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Australian Brandenburg Orchestra ‘Blazing Baroque’ review (Melbourne Recital Centre)

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Hot on the heels of their Helpmann Award-win last week, where they took home the gong for Best Instrumental Ensemble Concert, the members of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra were clearly still flying high with pride and elation at the first Melbourne performance of their latest national tour.

Winning the prestigious gong for its 2015 collaboration with Brisbane’s contemporary circus troupe, Circa, the ABO showed they have a very important lesson to teach Australia’s classical music presenters, and its latest offering, ‘Blazing Baroque’, is further evidence of this. Without the need for gimmickry or dumbing-down, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra might just have cracked one of the most burning questions of the art form: how can classical music attract new audiences?

Of all the so-called “fine arts”, classical music is arguably the most burdened with an image problem. There’s no getting around it: classical ain’t cool, or at least it’s not perceived to be by the uninitiated. Before any classical lovers reading this grab their pitchforks and torches, I hasten to add that I am very much a believer in the transformative power of art music. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to escape the reality that the vast majority of those who regularly go to classical concerts are aged between 65 and 74, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2010 study into the demographics of arts attendees can back me up. With an ageing audience and little sign of a new generation of concertgoers to replace them, solving the conundrum of how to coax new (and preferably younger) people into the concert hall is the holy grail of the classical music industry.

Breaking down the starchy stereotypes of the buttoned-up, hyper-formal concert paradigm is simply a combination of superb craftsmanship and intoxicating charisma.

Strategies on how to achieve this are many, but often flawed. Cut-price tickets for students might attract some young bargain hunters, but there’s little to suggest this later translates into fully paid-up subscribers a few years down the track. Programming unashamedly popular repertoire, like film scores, musical theatre hits, or as has been the case around the world this year, orchestral David Bowie tributes, is a good way to make a quick buck, but there’s scant evidence to indicate that this leads to a higher attendance of traditional programs. As marketers wrack their brains as to what to try next, it wouldn’t be surprising if before long some rare Pokémon conveniently appeared on the Sydney Opera House stage or at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

It may be something of a headscratcher for classical promoters, but the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra appears to have stumbled upon the Scarlet Pimpernel of marketing strategies just by doing what comes naturally. As was shown at last night’s performance, breaking down the starchy stereotypes of the buttoned-up, hyper-formal concert paradigm is simply a combination of superb craftsmanship and intoxicating charisma.

Led from the harpsichord by artistic director, Paul Dyer AO – a consummate and eye-poppingly dynamic showman – there was a wonderful absence of any pretension in this performance. The program featured five relatively obscure works by some of the Baroque’s most important composers – Sammartini, Vivaldi, Telemann and Fasch – but rather than making this performance about dead white men, hundreds of years in the grave, this concert celebrated the brilliant talents of the very-much-alive musicians on the platform, all of whom were Australian.

Dyer’s choice of repertoire for ‘Blazing Baroque’ is clearly anchored to two defining qualities: excitement and virtuosity. Both were in plentiful supply in the evening’s roster of soloists, led by violinist Shaun Lee-Chen. Delivering two technically ferocious concertos in D major, by Vivaldi and Fasch respectively, Lee-Chen brought rock-star intensity to his performance, as well as a surprisingly unselfconscious tinge of improvisation. With lightning-fast playing, Lee-Chen left barely a millimetre of his fingerboard untouched, and if occasionally his enthusiasm overwhelmed the quality of his tone, this was easily forgiven.

There is no workman-like drudgery or dead-eyed stares; these musicians wear their passion and personality on their sleeves.

Equally impressive were flautist Melissa Farrow and recorderist Mikaela Oberg, performing Telemann’s double concerto in E minor. The two solo lines, nimbly interlacing and unspooling around the orchestral texture, were brought out with beautiful elegance, before the full ensemble were unleashed in the hell-for-leather finale, notable for its near-reckless tempo and Paul Dyer’s barely containable excitement as he bounced around on his piano stool.

Such an uplifting display gave me pause for thought. The pathos, beauty and emotional intelligence of classical music will never wane, but accessing the full potential of this repertoire can be a daunting prospect for less experienced concertgoers. Compared to the viscerally potent environment of the theatre, or the physical spectacle of dance, the traditional concert experience can be off-puttingly cold, and this is in no small part down to how aloof some performers can seem, regardless of how sensitive their playing is.

The ABO is another story. There is no workman-like drudgery or dead-eyed stares; these musicians wear their passion and personality on their sleeves. It’s this alert, responsive humanity that makes their brand of concert experience so rewarding – we can palpably sense their sincerity and delight, and that is so profoundly endearing that it’s all but impossible not to be swept up in it. Perhaps most impressive is that this was achieved without sacrificing any artistic integrity. This was music-making of the highest order, with world-class attention to detail and spot-on period authenticity. Do you need to know this, as an audience member? Not at all – this concert was about the sheer joy of the experience, no exclusive intellectualism required.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s ‘Blazing Baroque’ is on tour to Sydney and Brisbane until August 8. Photo by Steven Godbee.

One response to “Australian Brandenburg Orchestra ‘Blazing Baroque’ review (Melbourne Recital Centre)

  1. “these musicians wear their passion and personality on their sleeves. It’s this alert, responsive humanity that makes their brand of concert experience so rewarding ”

    This is spot on, I always enjoy their performances and am more likely to buy a ticket to the ABO than other outfits. Except the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, they do good stuff too…

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