A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

For the love of Italy

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I recently reviewed the Australian Brandenburg‘s first concert for the year, Amore Italiano, for SMH, but 350 words in a daily broadsheet didn’t quite give me space to cover my thoughts… So a bit of a follow-up.

Paul Dyer introduced his guest directors, Guido Morini and Marco Beasley (aka Accordone) by way of a charming story about a concert in a tiny mountain village in Italy, reached by bus, funicular and a great flight of steps. There was wine, there was song — it all sounded very picturesque. Perfect Brandenburg fodder, in fact, for while there are many words you can apply with confidence to their performances — virtuosity, scholarship, beauty, etc. — their performances also tend towards the picturesque. That is not meant to be a criticism or a faintly praising damnation. It is just that, from my observation, the regular Brandenburg audiences have come to expect performances that are thrilling but also —  how shall I put it? — comforting, a source of consolation or even escape from the big, bad world.

With Accordone, you got all the usual stuff — brilliant performances all round, and I didn’t have space to say how brillianty the fiddles played, or the lutenists for that matter. But from the very beginning, there were questions in the air, curly, disturbing questions to rattle the mind.

The opening sinfonia, for example, was a fine example of seventeenth-century Italian operatic writing. Except that it wasn’t. Instead it was a dead-pan, historically-informed, no vib rendition of a 21st century work modelled on a 17th century work. Which makes the whole authenticity argument a moot point. I’m trying to work out why I found this use of “recycled materials and traditional skills” (as they put it) so disturbing. Somehow, it felt like it was on the edge of a con – the old argument that the closer you get to reproducing something exactly, the more sophisticated, the more duplicitous even, the work is.

Later in the performance came more original music from Accordone, from another opera — they’ve written three already! — called Solve et coagula, a curious tale based on the life of Raimondo di Sangro, an 18th century Neapolitan scientist, alchemist, inventor and all-round strange fellow. And strange it was too. Not, thank goodness, a reproduction antique, but more a baroque re-imagining. Baroque in the sense of mannerist, rococo art, rather than in the musical sense. I found the first extract a bit lugubrious for my taste, but fun, with a touch of the Michael Nymans about it. And I loved the little lyric Luna, which had the stillness of music by Arvo Part.

I’m don’t mean to pigeonhole the music by these comparisons, or for that matter suggest they were less than original. Rather that I found them more honest in the way that they used tools of the past — musical forms, instruments, language — without hiding their contemporary sensibility.

Interestingly, there was some juicy reactions from audience members behind me. “What were they thinking?” and “This’ll lose them subscribers” were two comments overheard. I’m sure they weren’t speaking for the whole audience, but there were a fair few empty seats after interval.

As I said in my review, the early leavers missed out. There was nothing to scare the horses in the second half, and plenty to delight. The three frottolas (two from the 1500s, one from the 2000s) were just lovely, and Marco Beasley stole the show with Le canzone del Guarracino, a patter song to rival the best of G & S. As for the final encore, a Neapolitan soldiers’ song, it was a real coup de theatre to have everyone on stage down tools and sing lustily, not like choirboys,  in four part  harmony.

So… what started as a quaint story of rural Italy turned into a murder mystery and ended up with a Neapolitan street fight.

Accordone push the boundaries musically, historically and aesthetically. It won’t please everyone, but the Brandenburgs can and should try it more often.

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

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