Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Next Generation Baroque

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Published: 2nd October, 2019
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Australia’s own Baroque orchestral specialist ensemble led by Paul Dyer from the harpsichord presented a wonderfully affirming concert in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall of the Melbourne Recital Centre. This space of course has an acoustic that is utterly fitting for this ensemble – the subtle tone colours of the Baroque instruments find their clear expression here. This was a program largely of established Baroque favourites, but featuring the talents of three bright rising stars.

Christian Li – a mere 11 years of age – performed a duet with Concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen, a Passacaglia by Halvorsen based on a ground (fixed bass line) of Handel. This delightful work showed a genuinely playful exchange between the two performers. That one so young should have developed the technical proficiency to perform such a work is remarkable enough, but to have developed the musical understanding to grasp the nature of the work to this degree is special indeed. It was a delight to watch and hear the musical exchange between the two.

Annie Gard is a young Australian who, having fallen in love with the tone of Baroque violin, has recently taken her place in the international world of specialty in this genre. Gard presented the Ciaccona from J. S. Bach’s Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) showing remarkable technique, energy, passion and lyricism. The occasional intonation issues made me wonder if her instrument were entirely behaving on the day, but there was much to enjoy in this performance.

Madison Nonoa presented several well known arias from Handel selected for range and contrast, and her arias were interspersed with orchestral overtures and concerti from Vivaldi and Handel for a further broadening of the range of Baroque textures presented. There was much excitement to be found at hearing a young voice destined for real significance. These arias are not easy. Handel calls for tricky shifts of register, and I was full of admiration for the intelligent ways in which she dealt with the challenges; at the top end, she is bell like, lower in the range Nonoa shows the creamy tone of a Kiri Te Kanawa, yet retaining the proportionate lightness of texture needed to work within the historically informed context. Nonoa seemed to negotiate all of this with extraordinary ease. A highlight here was the duet “Let the bright Seraphim” with the Baroque trumpet of Leanne Sullivan.

The remarkable achievement of this ensemble demonstrates the very best of the historically informed performance practice approach. The overwhelming impression is of the music itself being brought life. There is a sheen to the string tone that creates an effervescence in the performance, and the other instruments all contribute variety of expression, all leavened by the delicacy of Dyer’s harpsichord.

This ensemble is expert at balancing the disciplines of counterpoint articulated to points of sparkling light, contrasted with the gently lyrical melodies; the strongly evident dance rhythms that drive some movements of the works contrasted with the beautifully relaxed tempi at cadences that sounded truly spontaneous. The tonal balance within the ensemble is exemplary, and where instrumental tone colours are allowed to feature individually as appropriate, it is always with reference to the surrounding textures. In short, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s approach illuminates the characteristics of Baroque music so well that it is hard to imagine any other approach working as well.

The ample program notes give an excellent welcome into not only the works presented, but also the approach to their preparation. There’s some historical context given, and the circumstances that generated the works.

Though the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre was not full, the audience was both appreciative and sensitive. It was heartening to see that they were attentive enough to be completely responsive when Dyer indicated the desire to maintain that marvelous thread of tension between movements by the withholding of applause until the end of a work, and then applauding with such enthusiasm when relaxation was evident. The audience really is a participant in the work.

The forward looking nature of this program is the overwhelmingly strong message here – both in the support the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra shows in nurturing young talent, and in the approach to presenting the Baroque repertoire – both familiar and less known works presented with the greatest clarity and freshness.

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Peter Hurley reviewed the performance of “Next Generation Baroque” by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 21, 2019.