The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra made its first, and very welcome, visit to Newcastle on the evening of Saturday 17th August, bringing its touring program entitled ‘New Constellations’ to the highly successful 2019 Newcastle Music Festival.
Co-founder and clarinettist Nicole van Bruggen’s introductory talk outlined the history of the group, which grew from the suggestion of conductor and educator, the late Richard Gill, described as a ‘powerhouse of energy’. She pointed to the steady growth of its touring, education and practical training arms. At full strength the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra can be around 40 players; ‘New Constellations’ called for 14 players, with three doubling up for both works.
As the group assembled for the first work, Mendelssohn’s astonishing Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, the first impression was of the instruments, for the group is dedicated to HIP: Historically Informed Performance on period instruments. It was appropriate, then, that audience members could be seen regularly checking back with the printed program for details of the makers and dates of specific instruments.
Written when Mendelssohn was 16, the Octet has all the freshness and vitality of a youthful work, but also an amazing maturity. The Guest Director, Berlin-based violinist Jakob Lehmann, led with understated control, eliciting lustrous magic and soaring threads of sound from his own instrument and establishing effective communication with the other players.
The Octet starts almost as if in mid-thought; we are launched straight into an exuberant and exhilarating excursion. Approaching the end of the movement there were moments of stillness, underlined by the warm tone of the period instruments, that reinforced the effect of the intensity of the final phrases. The second movement was delivered with sustained and contemplative serenity, an effective contrasting lead-in to the jaunty and bright scherzo, with its attractive danceable qualities. In the final movement, a furious start from the lower strings, progressively joined by the other instruments, ushered in a thrilling fast ride. The sense of collegiality amongst the group and their enjoyment was evident as they brought out the tag-team fun of the middle section, passing the melody from one instrument to the other, then established a cushion of moderate tempo from which to spring into the breathtaking sprint towards the finish line, with its emphatic, almost triumphant, final chords.
As we learn from the excellent notes in the printed program, Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 in D Major is most frequently heard in orchestral mode, but in its first performances was a work for nonet, and it is a reconstruction of this version that was performed by the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra. In the first movement the winds and brass declared themselves early, highlighting the individual instruments. As they were joined by the others, the balance of the whole was a veritable showcase of the tonal qualities of each instrument. This writer found particular enjoyment in the wind instruments weaving glorious sounds in this first section. The scherzo introduced a lilting, singing quality, leading into a stately beginning to the adagio, which established itself as a kind of still centre to the piece. A playful opening to the next movement, with clarinets and bassoon to the fore, was followed by beautiful string passages, while the scherzo featured the horn in declamatory mood and strong statements from the other instruments. The final movement had some wonderful tutti sections, delivered with characteristic passion and commitment, before a race to the closing passages signalled by the horn.
The audience response was a strong hint that Newcastle would like to see return visits from the very ‘HIP’ Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra.
You can still catch the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s New Constellations in the following locations: