City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 12 December 2012
repeats in Sydney on 15 December 5 and 7 pm, Cremorne on 16 December, Newtown on 17 December, and Parramatta on 18 December
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Australian Brandenburg Choir
Paul Dyer – conductor, harpsichord, artistic director
Christina Leonard – saxophone
Matthew Manchester – cornetto
Ben Dollman – violin
Victoria – Kyrie (from Missa Trahe me post te)
Traditional (arr. Aaron Kenny) – Let all mortal flesh keep silence
Giovanni Gabrieli – Motet Angelus Domini
Biber – Praeludium from the “Annunciation Sonata”
Traditional (arr. Aaron Kenny) – Neapolitan Lullaby Ninna Nanna
Traditional (arr. Aaron Kenny) – Italian song (based on La Carpinese) Maria, O di senteli gridà
Biber – Aria from the “Annunciation Sonata”
Victoria – Alma redemptoris mater (for double choir)
Improvisation – Passacaglia andaluz
Traditional (arr. Tristan Coelho) – O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Traditional (arr. Tristan Coelho) – The Coventry Carol
Cazzati – Sonata La Strozza
Mendelssohn (arr. The Blenders) – Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Traditional (arr. Tristan Coelho) – The Little Drummer Boy
Gruber – Stille Nacht
Anonymous (arr. David Willcocks) – O Come all ye faithful
The stuff of music is not stuff. Music’s physical presence, like dance’s too, is gone forever almost as soon as it is played. As Christmas and the planet Earth become more and more burdened with stuff, permanent stuff at that — at least permanently in the landfill — and people seemingly more and more frantic that they’re not spending enough money, you can feel more and more by contrast how music had to have such an enormous part of the festival. To fill an honest need of another person you love is another thing, but even if there is a physical thing involved, it is not the thing itself but the love to which the thing is a mere shadow and the mutually filled need itself. Carpeting one’s wants and feelings of insufficiency with stuff will always miss.
Music is not really gone after its notes have rung away. Sometimes it is so memorable it sticks with you for a very long time indeed, the music and the performance, the sound, and maybe even a hint of its original inspiration, the original need of the composer and first musicians to create the music from nothing, the need to hear it then and centuries later, all these things together ringing away in your being afterwards, existing as music ultimately, paradoxically, must without need for time and space. It seems hard to believe music comes “from nothing,” it makes no more sense than saying the universe did, but thinking of Mozart walking along the street and having music “appear” to him, and such music, as seems the Earth couldn’t go round without it, I wouldn’t want to over-specify its origin, not knowing, by giving credit to a muse, or God or the ether, or what have you. Even if I did, one would just have to ask where they got it from.
Paul Dyer’s Noël! Noël! concerts are as unique as their music is strange, in the most positive meaning of the word. Somehow he weaves a vibrant program which seems to come out of nowhere, out of baroque instruments and singers, serious, historically-informed musicians, traditional carols, obscure traditional — rather one time traditional — songs, old popular music, renaissance motets with very fine choral singing, and Aaron Kenny’s inventive, colorful arrangements for these varied instruments. There are not a huge number of local baroque musicians, but there seems to be always enough for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s immediate needs (though, of course, on the flip side they could no doubt make use just as well with more resources). Somehow the extremely varied program with the motets’ warp and the familiar carols’ weft and the strange and fresh shade of purple of the other songs whether modern or ancient folk melodies, find room besides, going in a way only a creative person can make them work. It is serious and playful and avoids feeble silliness.
It is serious music. The powerful renaissance polyphony of Victoria’s Kyrie, for example, was powerful in an extremely beautiful way, with shimmering, surprising harmonies, sung with rare, even for this group, freshness and zeal by the Australian Brandenburg Choir with Paul Dyer directing, and enough restraint to let the music unreel and bloom under its own natural momentum. It is remarkable how much variety composers over the ages have found in the very old Kyrie formula, as remarkable as all the variations on the usual religious subjects in painting. Less purely beautiful but also powerful in its own strange, mysterious, very different way was Let all mortal flesh keep silent — as the well-informed program notes say, it is based on a 17th century carol from Picardy — here all the more so with its novel instrumentation and set in between the Victoria and the Giovanni Gabrieli motet Angelus Domini which was equally well-sung in its bright Venetian, near-baroque style befitting the potent resurrection text.
