A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Photo (and all the rest of them too): Steven Godbee

In 2015 the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra collaborated with contemporary circus ensemble, Circa to create a pasticcio around music of the French Baroque. They’re back for more in 2017, this time with a Spanish-themed pasticcio. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has let his imagination loose on the image of the bull ring, taking inspiration from thrumbing rhythms and plangent emotions of Catalan song. ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, has spiced up his ensemble with baroque guitarist Stefano Maiorana from Rome, soprano Natasha Wilson (pictured below) and a medley of old and new arrangements.

18193405_10155227412299254_7813138481784460886_oIt’s a terrific show. The eight performers surprise and delight, impress and astonish with their repertoire of tumbling, rope-climbing, trapeze work, silks and physical theatre. Their balance, strength and grace are constantly amazing and they heighten the audiences engagement with a subtle and often funny overlay of character acting.

We interrupt this review for a quick announcement. Normally at this point I’d be asking you to visit my book project, now crowd-funding at Unbound. However, today, I would rather that you went to www.fairgofairfax.com.au to read about the cuts to editorial staff at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m still a Herald contributor, in theory, but the arts coverage has shrunk dramatically, so I rarely get a gig these days. Luckily for me, it’s not my bread-and-butter, but it’s devastating and not just to the journalists. In my neck of the woods the whole arts eco-system suffers when intelligent and in depth coverage is curtailed. Without the support of mainstream media, you’re stuck with the likes of me and the rest of the inter webs. Please let Fairfax know if you’re happy, or not, with this situation, and please let artists, arts writers, bloggers and arts companies know too! Thank you. Now read on.

The musicians — just one to a part — are ranged across the back of the stage, with Circa artists in front and singer Natasha Wilson drifting in between the two. The band plays with high energy and patchy brilliance; the improvisations don’t always click and the energy doesn’t always make it past the acrobatics, but when it does, it’s thrilling. Natasha Wilson, making her Australian debut, sings with unfettered clarity and a slightly other-worldly detachment, giving the heart-on-sleeve ballads a tantalising sense of mystery.

18278628_10155227414344254_4469351965812937694_oOn one level it’s good, old-fashioned acrobatics, with a classy backing band and bull-fighting theme. On another level, it’s an attempt to create something bigger – a synthesis of art forms which bounce off each other to create something new. Does it work? Yes and no. As a rip-roaring display of musical and physical virtuosity it is hard to beat: I challenge anyone not to gasp and grin during the performance. As a pasticcio it’s less convincing for me — if there’s a narrative in there, it comes and goes, with human drama upstaged by spectacle. There are so many moments of genius — the red wheelbarrow as bull and bull-fighter’s cape, for example, and the bull-fighters (bulls?) charging across a tabletop — that it feels like overthinking it to get stuck on genre-bashing.

Ultimately, Spanish Baroque has all the makings of a festival piece, a show which could tour anywhere in the world. Fortunately for me, it all started in Sydney.

18238473_10155227413469254_5682927937048582983_oFurther performances – Friday, Saturday 5 and 6 May, Wednesday and Friday 10 and 12 May, all at 7pm, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday 6, all in City Recital Hall, plus two performances on 12 and 14 May at Melbourne Recital Centre and one performance at QPAC in Brisbane on 16 May. 


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Po marie, po aroha

16abo-noel-sydney-196There’s no better antidote to the nuttiness of the end-of-year, end-of-term, end-of-everything scramble than 90 minutes of music from the Australian Brandenburg team. Their annual Noel Noel concert has become a permanent fixture in so many people’s calendars that this year the number of times they perform this show is into double figures. And, as ever, the unquenchable energy of their artistic director Paul Dyer infuses the evening with a freshness and almost childlike sense of wonder. Humbugs and Grinches have no place here, and glitter and tat and dad jokes and glorious singing are all part of the joy.

Singing is, of course, central to Noel Noel, and with it the Brandenburg Choir, an occasional but long-standing band of hand-picked singers directed and driven and cajoled and coralled by Dyer. Their opening salvo, ‘Wachet auf!’, in lusty unison, would stir even a school-shy teenager from his or her doona lair, and they skip through the traditional carols with crisp, bouncy rhythm. Meanwhile, there are some superior vocal chops on display, in works like Ola Gjeilo’s ‘The Spheres’ from his 2007 work, Sunrise Mass. Smudgy note clusters, bruised chords, textures which fade in and out like a tapestry woven of different yarns. Rather lovely.

madison_nonoa-69-photo-steven-godbeePaul Dyer has an impressive track record for his choice of soloist at Noel Noel (including Taryn Fiebig, Sara Macliver and Max Riebl.) This year’s is another doozy. Madison Nonoa is a soprano of Samoan-New Zealand and European descent, and a recent graduate of the University of Auckland. Her performances, to date, have all been in her home country, New Zealand, but that is surely about to change with this, her Australian debut. Nonoa’s voice promises many different colours: she sings ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with a tight, choirboy clarity and a slightly feverish vibrato; in her ‘Ave Maria’ (the Vladimir Vavilov aka Caccini one) her voice opened up, with the long, lyrical lines sounding blissfully easy (although I’m sure they were anything but). In Eriks Esenvalds ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ the bright sheen of her voice contrasted with a solo chorister, singing in duet. And in ‘Amazing Grace’ we got a hint of a richer, deeper quality to her tone, a clue as to where this still very young voice might be heading.

Accompanying the choir and Nonoa was a select ensemble of strings, brass, keyboards and percussion. In fact, it was not so much an orchestra as a collection of soloists, most of whom had their featured moment in the limelight as Dyer explored the full palette of tone colours on stage. So a baroque trumpet (Leanne Sullivan) had the prized first verse solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ while the generous array of sackbuts — early slide trombones — came to the fore in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and Rittler’s Ciaccona a 7 slid deliciously in and out of improvisation over a simple ground bass.

Beyond the singing and playing, a quick mention for the unsung heros of Noel Noel: the arrangers. Some of them we already know: David Willcocks, for example, with his unforgettable descant countermelody for ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, or Felix Gruber, who arranged his own tune, originally for two voices and guitar, to become the choral version of ‘Silent Night’ so beloved by all. Others try to slip by unnoticed: Tristan Coelho, award-winning Sydney composer, who put together a spicy, wistful version of sixteenth century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez’s ‘Con que la lavare’; British composer and arranger Jim Clements, who has worked with Ben Folds to create a scrunchy, delicate a capella version of ‘The Luckiest’ which the Brandenburg choir delivered with touching intimacy; and film/tv composer and music director Alex Palmer, who fashioned stylish, fresh and beautiful new arrangements of traditional and more recent compositions. His handling of close harmonies in the Vavilov sent tingles down the spine and his take on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ was an inventive instrumental break which, surely, must have melted even the most determined Scrooge.

Noel Noel has five more performances: at City Recital Hall on Saturday 17 December at 5pm and 7pm, at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral tonight, 15 December at 7pm, at St Patricks in Parramatta next Monday at 7.30pm, and at Newtown’s St Stephen’s Anglican Church on Tuesday. Highly recommended.

And a quick plug for my stuff: I’m writing a book on the Dartington International Summer School of Music. It’s called Sanctuary, and it’s due to be published by Unbound in 2018. If you enjoy my writing I urge you to visit my author page, take a look at the short video and pledge to buy the book! Many thanks, and best wishes for Christmas and New Year.



Super Sato and the Boy Wonder

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Back in Sydney, and back to the Brandenburgs last night, for a concert with violinist Shunske Sato as guest director and soloist, in a program which took the band out of their home territory and into the lush sounds of the nineteenth-century. tardis

Sort of. In fact, it was lush sounds filtered through period instruments, period sounds filtered through a romantic sensibility, and a romantic-sized orchestra making up the numbers. Take Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, a late-nineteenth century pastiche of an imagined eighteenth-century sound, played by twenty-first century artists on seventeenth-century instruments. Talk about time travelling!

In the end, this was a very personal — idiosyncratic, even — performance. With Sato directing, it turned into an exercise in boundary pushing which, for me, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Tempi were extreme. Fast movements were not just allegro vivace or con brio, but prestissimo, as fast as possible, and sometimes faster. It was exciting but the notes raced past in a blur. Slow movements were expansive, delicious, indulgent, but sometimes lingering over the lyricism to that point that they only just avoided stalling in mid-air. And that cheeky little catch of breath before a phrase return, that ‘wait for it, wait for it…’ worked brilliantly the first time, but its impact faded with repetition, like an over-worked punchline.

I’m going in hard here, and I’m aware that it’s at least partly because, for my sins, I know Grieg’s string writing back-to-front and upside-down. This was a highly original, and even risky, performance and, as I might have said before, I’m all for taking risks. So bring on the rubato, rock that voluptuous portamento, take things as far as they can go, and then maybe a little bit further. It certainly got my attention, if not my unqualified admiration.

Before the Grieg, we had Mendelssohn-the-Boy-Wonder and the third of his String Symphonies. Back in the musical time machine as a nineteenth-century twelve year old remodelled an eighteenth-century format. With Sato at the helm the Brandenburg’s string sound was distinctly different: less hard edges, more elision, minimal vibrato. He launched into the first movement at a cracking speed, and the band were up for for it, matching their rhythm and articulation with thrilling sense of ensemble. Exciting stuff.

Then Paganini.

paganiniPaganini inhabits a strange place in classical music because, as we all know, he was basically a freak. A freak, a showman, a shyster, all rolled into one big bundle of superhuman talent. Not such a bad fit, then, for the Brandenburg Orchestra, with the right frontman, and last night we had two. Sato romped through the fourth Violin Concerto, making it sound terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. Not to be outdone, Paul Dyer directed a supersize orchestra, kept up with the soloist and played the triangle. It was quite a show, and brilliantly done by all on stage. (Special mention to the trombones and trumpets). The only disappointment was that Sato declined the audience’s vociferous requests for an encore. By this time, we knew he could do anything. Anything. Maybe a wafer-thin caprice? Pretty please?

But no. In true showman style, he left us wanting more. Let’s hope he’s back soon.