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.

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.

Fine Music to Air New HSC Program

(This article first appeared in the January 2016 edition of Fine Music magazine.)

In a new initiative by Fine Music, students, teachers and listeners will have the opportunity to hear and learn about the latest in Australian music.

With Jason Noble at the helm, listeners will discover concepts have their aural diet expanded, as new music is explored from both the performers’ and composers’ perspective.

Jason NobleDesigned to add to the study of the HSC Senior Music topic, Music of the Last 25 Years, the programmes will assist young audiences, their teachers, and hopefully will find some new converts in older generations as well.

“I see the development of this radio programme as being a valuable resource for music teachers and students, as well as the general public. As a performer specialising in modern repertoire and as a teacher of my instrument, I still find it difficult to direct students in the right direction when it comes to selecting a piece to perform for the compulsory core topic as set by the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES),” said broadcaster, Jason Noble.

In league with key players in the area of new music, Noble has had the benefit of the Australian Music Centre.

“The AMC does a great job collating potential material for students and their teachers, but sometimes sifting through the vast repertoire can be time consuming, “ Noble said.

The initial broadcasts in February will be an introductory series. Fine Music will present an hour length program each on wind and brass, strings, piano, and percussion. Programmes will feature discussions with composers, HSC markers, and teachers.

Later in the year (Term 4), we will work towards a half hour show on each instrument, with about 6 to 8 works featured.

A series like this will excite all those listeners who believe in life long learning. The opportunity to hear new music, and find meaning will be paramount for the success of the series.

As senior Music student from across the state know, the compulsory core topic for the HSC subject, Music 2, is Music of the Last 25 years, and thus will form the main focus of this project. Works chosen for broadcast must have been composed in the last 25years by an Australian composer. The focus is therefore on solo and duo works. Students selecting the Music 1 course could also find some interesting pieces to select should they choose the Australian Music elective, or even the other topic – An Instrument and its Repertoire. There should be works presented to cater for a range of student abilities.

Making this programme digital will give access to those who live in the country too. Many teachers will admit that they tend to fall back on the same tried and tested pieces, but there is so much more music out there virtually undiscovered.

Jason Noble, a bass clarinetist, believes that our music tells us much about the diversity of Australia.

“The listener doesn’t have to enjoy every piece; they are short enough to get a good cross-section of what is going on with Australian composition, while listening to some of Australia’s finest performers. We need to keep supporting new ways of making music, while reflecting on the great legacy of Western Art Music,” said Noble.

Some of the more established composers, such as Ross Edwards, Elena Kats-Chernin will be heard alongside lesser-known ones. Variety is the common theme, and an attempt to get students to become aware that there is an abundance of new works written for their instrument will be a prime objective.

Whilst many students focus heavily on their performances skills, there is also an important part for composition in the study of HSC Music.

“I think there is naturally some co-relation with the composition elective, in that students will be able to hear a lot of Australian works, which could influence their own composition skills. A teacher could easily use the programme to focus on compositional techniques in a couple of the works after purchasing a score. Most scores will be available from the Australian Music Centre, or websites of the composers. In the future, we may be able to extend the program to do a feature on successful HSC compositions. I think this would be really interesting, as there is some great work and teaching being done,” Noble said.

Being a performing musician, Noble is keen to link in with the many organisations with which he already works.

“As a member of Ensemble Offspring, I have lots of links with composers and performers specialising in this new music,” said Noble.

Ensemble Offspring and the Acacia Quartet, along with pianist Sally Whitwell, worked alongside Richard Gill and Karen Carey earlier this year for a successful HSC composition workshop at Santa Sabina. The waters were tested here, with about 100 students and their teachers attending. There is certainly a hungry audience for this new music.

Noble believes that there is need for more access to events like these, to show students that they are not working alone, and to inspire each other to improve their performing and compositional skills.

“The advantage of this radio programme is really that students across the state can access the show without leaving their home. It is great as it will provide equal access for everyone,” Noble said.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Choral Pop

ABC 481 0120

Fifteen of the world’s favourite pop songs are assembled here in choral settings that retain all the excitement, verve and vivacity of the original songs. Of course, pop songs set for choir often do not succeed, but these arrangements (by Dan Walker, Sally Whitwell, Daryl Runswick, Ward Swingle and Roderick Williams) are quite exceptional. Sung by the glorious Cantillation, Australia’s leading chamber choir, this recording is a real winner!

481 0120 Bohemian RhapsodyAll great selections, this recording covers many legendary pop artists or bands, such as Queen, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie, Powderfinger, The Beach Boys, ABBA, Chicago, Toto, Sting, and Radiohead.

Resplendant vocal resources of the 21 singers of Cantillation are clearly evidenced in the title track, Bohemian Rhapsody, along with other tracks, such as If You Leave Me Now, Blackbird, Summertime, and Les Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves), These select singers produce an appealingly blended warm tone throughout, and the close harmony work is quite exceptional.

Vocal harmonies in Toto’s Africa are complemented by the inclusion of drums and percussion to retain authenticity in this song.

The solo voices of Dan Walker and Philip Chu are tantalisingly beautiful in Moon Over Bourbon Street, and How Can I Let You Go? respectively.

