This latest concert presented by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra provided a vehicle to showcase the extraordinary talents of Perth-based ABO concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen on baroque violin, and proved a popular return to safe programming territory for the ABO’s loyal and enthusiastic Melbourne audience.
The concert began with the effervescent ABO Artistic Director Paul Dyer AO literally running onto the stage dressed all in white looking like he was ready to start an aerobics class. After warmly welcoming the audience, he explained that the music in this concert represented two sides of Vivaldi’s genius: firstly, the secular music of earth, and written for the people (in the form of The Four Seasons in the first half); and the sacred music, written for the Church in Rome (in the form of the Gloria in the second).
Amongst all of Western classical music’s “greatest hits”, Le Quattro Stagioni Op.8 No. 1-4 – the set of four themed concertos for violin and orchestra by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi known in English as The Four Seasons, and his much-loved sacred masterpiece the Gloria in D Major RV 589 – stand as shining examples of Vivaldi’s extraordinary ability as a composer.
To complement each part of the program lighting designer Trent Suidgeest had created (in his words) “a darkened stage space” with a “sculptural suggestion of a cloud hanging above the orchestra” using a variety of floating LED lanterns and various lighting effects to create atmospheres and temperatures to support the story telling of the music. Dressed all in white and light grey, the ABO stood out against this backdrop, and took on the various hues of the lighting with each contrasting movement.
They were led in this concert by a smiling and seemingly nonchalant Lee-Chen, who entered the stage looking as relaxed as one could ever be in his whites and comfortable running shoes, but looks can be deceiving. From the very first note it was clear that he was a man on a mission to re-tell Vivaldi’s well-known story in a way that few have done before.
The concertos were composed around 1718−1720, when Vivaldi was the court chapel master in Mantua. At the time of their composition, they were a revolution in musical conception: each concerto was dedicated to a different season of the year, and throughout the various movements Vivaldi depicted a whole range of sights and sounds – from the sound of flowing water, various different types of singing birds, a shepherd and his barking dog, buzzing swarms of flies and insects, violent storms, drunken dancers, noisy hunting parties (from both the hunters’ and the hunted’s point of view), to shivering frozen landscapes and snow, and winds and rain.
What makes these concertos so vivid, is the accompanying sonnets (possibly written by Vivaldi himself) that colourfully described what it was in each season that his music was intended to evoke. In this regard, the four concerti take their place as one of the earliest and most detailed examples of what would come to be called “program music”.
For the last few hundred years, various performers have tried to re-invent The Four Seasons, to varying degrees of success. Whilst all have attempted to offer something fresh to audiences, the music has remained popular, based simply on Vivaldi’s inventive writing and the technical virtuosity required to play his music. In this performance, there were many attempts made to highlight the details of the narrative by Lee-Chen, and whilst many worked well, the overall effect was a little bemusing in places.
As a composer, Vivaldi took great pains to relate his music to the texts of the poems, translating the poetic lines themselves directly into the music on the page, exploiting a whole series of clever and inventive music effects along the way. Many of these effects are subtle, but when listened to with the accompanying texts, are all easy to identify. In this performance Lee-Chen grabbed the work by the throat and shook the conventional approach to style and tempo to its core, exaggerating the musical references to the narrative aspects of the story and almost completely re-writing the piece in places with some modern twists in his cadenzas, and a radical approach to tempo and the pronounced use of what was at times rather arresting rubato. Some of these were clever, and effective. Others less so.
Following the familiar strains of Vivaldi’s Allegro depiction of the arrival of Spring, with its happy birdsongs, flowing fountains, and thunder depicted by Vivaldi’s dramatic writing for the strings, the music gave way to waves of gently undulating pianissimos, enabling the harpsichord of Paul Dyer to shine through and provide a lovely shimmering contrast in instrumental timbre. Slower tempi than expected exaggerated some of these scene changes, and some very unexpected rubato made for intriguing listening, but in my personal opinion some of the slower movements suffered from too much reinvention and extreme tempo choices. Sometimes perfection in music is in its simplicity, and doesn’t need a lot done to it to make it better. In a paired back Largo in the first concerto, the violas proved to be menacing as “barking” dogs, whilst as soloist, Shaun Lee-Chen continued to demonstrate his technical prowess in the form of the shepherd’s lullaby, but also adding material of his own, never feeling the need to keep relatively strict time that is a feature of many performances of this music. With the exaggerated drone of the “bagpipes”, the hovering clouds took on a green hue as the opening concerto concluded with a gentle pastoral dance. The delicate support of Nicholas Pollock and Tommie Andersson’s theorbo and archlute, accompanied by Paul Dyer’s detailed harpsichord playing here was a highlight.
