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ABO: French Baroque with CIRCA

by Suzanne Yanko

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, with director Paul Dyer, needs only to begin tuning up to recreate the atmosphere of the baroque period in the concert hall. Its many aficionados know that such elements such as unusual percussion instruments, designer costumes and Dyer’s distinctive conducting style are interesting but ultimately peripheral: the music’s always the thing.

It’s easy to be distracted from the real musicianship – starting with research, culminating in performance – that characterises the Brandenburgs. Dyer often amplifies our enjoyment and understanding of this popular period of music by choosing soloists who are specialists in the baroque. Often, as with this concert, they are singers. We heard the French soprano Claire Lefilliâtre who is also a specialist in 17th century gesture. That the soprano was worthy of her place on the stage is beyond doubt, her rich voice marrying well with the purity required by baroque vocal lines.

However, both the singer and orchestra were somewhat overshadowed by perhaps the most radical of guests yet: CIRCA, the Brisbane based circus troupe. And yet, there have been hints in earlier performances of this other dimension to baroque entertainment. The orchestra faithfully reproduces the music of the courts but concerts like Tapas and Noel have also lifted the veil on the music of the fair and the streets, with percussive and joyous dance sounds. CIRCA marries the two, bringing to life a theatrical tradition that continues to give pleasure.

The first half of the concert set the scene, dominated by the music of Rameau, his Suite from Les Indes Galantes a good choice to prepare the way for the circus artists. It was dominated by dance and played superbly of course. Smatterings of applause between movements and excited comments from suggested that for many in the capacity audience this was their first experience of the ABO. I can think of no better introduction to one of Australia’s musical treasures.

The second half comprised a pasticcio, created by Dyer with CIRCA’s Yaron Lifschitz. It drew on opera of the period by composers such as Marais and Lully. This art form embraced by the great composers such as Handel and Vivaldi, often employed images of sun and moon, nature, the gods, and of course love and war. Fine themes for musicians, and a gift for circus artists.

I can only hope that a video becomes available of this extraordinary event, as it is almost impossible to convey the effect of musical artistry combined with physical theatre. Light, colour, movement and, of course, sound filled the stage. The soprano was at times joined by singers from the Australian Brandenburg, as partners in this theatre event rather than soloists. Yet the most memorable music of the night was their beautiful quartet Hymne à la nuit from Hippolyte et Aricie, which showed Rameau in a different light from the earlier part of the program. For most items Dyer and the musicians played with warmth and surprising equanimity as action whirled about and even above them. It was a nice touch that the circus tricks centred on balance, itself a characteristic of music of this period.

From a reviewer’s point of view, it is hard to recreate the brilliance of this concept and its execution. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has delivered many crowd-pleasers before; indeed it would be noteworthy if they did not. But on this occasion there was an extra dimension, of surprise and excitement, with audience reaction the most telling proof of its success. One can only hope that there will be more!

Photo credit: Steven Godbee

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