Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Bittersweet Obsessions

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Published: 12th November, 2017

For as long as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra continues to offer experiences such as found in “Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi & Bach”, new enthusiasts of Baroque music can be assured. The sheer excellence of the music-making and the inventive ingenuity of the creative teams assembled by Paul Dyer guarantee a devoted following that will continue to fill concert halls.

The coupling of Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and J. S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata is not a new concept for Dyer. In 2011 he directed Ludovico’s Band in acclaimed performances of these two pieces along with Bach’s Fight Between Phoebus and Pan as a triple bill for Victorian Opera. Instead of VO’s second Bach piece Dyer chose Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa and added a series of instrumental pieces to complete his project. Considering that we are celebrating the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, it is not surprising that Lamento della Ninfa was also a highlight of Ludovico’s Band’s series of Monteverdi concerts in March. It is also no surprise that Tommie Andersson’s theorbo was a feature of both concerts.

Andersson’s masterful account of Kapsberger’s “Toccata arpeggiata” was the perfect introduction to the nymph’s lament, especially as realised by Dyer. Used sparingly, cymbal, wind machine and the ethereal soprano of young New Zealander Natasha Wilson added poignant theatrical colour. So compelling was the mood established by this combination that the audience was reluctant to break the spell by applauding until interval. Although there was variation in the musical content, there was a tangible continuity in the instrumental arrangements that threaded the several parts together. Even when Shaun Lee-Chen unleashed brilliant cascades of violinistic virtuosity in Falconieri’s “Ciaccona” after the nymph’s lament it did not seem out of place.

Much of the atmosphere was also created by John Rayment’s lighting design, Genevieve Graham’s costume designs and Charlotte Mungomery’s set design. The chamber orchestra was placed on a level with the audience while the stage was dominated by floor to ceiling scaffolding sandwiched between backcloths depicting a version of Claude Lorrain’s 1682 painting, Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia. The pastoral scene was completed by sheaves of wheat behind which three shepherds commiserated with the fate of the abandoned nymph. Tenor Karim Sulayman from the USA, Australian tenor Spencer Darby and Danish bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen made a harmonious trio to underpin Natasha Wilson’s beautifully sung lament – anguished innocence personified.

Anybody who had attended ABO’s brilliant Messiah earlier this year would have expected something remarkable from Constantine Costi’s direction. His sensitivity to the spirit of the music appears to be always at the forefront of any imaginative effects he creates. Both the pathos of the nymph’s lament and the fury of Tancredi and Clorinda’s battle reflected the musical content and heightened the emotional impact. Gratuitous dramatic effects were not part of the directorial plan. The device of using two Aikido performers (Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter) to depict the battle while Sulayman in the principal role of the Narrator so eloquently described the action worked extremely well. The clashing of the metal pipes as the martial arts combatants fought was smoothly executed and was a testament to their musical skills as they coincided with the dramatic instrumentation of Monteverdi’s score. Wilson and Jesperson sang their comparatively small parts with conviction and Wilson’s final notes as Clorinda dies and sees heaven opening to welcome her could not have been more affecting. The pure beauty of her singing was a reminder of just how good the acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall can be for those who are able to exploit them. An imaginative treatment of Trabaci’s short instrumental “Consonanze stravaganti” concluded the aural world created in the first half of the program.

A very different mood was established after interval with the stage transformed into a coffee house. Sacks of coffee were heaped on the scaffolding and a modern coffee machine took pride of place centre stage. Although the resolution of the battle of wills between a disapproving father and a willful daughter was similar to VO’s, with the barista becoming the husband-of-choice of the cunning, coffee-addicted Lieschen, these two updated versions differed in many details. Flamboyant in a blonde wig, red dress, fake fur coat, fishnet type stockings and sexy little ankle boots, Lieschen became every father’s nightmare. The mobile phone made its inevitable appearance but the less obvious tobacco and alcohol addictions of the put upon father also made their point. Costi powers of inspiration seem capable of solving the difficulties of any repetitive arias (da capo or otherwise) without appearing heavy-handed. Having singers with the theatrical and vocal skills to animate his ideas certainly helps. The purity and ease of Wilson’s repeated upward leaps of “heute noch” were particularly impressive and contributed to the charm of her characterisation. Those who are only familiar with Bach’s sacred music may have been surprised that a performance faithful to the original could be so entertaining.

“Laughter. Tears. Vengeance” – it was all there as promised and much more besides. Complementing the visual feast and excellent singing, the orchestral playing was a constant joy. Chen’s virtuosity, the usual wonderful continuo playing and some gorgeous work from recorder and flute – sweet, gentle and tuneful, were part of an exceptional whole. Referencing ABO’s signature, the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 that began the second half of the program was a most appropriate inclusion. Bach and Monteverdi – what more could you want when presented at this level?


Heather Leviston reviewed the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on November 5, 2017.