The choir in the concert was most prominent. The orchestra was a chamber group, a very sweet delicate, but also varied group with harpsichord, organ, lute and theorbo or two baroque guitars, two violins, cello, cornetto, saxophone and percussion. They share easily the sound stage with the relatively large choir (~34) with a mutual respect and complementary timbre. In Biber’s Annunciation Sonata for violin, the Praeludium was played particularly beautifully and lightly with seeming ease by Ben Dollman. The two songs following illustrate very well how fictitious the concept of “Italy” is, one a Neapolitan lullaby in Italian, the other based on a shepherd’s song from Carpino in Apulia in something closer to the Pugliese dialect. The first in this arrangement uses the cornetto whose tone, brash but bucolic and with Matthew Manchester, capable of nuance and beautiful lyrical expression, fits very well the heavy lyrics of the lullaby with music which is, of course, all sweetness and lightness. Ellen Winhall’s unusual, almost boyish soprano suits this music brilliantly, as she did later in The Little Drummer Boy, but she sang quite firmly without a hint of sleepiness. La Carpinese was given contrasting treatment with two men as colorful soloists, almost wailing, with its grim text on the passion addressed to Mary.
The Aria movement of the same Biber sonata, this time played by Tim Willis, was given a jazzier treatment, as was the improvisation on the Passacaglia andaluz, the latter beginning with the two guitars very softly, joined by solos on harpsichord (Paul Dyer) and violin (Ben Dollman), with Dyer later standing up to join the percussion section, where a drum solo took over. But in between these two was the antiphon by Victoria Alma redemptoris mater, here with sopranos forward left and a mixture of male altos and lower voices middle right, a bit more intimate a setting than the other renaissance pieces.
O come, O Come Emmanuel was sung by a brighter, louder more earthly soprano soloist which suited this carol in its place. In creating a kind of conversation between chorus, soloist and instruments, each taking up the theme in turn, they added another moving dimension to the old hymn. After this traditional carol and the trio treatment of Coventry Carol, was another piece of serious baroque music. Cazzati’s sonata La Strozza but arranged for cornetto (a soprano instrument) and soprano saxophone soloists which gives the music a certain exotic spiciness, something, sharing a concert with that passacaglia, recalling more a New Orleans jazz club. The two wind instruments as unselfconsciously as possible converse and even play in duet, the cornetto easily heard with its strong voice with the saxophone. Christina Leonard as a classical saxophonist (who doesn’t play jazz) uses baroque composers’ famed versatility and their principle of using what’s available to transcribe and play music of the 17th century. The tuning sounds a little different, but the two instruments have an impure enough, vocal enough timbre (both instruments were designed to mimic, or at least have been compared to, the human voice) with their strongly sounding overtones, to mesh well enough and expressively. A saxophone is after all merely a single reed, clarinet style mouth piece on a brass body, but oboes took precedence over clarinets in orchestras until late in the 18th century, though I’m not sure whether double reed or naturally tuned (like baroque horns and trumpets) saxophones exist.
The concert’s denouement was more traditional, familiar, less strange — though there is always an element of strangeness in Christmas carols. Though Hark! The Herald Angels Sing had a near barbershop a capella treatment with the high manipulated top line which obscures Mendelssohn’s serene melody, The Little Drummer Boy was playful with the female trio — led by the very fitting and sweet Ellen Winhall — singing and saxophone and percussion and the baroque plucked strings, the trilingual Silent Night-Stille Nacht-Douce Nuit, which is something of an ABO signature (the French is the most sublime though), ending with a superb and powerful O Come all ye Faithful.
**Correction: Ellen Winhall led in The Little Drummer Boy not The Coventry Carol. This has been corrected, our apologies.