Mack the Knife brings to life the flavor of the Swingle Singers, with a rhythmically dynamic arrangement by the great Ward Swingle. No choral pop album could be complete without an ABBA song, and this disc ends with Mamma Mia, in a less predictable, but equally enjoyable version by Sally Whitwell.

Audio available on Soundcloud:

All Imperfect Things: Solo Piano Music of Michael Nyman

Sally Whitwell (Piano)

ABC 481 0412

(This review appeared in the December 2013 edition of Fine Music magazine.)

352910In Sally Whitwell’s opening statement for her third CD, she says “I am keeping Classical Music friendly”.

She has indeed successfully executed this through her performances and recordings, making a name for herself by chiefly taking slightly unusual (or even less heard) repertoire and making it mainstream. In so doing, she has won an ARIA award.

In choosing British film composer Michael Nyman’s music (a style Whitwell describes as “Baroque-n-roll” or “Electronmantic”), Whitwell has assembled music from five movies (The Piano, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Diary of Anne Frank, Enemy Zero which is really a cult computer game, and A Zed and Two Noughts).

Nyman’s style throughout is characterised by chunky repetitive chords contrasting with more lyrical, reflective and somewhat melancholic passages. Oftentimes, the endings of pieces are delightfully left hanging, whilst the changing metres are commonplace. There are charming moments of sparkling filigree, offset by sudden depths of darkness, as well as sound that seems as though it has been chiseled out of stone.

In Whitwell’s playing, there is an enormous passion and personality. It is edgy and robust playing, but still very accessible. Hers is a style that is immediately engaging and yet at times very intimate.

Cello Romance

ABC 476 5162

Anthologies of famous cello music abound, but this latest 2CD release from ABC Classics deserves to be heard. It is a compilation of recordings made mostly by Australians, including Janis Laurs, Li-Wei Qin, Sally Maer, Louise King, Michael Goldschlager, Julian Thompson, Suzanne Wijsman, Noeleen Wright, Daniel Yeardon, Anthea Cottee, Fenella Gill and Jamie Hey.

Along with the usual and equally spendid performances of movements from Bach’s Cello Suites and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as well as movements from the very famous concertos by Vivaldi, Dvorak and Elgar, and well known pieces by Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens, there is much that will interest all kinds of listeners, from cello students and teachers right through to the man or woman in the street.

The apparent simplicity of the Adagio movement from Haydn’s Cello Concert in C is quite delightful with its lyrically shaped phrases. The pizzicato accompaniment to the legato melody in Villa-Lobos’s Cantilena from Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 adds to the Latin American flavour.

The tranquil mood of Spiegel im Spiegel (or “mirror in the mirror”) by Avro Part allows the listener into a rare space of solitude where an infinite number of images can collide. The playing here by Sally Maer and Sally Whitwell (on piano) is most moving.

As well as the standard cello repertoire, there are transcriptions of arias and songs (Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo, and Par che mi nasca in seno from Tamerlano, Sondheim’s Goodbye for Now, and the Ionian song, I Will Give My Love an Apple).

Large scale accompaniments are provided by various orchestras (Melbourne and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras, Sinfonia Australis, and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) on some tracks, but also a diverse range of other accompaniment forms, including piano, harp, harpsichord and chamber settings, thus giving a range of tonal combinations.

Whilst there are sonata movements by de Boismortier and Saint-Saens, it is perhaps in the lesser known works (von Paradis and Zipoli, for example) or transcriptions where this disc actually offers something more.

As a compilation album, covering a smorgasbord of repertoire over a 400 year period, it is well worth having in one’s collection.

The Good, The Bad and the Awkward

The Good, the Bad and the Awkward
Sally Whitwell (pianist)
ABC Classics 476 4898
Reviewed by Barry Walmsley

At first, I picked this CD up and wondered what it was all about… Great music played by a pianist who is one of the fastest evolving personalities in the Australian classical music scene today – a performer who cannot be described as one dimensional at all. So, instantly there was intrigue.

Recordings which grab you with titles such as this one are sure to be successful. But Whitwell’s intelligence in devising an anthology of music which, on the surface may not bear any relationship to each other, shows incredible courage and passionate about what she loves, or what inspires her.

This is a disc which is a unique tribute to film characters to whom she finds an attraction, most importantly the most-loved of all French films, Amelie (with its five beautiful and simply stated pieces by Yann Tiersen).

“I started thinking about why I feel so attached to the film and particularly to her (Amelie), how I identify with her and feel her joys and sorrows so intensely. It’s all about being a bit socially awkward, about how awkward people eventually can find their place in the world, can ultimately triumph. Here was an experience I wanted to share,” said Whitwell.

So it is with this dedication and passion that performer meets music.

Rota’s Gelsomina (from La Strada) uses melodica and toy piano and conjures an image instantly, as does Badalamenti’s L’Execution (from The City of Lost Children). Later, Badalamenti’s Falling (from Twin Peaks) is a slow moving piece which will appeal to the melancholic at heart.