Despite the challenges of this new interpretation, special kudos goes to leader Matthew Bruce and the orchestra for such great ensemble playing, and for following the soloist’s unexpected twists and turns so well. A great advantage of a touring ensemble such as the ABO is the well-rehearsed nature of its programs, which enables such cohesion. The players were all obviously enjoying themselves throughout, even though I suspect many of the audience were already hanging onto their seats and realising it was possibly going to be a wild ride.
As the clouds above the stage changed to a summery palate of red, orange and pinks, the performance was interrupted by a considerable number of late comers, who had obviously struggled to make the 7pm start time. Sadly, this is an all-too-familiar experience at these concerts, with a considerable cohort always arriving after 7:30 pm. Shaun Lee-Chen patiently waited for what seemed like an eternity, but with so many noisy late arrivals it did provide an unwanted distraction and broke the musical flow of proceedings. Perhaps a 7.30pm start time for future weekday events at the Recital Centre may help alleviate this problem.
Summer was notable for its almost shocking dynamic contrasts, from beautifully controlled pianissimos from both soloists and orchestra to fiery outburst of aggressive fortissimo playing with a raw and wild edge provided by the gut strings of the ABO instruments. Some genuinely exhilarating tempi made for exciting listening, although I didn’t quite understand the meaning behind some of the soloist’s interpolations.
The Presto depicting stormy summer weather produced some scintillating, fiery outbursts, demonstrating the technical abilities of both soloist and orchestra and the effective use of dynamic contrasts created by the utilisation of different instruments. At one point, the Baroque guitars of both Nicholas Pollock and Tommie Andersson were strumming along like it was a heavy metal concert, and Shaun Lee-Chen was delivering his performance with all the attitude and fire of an angry young Nigel Kennedy in the 1980’s, which brought spontaneous applause and shouts from the near capacity audience.
A re-tune was necessary at this point, but there appeared to be some problems as it seemed to take a long time for everyone to be happy and recommence.
It was perhaps the Autumn concerto that provided the most surprises. There seemed to be some tuning issues, but at least some of this was deliberate as the soloist slid between notes at one point, and Vivaldi’s score temporarily took on the feel of a hillbilly hoedown in full swing. Whilst the musical references proved entertaining at times, the radical changes of tempo became distracting. There were some other unexpected musical touches too. At one point during the “sleeping drunk” section we were treated to a moment that sounded more like the chilled-out jazz of Stéphane Grappelli complete with an uber-relaxed walking bass line – I was almost expecting someone in the orchestra to bust out a piano accordion for some Piazzola Tangos! I could have sworn I also heard Windmills of my Mind – could that really happen in a Vivaldi performance? Then in a flash we were back with the Red Priest, but just for a moment. In these moments, where there was a more traditional “straight up and down” interpretation, the orchestra demonstrated its prowess in this style of music, and the brilliant nature of the music itself.
In some of the impossibly slow and softer passages, the music seemed to become suspended in time beneath the “clouds”, and it was here that Paul Dyer’s harpsichord emerged from underneath the vibrato-less strings, gently embellishing the body of sound like delicate lacework from Burano, and guiding the listener towards to the final inevitable cadence points through a series of ever slowing descending notes.
Blue and icy-white light reinforced the cold of winter, with the rapidly repeated high notes of the violins playing the part of chattering teeth, and the delicate pizzicato effect of the strings depicting the rain. A series of dramatic outbursts from both soloist and orchestra brought The Four Seasons to a close. This interpretation was as dazzling and brilliant as it was eccentric. The audience responded enthusiastically with raucous and well-deserved applause. Lee-Chen then treated everyone to an encore of Bach – after such a virtuosic performance, this was yet another surprise. With the orchestra standing silently with heads bowed, and a single spotlight on the soloist, this was a lovely way to focus the attention back onto the charismatic and extremely talented Shaun Lee-Chen.
After the interval, the lights went down before many of the audience could take their seats, making it harder for many to find their place. The music started with many audience members still scrambling to find their way into their chairs in the MRC’s tight configuration. This was a shame as it took the focus away from the opening bars of Vivaldi’s sparkling Gloria in D major.
With the orchestra now dressed in black and positioned at the back of the stage on the choir risers, and the “clouds” down on the stage around their feet, the 18 or so members of the Brandenburg Choir arrived on stage just in the nick of time to sing their first lines, performing in mixed formation in a single line across the front of the stage. From the start they demonstrated a bright, youthful tone with a particularly satisfying tenor and alto sound in the mix.
By placing the orchestra behind the choir, it enabled the relatively small choir to carry clearly, and project a well-blended sound in a nicely-paced Et in terra pax movement, notable for its elegant long phrases and extensive use of harmonic suspensions, which were all handled impressively by the ensemble.
Two young sopranos, Mia Robinson and Astrid Girdis, gave a lovely rendition of the Laudamus te duet. Well matched, both in terms of blend and power, these two singers were an ideal pairing.
In the austere Gratias agimus tibi and the following Propter magnam fugue (which Dyer took at a fast tempo), the choir demonstrated their excellent technical ability, giving a refined and stylish account of themselves with a lovely well-blended tone, good breath control, and impressive precision. I did feel however that the choir was one or two basses down, and the balance would have been further enhanced with another couple of low male voices.
The aria Domine Deus, sung beautifully by soprano Mia Robinson, was well shaped, and also featured the clarion sound of Adam Masters’ Baroque oboe, notable for its lovely tone and well-executed ornamentation. Delicate support from Heidi Jones on chamber organ and the theorbos of Nicholas Pollock and Tommie Andersson was perfectly balanced.
One of the highlights of the performance for me was the singing of young alto soloist Michael Burden, who impressed in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei and Qui sedes movements. After an extended first note at the start of Domine Deus, which seemed to hang in the air for ever, Burden sang with beautiful, warm tone and impressive projection, supported by the expressive playing of Jamie Hey on Baroque cello and some beautifully restrained singing from the chorus. This movement proved to be a sensual highlight.
Following a quasi-religious procession across the stage, the chorus moved to the left to perform the short Qui tollis peccata mundi movement, dramatically backlit to create a dramatic silhouette effect. This movement began at an extremely slow pace but was then immediately contrasted with a very fast rendition of the final section in triple time that seemed to go so fast it almost felt like it didn’t quite finish.
With a handsome, self-assured stage presence and glorious ringing tone, the alto Michael Burden gave an impressive account of the dramatic Qui sedes ad dexteram aria, notable both for its clarity and agility. An ideal fit for this aria, Burden demonstrated both musical phrasing and stylish ornamentation, as well as flashes of cleanly executed coloratura in a refined and highly-enjoyable performance.
A final flourish of Baroque oboe and trumpet, accompanied by octave-leaping strings, began the final two movements that complete the Gloria. The excellent Brandenburg Choir again displayed crisp diction and impressive vocal power in both. The music in the final Cum Sancto Spiritu chorus bounced along with all the energy and enthusiasm of an excited puppy, and with Paul Dyer’s sweeping and embracing gestures demanding every musician on stage enjoy their music-making, Vivaldi’s ever-popular Gloria propelled itself to a most satisfying conclusion.
In one final twist, the choir lay down for the final bars, singing whilst flat on their backs, and facing upwards beyond Dyer’s outstretched hands. The reason and meaning for this one final gesture was lost on me, but perhaps it was suggesting that Vivaldi’s much-loved Gloria really is a case of music to die for.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders
Andrew Wailes reviewed “Gloria and The Four Seasons”, performed by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, on May 11, 2023.