative dazzle and elegant sparkle.

Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor (RV 421) has exceptional solo passages played on a Baroque cello, providing an obviously different timbre, and executed with virtuosity.

Two examples of vastly different Concerto Grossi are included, with Geminiani’s No 12 in D minor “La Follia”, and Handel’s work in D, Op 3 No 6 (HWV 317), the former being a set of most intriguing variations, and the latter being unusual for its first movement, which is an ensemble piece (with short outbreaks of solos for oboes and bassoons), and the second movement, which is for solo organ, with orchestra providing an accompanying role.

Being introduced to many for the first time perhaps is the music of Brescianello, whose vivacious Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 1, No 4, and Chaconne in A is recorded here. A relatively unknown composer, his music is full of grace and Vivaldi influence.

To finish this recording is a premiere recording of a commissioned piece by Australian composer, Elena Kats-Chernin – Prelude and Cube. In the words of Paul Dyer, Prelude and Cube “pays homage to Bach, offering a glimpse into the world of the Baroque and a triumphant celebration of the Brandenburg.”
“My biggest challenge in writing this work,” said Kats-Chernin “was to feature every instrument”, a challenge even greater, with the inclusion of saxophone. Whilst Bach may be Kats-Chernin’s favourite composer, she did not want to quote directly from Bach’s works, but rather use devices and stylistic characteristics as references, albeit some of the vocal texts are drawn from Bach’s Magnificat.

Despite coming some 300 years later, Kats-Chernin’s new work fits within the output of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, for its highly acclaimed status within the Baroque music cognoscenti, since it has the same life, elegance, and sense of triumph. The Brandenburgers bring to this new work a similar passion and respect, making it a recording of great beauty and worth. It is a work of considerable merit sitting easily alongside the greats of the Baroque.

Here’s why non-government schools work better

by KEVIN DONNELLY
The Australian 12:00AM December 28, 2016
(Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/heres-why-nongovernment-schools-work-better/news-story/2bb048b548d706d1ba6e2fb2291cc714)

In 2004, in Why Our Schools are Failing, I argued Australia’s competitive academic curriculum was being “attacked and undermined by a series of ideologically driven changes that have conspired to ­reduce standards and ­impose a politically correct, mediocre view of education on our schools”.

Three years later, in Dumbing Down, I repeated the claim, arguing that Australia’s cultural-left education establishment, instead of supporting high-risk examinations, teacher-directed lessons and meritocracy, was redefining the curriculum “as an instrument to bring about equity and ­social justice”.

At the time the Australian Curriculum Studies Association organised two national conferences involving leading education bureau­crats, professional organisations, teacher unions and like-minded academics to argue all was well and that critics such as the News Corp’s newspapers were guilty of orchestrating a “black media debate” and a “conservative backlash”.

The Australian’s campaign for rigour and standards in education, especially its defence of classic literature and teaching grammar, was condemned by one critic as a “particularly ferocious campaign” that was guilty of wanting “to ­restore a traditional approach to the teaching of English”.

Fast-forward to 2016 and it’s clear where the truth lies. Despite investing additional billions and implementing a raft of education reforms, Australia’s ranking in international tests is going backwards and too many students are leaving school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished.

In the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Australian students were ranked 22nd; in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, Australian students were ranked 20th in mathematics; and in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, our Year 4 science students were outperformed by 17 other countries.

Australia’s national curriculum, instead of acknowledging we are a Western liberal democracy and the significance of our ­Judeo-Christian heritage, em­braces cultural relativism and prioritises politically correct indi­genous, Asian and sustainability perspectives.

Instead of focusing on the ­basics, teachers are pressured to teach Marxist-inspired programs such as the LGBTI Safe Schools program where gender is fluid and limitless and Roz Ward, one of the founders, argues: “It will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people.”

What’s to be done? It’s rare that those responsible for failure are capable of choosing the right way forward. Organisations such as ACSA, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council for Educational Research are part of the problem, not the solution.

Instead of education fads and a command-and-control model mandated by such bodies, where schools are made to implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum, assess­ment, accountability and staffing system, schools must be freed from provider capture and given the autonomy to manage themselves.

As argued by Melbourne-based Brian Caldwell: “There is a powerful educational logic to locating a higher level of authority, responsibility and accountability for curriculum, teaching and assessment at the school level. Each school has a unique mix of students in respect to their needs, interests, aptitudes and ambitions; indeed, each classroom has a unique mix.”