Nyman’s Candlefire (from The Diary of Anne Frank) is so poignant with its simplicity of melodic theme and harmonic gesture, that it is a real tear-jerker. Of course, a work from The Piano cannot be ignored from such a disc, and here Big My Secret conveys the originality of this great film composer.

Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 (as used in The Painted Veil) is intriguing as is all of Satie’s piano music. The French-inspired Delicatessen features music by D’Alessio using piano, toy piano and melodica. The Hours, a film featuring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and based on the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs Dalloway, uses Philip Glass pieces – and this piano music doesn’t disappoint (as it seemingly contains more melodic material than expected!). Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared is a new discovery with his C’est le vent, Betty (from Betty Blue), and its repeated knocking against a quirky but joyous fluency. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag (as used in the Australian animated film Mary and Max) changes in mood from the slow opening to a more fluid section, and returns to a reflective moment, which masks the rag influence momentarily.

The Portrait of a Lady (based on Henry James’s novel of the same name) uses the music of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D899, which Whitwell gives the necessary elegance and brooding drama. Other uses of classical music may cause surprise, such as the adaptation of Delibes’s Flower Duet in the vampire movie The Hunger, Debussy’s Clair de lune (Ocean’s Eleven), Haydn’s Adagio e cantabile from Piano Sonata in E flat (from Interview with the Vampire), and JS Bach’s Prelude No 1 (Bk 1) as used in Bagdad Café (the Preludes are used more in this film, as one of the characters plays them throughout).

Distinctive for his authentic voice in film composition is Ennio Morricone, and here The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (from the film of the same name) employs Whitwell performing harpsichord, melodica, recorder and recording her own voice, in what is a great realisation of a film classic.

This was such an interesting collection of music showing the wealth of material set for film. Some of the selections and their use in film are so intriguing that I have to now go out and deliberately watch or re-watch some films to confirm how this music has actually been used to support the visual image and dramatic content.

Whitwell’s choices show an obvious connection with French music, minimalist orientations, vampire films and strong female story lines.

This music would be richly rewarding for any student. Whitwell has collected some of the best film repertoire for piano. As well, this disc would be a valuable addition to a school teacher’s collection for the teaching of Music and the Media.

The Beatles Unplugged

Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers & Band
Created by Sally Whitwell and Daniel Walker
Featuring Rob Mills and Bobby Fox

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
Saturday, 25 August 2012

The timelessness of John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s songs was evident in the Sydney Philharmonia Chambers Singers’ foray into the realm of popular music. This select choral group, which was conducted by Dan Walker, communicated the 60’s and 70’s with its convincing combination of song, dance and costumes (colourful outfits ala Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

As Sally Whitwell (who created most of the amazing choral settings and instrumental arrangements) said in her notes, it was “genre defying”. The success of this programme was due to the Whitwell Walker duo’s extraordinary skill in choral arranging and their thorough preparation of the singers. It was an imaginative classical and pop fusion in this theatrical choral experience. Other arrangements were by Keith Abbs, Daryl Runswick and John Black.

The Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers are a world-class ensemble. In the many highlights, such as Penny Lane, Yesterday, All My Loving, Let It Be and A Day in the Life (with its Bach-inspired introduction and use of harpsichord accompaniment and even French Overture rhythms later), Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Blackbird and Back in the USSR (with its quirky but effective entrance of the Russian National Anthem), the audience was treated to beautifully blended voices and soothing tones as well as, at other times, robust and powerful moments. Finishing the concert with a stirring Hey Jude brought a return of both soloists, who were impressive in their solos and duos, interacting well with both choir and audience.

The psychedelic projections, gobo lighting, small instrumental ensemble and engaging singing will live in one’s memory showing this organisation is as comfortable singing pop and rock, as it does high-end classical works.

Mad Rush: Solo Piano Music of Philip Glass Sally Whitwell ABC Classics 476 4469

The debut album of Sydney pianist, Sally Whitwell is a couragious and landmark recording for the ABC. It shows a pianist of extraordinary skill in re-interpreting the solo piano music of Philip Glass using the equally innovative and powerful Stuart & Sons grand piano (complete with 102 keys).

In the hands of Whitwell, the tonal excursions chosen for this disc, Opening (from Glassworks), Metamorphosis I-V, Mad Rush, Dead Things, and Wichita Vortex Sutra are alive with the pulsating repetitions, sudden shifts in dynamics, and gradual shaping of phrases. There is perpetual movement, but it remains hypnotic.

“The new musical style that Glass was evolving, was eventually dubbed minimalism. Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures’. Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry. Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, and develops.” (retrieved from )

Glass has been one of the most interesting personalities in the composition world, a musician who has revolutionised art music for the past 60 years, describing himself as a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist. The never-ending spiraling of his sound world encapsulates this spiritual ascension to higher planes.

As much a pop as well as a cult phenomenon, he was trained by some of the great masters in composition from Nadia Boulanger to Darius Milhaud. His music covers film music, opera, chamber works, symphonies and concerti.

The chatty and highly personal insights from the performer allows the listener a glimpse into her sound world and also her own perspectives on this world. “Philip Glass’s music up close is like impressionist pixelations. Step back a little and you see magnificent, undulating, organic shapes,” wrote Whitwell.