It was the perfect image for what we were hearing. An Apple laptop, all sleek silver skin and, a few feet back on the same stage, Tommie Andersson’s theorbo, that intriguing steam-punk lute-like instrument from the Baroque. Almost 300 years separate these two music-generating machines, but on the night, aptly, they were both very much in the present in the service of one of the boldest leaps the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has yet taken.
The ABO’s performance of Max Richter’s Recomposed – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons came in the second part of the evening’s program. The first half lifted us with a warm Brandenburg Concerto 3 (I love it when the ABO does the Greatest Hits!) and a spirited Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins (Ben Dollman and Brendan Joyce’s baroque violins twinning and sparring with real spark).
The first half of the program finished with Christina Leonard’s soprano saxophone take on Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Concerto for Flute in A Minor. It was a tough call, as the modern instrument’s natural bark and bite has to be consistently reined in so as not to bruise the woodiness of the Baroque ensemble beneath it. But Leonard held the balance beautifully and her tone remained beautifully pearlescent (a word I must have used in every Brandenburg review I have written so far).
And so to the main event. The very fact that the ABO had included Richter’s Recomposed – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons typified to me what makes them great. Too many period ensembles seem happy to keep their music precious, sealed off airlessly under glass. With Paul Dyer’s guidance and inspiration, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has always moved forward, finding ways to constantly and consistently reinvent themselves over and over.
Even if this ABO ‘Recomposed’ was a flop, I would have applauded the bravery and energy of the decision. Thank goodness it was luminously brilliant.
Max Richter is a minimalist composer who counts punk rock and electronic music amongst his influences. He has taken one of the most loved pieces in the orchestral repertoire (in fact we have almost loved it to death) – Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from 1720 – and ‘recomposed it’. He says that 75 per cent of the notes are his but – and this is its success – 100 per cent of the spirit is Vivaldi’s.
It is fortunate – and a cute, post-modern trick – that because we know the piece so well, we can listen to Richter’s music through what we know.
He has also smartly retained the overarching shape of the piece – the seasons in Vivaldi’s order, four sections of three movements each – and the original instrumentation, apart from the addition of synthesiser, pedal-harp and the above-mentioned laptop. The sounds generated from the synth and computer play through speakers, but the ensemble is acoustic (just bliss in the sound space of the City Recital Hall).
There have been performances of ‘Recomposed’ in the past where all instruments are mic’d and amplified. The ABO’s mix of acoustic and subtle electronics added to its effect and set the gentle frisson between the old and the new in higher relief.
Luckily Richter is that rare minimalist composer who makes one feel, instead of only count numbers. His drones and heavily moving chords beneath the sprite violin of Brendan Joyce had much emotional heft behind them. The same deep effect came from the gossamer string harmonics he floated above the ensemble. Baroque violinist Joyce gave an astounding performance that reminded us of Vivaldi’s original intent for The Four Seasons, that of a suite of four violin concertos.
Did it work? Yes, on every level. Did Paul Dyer (and Max Richter) alienate a section of the Brandenburg subscribers? Or did he remind us yet again of his energy and boundless vision for the ABO? Who knows? The older gent to my left fell asleep three times, dropping his program book; the young woman to my right had tears in her eyes as the lights went up.
That occasional division of reaction has to be the mark of any truly living musical entity, and Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is perhaps our most alive right now.
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney
Wednesday 13, Friday 15 May, 7pm
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Sunday 17 May at 5pm
Monday 18 May at 7pm
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Monday 11 May and Tuesday 19 May, 7.30pm
For more details visit the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra website.