The reason Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools is not because of students’ socio-economic status, which has a relatively weak impact on outcomes, but because non-government schools have control over staffing, budgets, curriculum focus and classroom practice.

In a paper this year — The ­Importance of School Systems: Evidence from International Differences in Student Achievement — European research Ludger Woessmann identifies “school autonomy and private competition” as important factors when ­explaining why some education systems outperform others.

Instead of adopting ineffective fads such as constructivism — where the emphasis is on inquiry-based discovery learning, teachers being guides by the side and content being secondary to process — it is vital to ensure that teacher training and classroom practice are evidence-based.

Not so in Australia, where the dominant approach is based on constructivism.

In opposition, and when arguing in favour of explicit teaching and direct instruction, NSW academic John Sweller states that “there is no aspect of human cognitive architecture that suggests that inquiry-based learning should be superior to ­direct ­instructional guidance and much to suggest that it is likely to be ­inferior”.

American educationalist ED Hirsch and Sweller argue that children must be able to automatically recall what has been taught. Primary schoolchildren, in particular, need to memorise times ­tables, do mental arithmetic and learn to recite poems and ballads.

After citing several research studies, Hirsch concludes: “Varied and repeated practice leading to rapid recall and automaticity is necessary to higher-order problem-solving skills in both mathematics and the sciences.”

Even though Australia has one of the highest rates of classroom computer use, our results are going backwards.

A recent OECD study concludes “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science”.

At a time when Australia’s education ministers are deciding a new school funding model after 2017, it is also vital to realise investing additional billions, as argued by the AEU and NSW’s Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, is not the solution. Australia has been down that road across 20 years and standards have failed to improve.

The debate needs to shift from throwing more money after bad, a la Gonski, to identifying the most cost-effective way to use ­resources to raise standards.

As noted by Eric Hanushek and Woessmann in The Knowledge Capital of Nations, the focus must be on “how money is spent ­(instead) of how much money is spent”.

And here the research is clear. Stronger performing education systems embrace competition, autonomy, diversity and choice in education, and benchmark their curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning against world’s best practice and evidence-based research.

Teachers set high expectations with a disciplined classroom environment, students are taught to be resilient and motivated to succeed, there is less external micro­management, and parents are ­engaged and supportive of their children’s teachers.

As argued in the Review of the Australian National Curriculum I co-chaired, it is also vital to eschew educational fads and new age, politically correct ideology and ­ensure what is taught is based on what American psychologist Jerome Bruner describes as “the structure of the disciplines”.

Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of The Culture of Freedom.

Murwillumbah’s music man

Retrieved from http://www.tweeddailynews.com.au/news/murwillumbahs-music-man/2689152/

by Blainey Woodham | 3rd Jul 2015 12:00 AM – The Daily News

CONDUCTING, adjudicating, playing, writing and composing…

9-2850576-twe250615barry1_fct1018x764_ct620x465Barry Walmsley has almost done it all in the world of music.

So as adjudicator at the Murwillumbah Festival of Performing Arts, currently underway at the local civic centre, he is the ideal man to be giving advice to young musicians.

Barry’s love for music started at age seven when he began music lessons in Murwillumbah.

It would prove to be a love affair that would take him all over the world in roles as a music educator, lecturer, arts journalist, music critic, pianist, vocal coach, conductor, adjudicator and administrator.

After school, he attended the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney.

He has worked for Trinity College in London since 1990, one of Britain’s leading musical schools and has been awarded honorary membership to the college by its patron, the Duke of Kent.

Now back in his home town for a few weeks, he said a driving desire to teach others was the key to his success and that of his students.

“I love music and working with people because I believe passionately in the impact of education on people’s lives,” he said.

“In addition, I believe strongly that music education has so many benefits, cognitively and socially.”

Mr Walmsley said the talent on display at this year’s festival was higher than ever.

“Some performers are operating at very high levels, way beyond what might be normal for their age.

“That is very exciting to spot and the Tweed continues to punch above its weight, in terms of producing successful performers,” he added.

Elements: Simon Gleeson

SG24601

This debut album from musical theatre star, Simon Gleeson, will not leave anyone disappointed. Currently starring as Jean Valjean in the acclaimed new production of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les o_iP87-NMiserables, Gleeson shows that he is a world-class singer and actor. On this recording, he has assembled songs that are a personal testament, reflecting elements of his life, as well as his stage persona.

Composers and song-writers, such as Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Elton John, George Harrison, Billy Joel, Matt Alber, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, have been placed alongside each other, creating a strong selection of some of the greatest songs ever produced.

