ABO’s Night in Versailles with Justin Taylor an absolute delight!

by | Jul 6, 2024 | Ambassador thoughts, Chamber Groups, Harpsichord & Organ, Orchestras, Premiere

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra | Night in Versailles

July 6, 2024 | City Recital Hall, Sydney

Who isn’t intrigued by a Bach concerto for four harpsichords? This, and the celebrity Franco-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor were the draw cards for a Night in Versailles, part of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s 2024 season.  As we entered the hall we were dazzled by sparkle…  the stage set to emulate the exoticism and grandiosity that defined the musical life of the court of Versailles. Lavish decorations adorned with lush greenery, jewels, and peacock feathers simply oozed kitsch luxury. Silk, velvet, and brocade in the furnishings added to the overall sensory experience promising an evening of baroque elegance, all centred around the humble harpsichord. Small groups of milling musicians adorned in gently contrasting shades of pale lavender, dusty pink and bone (plus the cheeky addition of comfy white sneakers) added a nicely theatrical start to the evening, thanks to production design by Trent Suidgeest.

The program for Night in Versailles was a carefully curated selection of baroque masterpieces. It opened with François Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses, arranged for harpsichord and strings. This piece, characterised by its delicate ornamentation and graceful melodies, set a refined and sophisticated tone for the evening.

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And let me say right up front, Justin Taylor was nothing short of a revelation. His performance, an absolute delight, demonstrated why he is considered one of the foremost harpsichordists of his generation. From the moment his fingers touched the keys, the audience was transported to the grand salons of Versailles – with a charming modern veneer. Taylor’s journey to international acclaim began at the young age of 23 when he won the prestigious International Musica Antiqua Competition in Bruges. His accolades didn’t stop there; he also clinched the Audience Prize, the Alpha Prize, and the EUBO Developing Trust Prize for the most promising young European musician. His founding of Le Consort and subsequent performances with renowned ensembles and festivals worldwide have only solidified his status.  I sat in awe after only a few minutes of watching this masterful performer.

Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s La marche des Scythes for solo harpsichord followed, and Taylor’s interpretation captured the lively spirit of the baroque, his playing is absolutely magnificent seeming to give vast dynamic voice to an instrument that physically does not have large range of volume.

I will admit, I may have lost track of the program at this point, so captivated was I by the joyful frisson between soloists and ensemble during the next few pieces from French baroque greats Reali, Duphly and (again) Royer. A reduced orchestra of ABO’s principle strings showed personality, precision and passion and the various coquettish glances, knowing smiles and ‘bring it on’ moments that flashed been the players were exhilarating.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Sauvages, ended the first half. With its vibrant rhythms and exotic flair, reflecting Rameau’s inspiration from Native American dancers, this popular work shows Rameau’s ingenuity in blending French baroque sophistication with elements perceived as exotic during his time. This set included two engaging variations of Les Sauvages by Jean-François Tapray and Michel Corrette,  the three works together presenting a sort of “Jazz standards of the baroque era” encompassing delicate ornamentation and dynamic shifts and highlighting Taylor’s harpsichord prowess.

The evening also paid homage to JS Bach with his Italian Concerto for solo harpsichord. Praised for its structural perfection and melodic beauty, the concerto allowed Taylor to again display his technical ability and interpretative depth. He gave movement 2 in particular an almost lazy languid feel before tripping lightly into the final bubbly presto. The contrast between the ritornello sections and solo passages was beautifully articulated.

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Then a short break for the harpsichord: Bohemian composer František Jiránek’s early 18th century Oboe Concerto in F major – an Australian premiere no less! This piece, influenced heavily by Vivaldi (I definitely heard faint strains of the Four Seasons), showed Jiránek’s skill and the virtuosic demands placed on the soloist. The juxtaposition of recurring themes and solo episodes in the Allegro, the lyrical lines in the Adagio, and the more brisk finale were all rendered with absolute clarity by Adam Masters.

While the 4 harpsichords for the big finale were moved into position, we were entertained by Shaun-Lee Chen (violin) and Robert Nairn (double bass) who provided yet another variation on Les Sauvages, this time a fun, jaunty jazz interlude, and then, undeniably the concert highlight, we were treated to Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A minor, BWV 1065.  The concerto, an arrangement of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor (RV 580), is a stunning showcase of Bach’s genius in adaptation and orchestration. Written during his time in Leipzig, the piece is notable for its intricate interplay between the four harpsichords, each weaving complex and energetic lines that blend into a harmonious and dynamic whole. The concerto’s three movements allowed the soloists, Taylor, alongside local harpsichord masters Paul Dyer, Neal Peres Da Costa and Anthony Abouhamad, to demonstrate their skills, with the final movement in particular bringing the performance to a rousing and exhilarating conclusion. And what fun they had! This masterful execution, combined with the sheer visual spectacle of four harpsichords on stage at one time, was a joy to witness.

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We were treated to one last ‘home grown’ variation on Les Sauvages before our fantastical multi-sensory feast of live music at the court of Versailles came to a close. For the courtiers of the time I imagine these musical experiences provided a temporary escape from the political intrigues and rigid etiquette of court life. I say ‘hear hear’, what a way to spend one’s Friday night!

Photo credit: Keith Saunders

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About The Author

Pepe Newton

Pepe is classikON's Managing Director. She is an avid concert-goer and self confessed choir nerd, regularly performing and touring with no less than 5 different choirs to countries ranging from Poland to Cuba over the last few years. Through her board positions in choirs and her role with classikON she is actively involved in the exciting Australian art music scene, including the promotion and commissioning of new Australian music. Running classikON presents a perfect opportunity for Pepe to pair her love of classical music with her ‘real life’ qualifications in business management and administration.

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