The Sydney Conservatorium Recital Hall was packed with music lovers on Sunday afternoon, ready to once again savour the delights of viola da gamba music at the talented hands of Jenny Eriksson and her merry band – The Marais Project. There had been several tantalising posts on Facebook about the program, which turned out to be an eclectic and wide ranging 75 minutes of music from a medieval mystic to the Rocky Horror Show!
The ensemble featured Jenny and three friends: Susie Bishop (voice, treble viol), Emile-Rose Sarkova (accordion, piano, harpsichord, voice), and Eliska Sarka who brought her marvellous dramatic arts skills to add a richness and considerable humour to the program.
The performance opened with Sarka dressed as a medieval religious figure, intoning a welcome and a warning (‘woe betide those whose mobiles ring’), and introducing O Virtus Sapientie by 12th C mystic Hildegard von Bingen. It was fitting that a brilliant woman far ahead of her time in a very male dominated world had written the first piece played by this all woman ensemble. Susie Bishop then sang Gloria in Excelsis Deo, a sacred solo cantata in 6 short movements by Handel. This work was discovered in 2001 and consequently not something many of us are likely to have heard before. Erkisson’s viol playing was a beautiful accompaniment to Bishop’s voice. I especially loved her singing of Qui tollis peccata mundi.
Naturally Marais was featured on the program – but with a difference! Sarkova, whose many talents include composing, had arranged his Suite in E minor from Pieces de Viol for viola da gamba and piano accordion. A definite Balkaan influence permeated the music, which was both wistful and sultry. Despite ‘accordion’ and ‘viola da gamba’ not sounding like two instruments that belong together, Marais would have loved the arrangement. This was a world premiere performance and one hopes it’s not the last time that the accordion and viola da gamba team up.
Moving to the 20th C we heard three songs by Rodrigo, also arranged by Sarkova and sung by Susie Bishop. This was the first concert appearance for Eriksson’s electric viola da gamba, supported on a stand and played standing up. The viol players in the audience responded very positively! Each song was introduced ‘in character’ by Eliska Sarka whose dramatic recitations brought the poems to life, especially the last one about a shepherd reflecting on his lady love while watching a bee flit from flower to flower. The Rodrigo songs were followed by a very amusing setting of the E.E. Cummings poem May I Feel?, sung as a dialogue between Bishop and Sarkova.
Returning to more traditional viol repertoire, the ensemble played Chiome D’oro by Monteverdi with Eriksson playing bass viol, accordionist Sarkova transposing down a semi-tone in real time, Bishop playing treble viol (a new instrument for her), and both of them singing.
Fortunately the ensemble had an encore up their sleeve for their very appreciative audience. Sarka emerged in fishnet stockings and a tightfitting black body leotard under her short jacket, which she soon flung away. With Susie Bishop they hammed their way through Lets Do the Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Show, with backing from viola da gamba and accordion. Clearly the viola da gamba is not instrument suited only to’ 17th C music! The concert was a fitting tribute to Jenny Eriksson’s commitment to perform the complete Marais viol repertoire and to popularise an instrument not often seen in concerts.