It’s a treat to attend a concert that features outstanding young talent performing at a high standard. With no charge for tickets, many lovers of baroque music turned out on Friday night to fill the seats at the Sydney Conservatorium where we enjoyed the wonderfully themed concert Water Music, presented by the Sydney Baroque Music Festival, now in its the third year. This student-inspired and student-driven initiative brings approximately 18 young musicians together for a week, with pro-bono tutoring from some of Sydney’s best professional baroque players (folk we hear regularly in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Orchestra of the Antipodes, etc). After their long hours of hard work the Festival presented the fruit of their labour with works by French, German, Italian, and English baroque composers. This year the Festival also featured Rafael Font, a talented violinist from Venezuela now resident in Sydney, with prior professional experience playing in major European/UK orchestras and concert venues.
The program opened with music by the French composer Marin Marais entitled Tempete (The Tempest) from his opera Alcione. This short and well-played piece proved to be a taster for the wonderful programme to follow.
After Marais we heard Telemann’s Divertimento in E flat major. Telemann, like Vivaldi, was a prodigious composer, leaving us thousands of works. This piece broke with the concert’s main theme of sea/water and instead took us to the countryside, with nobles out for the hunt. The orchestra was increased to 18 with additional players including two horns, 2 flutes, 2 harpsichords, and a bassoon. Natasha Roumanoff and Cinzia Posega on baroque horns, constantly reminding us of the hunt, and Liane Sadler on flute, were particularly noteworthy.
The first half of the programme closed with Vivaldi’s La Tempesta di Mare (The Sea Storm), a concerto scored for strings and basso continuo with solo violin. This was the highlight of the evening for me. The music is unmistakeably Vivaldi, with a wonderful give and take between orchestra and soloist. As with his more famous Four Seasons, this composition is very descriptive, conjuring up a storm at sea, with a sailing ship tossed around, wind whipping up waves, and storm clouds racing across the sky. Then it quietens, the eye of the storm bringing an uneasy calm, before the fury re-emerges. Rafael Font as soloist displayed the virtuosity that Vivaldi’s concertos demand. The orchestra and Font clearly enjoyed playing together.
After interval the programme featured two great Baroque composers – Rebel from France, and Handel from England. Rebel, a gifted violinist, harpsichordist, and composer was greatly influenced by the great French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, under whom he studied. Eventually he became court composer for Louis XIV, and continued to develop his own distinctive and innovative musical style. Les Elemens (“The Elements”) describes the creation of the world, and is considered one of his boldest compositions. We were warned before the work was performed that the opening chord would be memorable and very descriptive. For anyone who had not heard this music before, they could be forgiven for thinking the first un-baroque sounding chord was the opening of a modern film score!
The theological view for centuries was that creation came out of the harmonious fusion of the four competing elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Rebel described the opening bars:
“The introduction to this Symphony was natural; it was Chaos itself, this confusion which reigned between the Elements before the instant when, subject to invariable laws, they took their prescribed place in the order of nature. I dared to combine the confusion of the Elements with harmonic confusion. I tried to make heard all the sounds mingled together, or rather all the notes of the octave together in one chord.”
Each of the four elements is musically portrayed – the bass instruments represent the Earth, and the flutes imitate the sound of Water. Fire is conjured up by the violins, and Air by flutes alternating long held notes with trills. In the seventh and final movement order emerges out of the chaos and harmony is finally achieved.
The final work on the program was a selection from Handel’s Water Music, a piece that most in the audience would already be familiar with. The original was scored for a large outdoors orchestra (approximately 50 players) and comprising three suites with a total of 21 movements. Unfortunately for Handel’s orchestra, they played so well and the King enjoyed it so much he requested several repeats, requiring them to play from 8pm until well after midnight. In our concert we were heard an arrangement of seven movements for a smaller orchestra (and only once!), which were played with great panache and confidence. In particular, concertmaster Annie Gard led the players with self-assurance and style as she had done throughout the evening.
The orchestra received an enthusiastic and well-deserved applause from the audience. The standard of playing was high overall, and the benefit of professional tutoring by baroque experts during the week was evident. It is encouraging to know that we have the next generation of baroque specialists in the making.