Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

A Christmas Australis with Real Music with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir

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The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.

Noël! Noël!

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 14 December 2011
plays in Wollongong on 17 December, Cremorne 18 December, Newtown 19 December
broadcast on ABC classic FM on 21 December, 8 pm

Henry John Gauntlett – Once, in royal David’s city
Giovanni Gabrieli – Jubilate Deo
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Assumpta est Maria in caelum
Maurizio Cazzati – Passacaglia and Ciaccona
Anonymous – Falalán, Villancico catalan, and Bastião
Tomaso Albinoni – Adagio from concerto in D minor for oboe, opus 9 no. 2
Antonio Vivaldi – Trio sonata in D minor, opus 1 no. 12 “La Follia”, RV 63
Traditional arr. Tristan Coelho – O come, O come, Emmanuel and the Coventry Carol
Morten Lauridsen – “La Rose Complète” and “Dirait-on” (arr. Coelho) from Les Chansons des Roses
Katherine K. Davis arr. Tristan Coelho – The Little Drummer Boy
Felix Gruber – Stille Nacht
Anon. arr. David Wilcocks – O come all ye faithful

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Australian Brandenburg Choir
Paul Dyer – artistic director, conductor, harpsichord, chorusmaster

Christina Leonard – saxophone

Having grown up in the northern hemisphere, the winter Christmas is ingrained in me, but the event is fundamentally connected to mid-winter. The pagan winter solstice festival with its strong connection to nature, namely the Sun, a celebration of the days starting to lengthen and a new year beginning, is tied to Christmas as the scriptural imagery is compatible with the older ritual’s. Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, and Mithras are all also alleged to have been born on the (northern) winter solstice and St. Chrysostom said in the 4th Century of the timing of the Nativity ‘while the heathen were busied with their profane rites the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance’ but also thought it a suitable birthday for the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’1 In that sense it naturally and intuitively doesn’t feel like the right festival for the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So unique traditions evolve here and the more appealing ones are strongly connected to nature — spending all your time outside enjoying the long daylight while it lasts, roses blooming, surfing, eating seafood, fresh fruit, especially cherries, etc. —, but still are colored by the northern traditions. With his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney’s main squeeze for Baroque music and period instrument lovers, Paul Dyer provides the best music for this austral summer solstice Christmas, music which makes natural and festive sense. It is very serious, ‘scholarly’ music, but with the artistic spirit of the Baroque steeping it, it has a bright festive sunny quality too, especially in the style of their playing. Dyer has assembled a varied program of traditional carols played very thoughtfully, Spanish popular music from the 16th Century, late Baroque instrumental music and early Baroque motets and more recently composed pieces. Somehow Dyer’s enthusiasm, sense of occasion and serious-festive-art approach to music allows all this to hang together comfortably.

For the orchestra, Dyer has not brought out the full ABO, but an intimate and varied ensemble of 2 violins, viola, cello, theorbo or guitar, Baroque guitar, harpsichord, a small. very pretty and mellifluous positive (pipe organ), saxophone and percussion, all period instruments played with period technique. The saxophone, which I suppose is always a “period instrument,” played by Christina Leonard, takes the place of the oboe in the orchestra and as soloist for the Albinoni concerto. It may be hard to imagine, but Leonard’s playing in the concerto did not have the usual brassy sound we’re used to from the jazz universe, rather, as a musician who often plays new and contemporary classical chamber music, her timbre was varied and gentle, not imitating an oboe, but her soprano saxophone paradoxically perhaps sounded more mellow, less piercing than an oboe. Her articulate and flowing legato and light trills suited the Baroque style well with the orchestra’s period instruments playing with a definite moving pulse, and surprised me how well the 20th Century instrument integrated with this music. For the other pieces, she also played a tenor sax in the orchestra, and rather than standing out strongly like a horn, settled into the ensemble sound next to the organ, providing something like a gentle kind of reed pipe, but with human lung-wind. A saxophone, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a loud instrument, is perhaps not so out of place in a Baroque orchestra when one considers that the principle behind the Baroque orchestra is to combine varied, contrasting colors into a lucid, rich, strongly textured whole which can be bright or dark as needed. But Christina Leonard plays with such restraint and care that her volume balanced nicely.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Christina Leonard. Photo by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Christina Leonard. Photo by Steven Godbee.

