Melbourne Baroque Orchestra | Courting the Timpani
February 13, 2022, 3pm at Toorak Uniting Church
Right now is a very special time to attend concerts. Musicians whose diaries had previously been overrun found themselves without any bookings, but suddenly had plenty of time for practice and self-reflection. Now that live concerts are finally reappearing (without being almost immediately cancelled!), the result has been a renewed sense of passion and appreciation for music from musicians and concertgoers alike. Nowhere has this passion been more evident than in the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra’s most recent concert.
Usually comprising just a small core group of string players, on this occasion the MBO expanded its line-up to include brass, flute, fife and percussion. Orchestra Victoria’s principal timpanist Guy du Blêt was the star of the show, demonstrating deft virtuosity throughout the program on a range of percussion instruments, but somehow never covering the intricate detail of the strings. A feature of post-lockdown concerts has been a slightly shorter running time, with no interval, but extremely thoughtful programming. The MBO’s most recent concert was no exception, and also featured sometimes extreme changes in instrumentation between works. Several pieces featured the full contingent of players, but there were also sections showcasing off-stage brass, solo fife, as well as a number of pieces played only by the core string ensemble, joined by John O’Donnell’s harpsichord. The giants of Baroque composition were featured, with multiple works by Lully and Rameau appearing, but the works of several lesser-known composers also made their way into the programme.
While the ensemble was consistently solid, the string works demonstrated togetherness that was particularly special. In spite of the amazing recording technology that exists in the modern age (and it really is amazing), there is something about witnessing the level of synchronisation that the string players achieved live that can’t really be reproduced in a recording. For sports fans, it’s probably the equivalent of being present for a great moment, as opposed to watching match highlights on the news.
Historical context is vital to Baroque musicians, and the concert works were beautifully contextualised by Rosy Hunt’s compering. The lives of baroque-era timpani players were explored: they were entertainers for the king on one day, and co-ordinators of the military the next. Their vital role of communicating military strategy to troops by playing pre-determined drum patterns made them a primary target of opposing armies. Consequently, timpanists of this age were highly-paid but had a fleeting life expectancy. Insights like these, along with the choice of such a beautiful venue and the use of period instruments, turn concerts into occasions.
The Melbourne Baroque Orchestra has gone from strength-to-strength in recent years (lockdown cancellations notwithstanding!). It was a delight to hear them at full strength, and joined by so many excellent guest musicians, after the uncertainty of the early 2020’s.
By guest reviewer Lachlan Dent
Lachlan Dent holds a PhD (Music Performance) from Monash University and a Master of Music (Performance) from the University of Melbourne, as well as Licentiate Diplomas in performance from the Australian Music Examinations Board (LMusA) and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (LRSM). Lachlan is a cellist and music scholar, recently presenting some of his research at the International Society for Music Education’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland. His article ‘Co-ordination in Cello Playing’ appears in the November 2016 issue of the ‘American String Teacher’ journal.