A Cunning Blog

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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.

 

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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 

 

 


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The Code: a guide to concert dressing, part 2

Barbara Bonney (left) and Fiona Campbell (right) in Seoul in 2010. Of all four outfits (white tail coat, bias cut oyster satin, black so-tight-can't-sit-down sheath and red satin, this got the most votes)

I had to review the Australian Brandenburg concert for SMH last Friday. It was, as expected, a great concert. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell and have been ever since I saw her in Pinchgut’s Juditha Triumphans. This was my first opportunity to hear her on the concert platform, and it was terrific.

Come review writing time, however, I hit a knotty problem. Campbell is a very theatrical singer, and she was performing operatic arias. To heighten the drama, she had four costume changes during the evening. Would it be frivolous to review the dresses as well as the music?

A bit of a different look for baroque divo and diva

In the end, this is all that 350 words could fit.

But it got me thinking about onstage concert gear. For the diva, a wardrobe full of glitzy evening gowns is de rigeur. For most orchestral musicians, however, the choice is black tie, white tie, or, more often than not, just common-or-garden ‘concert blacks’. These days, as classical ensembles react to the flight-to-hipness, more and more ensembles are getting trendy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra have had Akira Isogawa designing their outfits for nearly a decade now, and Carla Zampatti designs the ladies outfits for the Australian Brandenburg. The Goldner Quartet stick to own choice blacks, while the Australian String Quartet, currently all ladies, go for own choice evening gowns.

Does it matter? Do we like frocking up? And any suggestions for who young artists about town might get to design their costumes?