The Brandenburg Choir similarly has an interesting color. They’re are full of character as a choir — not just in the playful soloists who stepped forward and gave theatrical renditions of the villancicos and the Little Drummer Boy — but in their ensemble sound which is very colorful, quite contrasty in a refreshing way. By comparison, the highly integrated, smooth unison singing of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in their recent performance of Mahler’s Second has its place of course, but there is plenty of space for complementary groups like the Brandenburg Choir, so that such a comparison is meaningless. The full diversity of classical music is good for the ear and the art! The men of the Choir — basses, tenors and altos — ranged from very strongly projecting and earthy, to serene and softly textured in the motets, to quite smooth in Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on.” The women, all sopranos, sang powerfully and rising, sunny, restrained but still otherworldly in O come all ye faithful and yet in Emmanuel and the Palestrina motet were times quite soft and supple while still shining, or rather glowing a bit. Paul Dyer’s direction of the choir when the orchestra did not play (mainly the first three pieces) showed he has a talent for choral direction too, guiding a nuanced articulation of the sung music and delicate dynamic changes.

Given their interesting and complementary spectrum of colors, the orchestra and the choir combined very nicely in the acoustic of the hall which is very clear but with a touch of church-like stone brightness. The strings were only slightly washed out in detail for a moment in the loudest climaxes in the carols. The percussion could be heavy handed at times, especially the small bells and chimes whose tinkling opened a foreign twee dimension to the otherwise seriously played music.

The orchestra played alone for the Cazzati, Albinoni and Vivaldi pieces, Paul Dyer conducting from the harpsichord. Cazzati is a composer I’m not familiar with, but very keen now to hear more of. The Passacaglia is intricate, surprising in its turns with a strong character of its own which was nonetheless not in the least show-offy. The musicians evidently had a deep understanding of the music stemming from a deep enthusiasm for it. Each instrument plays solo in turn in the Ciaccona section in virtuosic style but still reflecting the depth of the piece. Anthea Cottee on the cello played especially marvelously with spontaneity and seriousness, and with ornamentation in the spirit of the music.

The theme and variations of the Vivaldi sonata showed violinist Matt Bruce’s enormous skill, interweaving also with Ben Dollman’s violin, with very accurate bowing bringing out the characteristic timbre needed for each variation. One could hear how repeating a simple, short but inventive theme Vivaldi can span a huge range of experience.

The Albinoni movements had a serene quality but with a tight walking tempo giving it a certain energy and momentum to fit very well between the villancicos and the Vivaldi while foreshadowing the mysterious Emmanuel. Christina Leonard’s carefully shaped phrases brought across the humanity of the music.

O come, O come, Emmanuel came into its own, somehow the period instruments, the intimate setting with the small organ and chorus gave it detail and clarity which heightened the mystical quality of the 13th century poem and that of the music with its slightly strange harmonies. The chorus sang the words with very good clarity and with the instruments’ vocal phrasing, the music was enveloping and seemed to speak very near to each in the audience, and brought out detail in the music one often misses in larger cathedral settings, especially in recordings.

Stille Nacht, in harmony with the spirit of the concert, the choir sang in German, French and English. Their mastery of the multi-lingual singing (they also sang a lovely impromptu Russian sacred choral work) was evident and it was fascinating to hear how the music changes slightly in each language. Heard on the period instruments this carol as well as the other traditional ones, one appreciates just what fine music they are and how that artistic depth is necessary for such an important festival occasion.

  1. Paraphrased from Robert Graves, The White Goddess.
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