Gleeson has a voice that is beautifully rich and full of colour, from the highest notes in his range to the darker low register. In each song, he tells a story with clarity and ease. A Bit of Earth and End of the World sit easily alongside iconic show songs such as Anthem (Chess), Being Alive (Company), and Bring Him Home (Les Miserables).

(This review first appeared in Fine Music magazine, 2015.)

I Was Flying: Music by Sally Whitwell

ABC 481 1704

The piano music of Sally Whitwell will become even more accessible from this original recording. Many already know of this Sydney pianist from her recordings, particularly the music of Phillip Glass, as well as her performances with numerous ensembles and soloists. This disc, however, thrusts the individual personality of Ms Whitwell centre stage.

Sally Whitwell discIt is not only the playing that is assertive, engaging, spirited; the works also, themselves, have a great amount to say, mostly on a very personal level. The liner notes detail the pianist/composer’s approach to composition, her inspiration and her journey as a composer. It is written in a chatty discourse and draws the reader in, just as her music does.

Not all pieces are for piano solo, but feature other musicians. A Hundred Thousand Birds (from a poem by Christina Rossetti) features the singers from Vox (a vocal ensemble for skilled young singers aged 18-30). Starlight Steeple has some wonderfully exciting textural shifts and vocal effects, and is based on a poem from a recent collection by Monique Duval. A more poignant setting of another Rossetti poem is Echo, which highlights an expanded choral range and expressive demand with its extended phrases.

With text from her own pen, Whitwell ponders upon her own cultural heritage in To Your Shore, which is filled with hope and fear, in seeking a new life. The piano accompaniment is busy, with its little repetitive figures (almost like the ebb and flow of the ocean waves) whilst the vocal lines are more arching and beautifully sustained. The harmonic gestures used in the choral setting of Byron’s poem She Walks in Beauty has a simplicity, but also a restful quality which comes from the composer’s reflection of falling in love. Flying, is based on a 3-line poem by Australian poet, Michael Dransfield, who battled drug addiction. Whitwell gives wings to the text in this delicate setting for choir and piano.

Along with these 6 choral pieces, there are 7 songs for piano and soprano (with soloist Alexandra Oomens).

A slow moving vocal line is offset with a beautifully rolling piano accompaniment in Some World Far from Ours.

The Birds, a short song cycle with words by Rossetti (Skylark, Nightingale, Linnet) evokes beauty, sadness, hope and joy (as Whitwell states); these songs are truly poignant and yet at times, glorious.

The Yeats poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree gives Whitwell a rich lyric in which to express her longing for a sustainable eco-friendly life. She has created a mesmorising song, In the Deep Heart’s Core, in which there is a faint sense of her own heartbeat pulsing throughout.

Flatworm’s Heaven is a complete contrast, with its inspiration taken from city life frustrations, in particular, train travel (with text taken from The Train Now Standing by Michael Rosen). The incessant rhythmic piano lines almost collide with the text, and finally in a comic final phrase, alludes to the Sydney Trains 4-note announcement cue.

On hearing these songs, one gets the distinct impression that Whitwell craves for joy, and sharing that joy with others. In Warm Where Snowflakes Lie (with text by Rossetti), she allows the vocal line almost to calmly climb and recede, whilst the piano decorates and weaves around in an optimistic manner.

Loopy Lady is a set of 4 piano pieces (Reels, In the Middle, Waltzing Alone, Spin Out) which explores the frequently changing emotional states of teenagers. Musically, they exhibit rhythmic challenges, quirky shifts in style and mood, as well as a lyrical beauty in the slower sections, and some more robust moments.

Road Trip is actually a flute and piano solo (recorded here with flautist Sally Walker) that takes its inspiration from a weekly train commute for the composer from Sydney to Newcastle. There is constant movement throughout, other than a small flute solo, making this an exciting experience.

Whitwell describes The Insomnia Waltz (a piano and violin solo, recorded here with violinist Kirsten Williams) as a “frustratingly meandering stopstart of a piece”. The fragments of thematic ideas capture the mind of an insomniac, as they grapple with disrupted sleep and thoughts.

Winter Love (a piano quintet) was written specially for the Arcacia Ensemble (String quartet), and Whitwell here displays a fine grasp of dealing with the different timbres and textural contrasts that she so ably produces. It is especially appealing, both melodically and rhythmically.

Whitwell is a remarkable composer and pianist of her generation, with an adroit hand at writing for solo piano, chamber ensembles, vocalists, and choirs. She infuses her own personality into everything she writes and performs, making for some striking musical experiences.