Behind The Scenes At The Sydney Baroque Music Festival

In concert at the Sydney Baroque Music Festival
In concert at the Sydney Baroque Music Festival

It might seem enigmatic that Sydney’s fascination with baroque music looks back to a time before Western culture even arrived on these shores. Yet, the pull of baroque music is so powerful that a group of young Sydney musicians led by violinist Meg Cohen has been gathering in Sydney each summer, as the Sydney Baroque Music Festival, to research, perform and relish the practices of baroque music.

A student driven initiative, the Sydney Baroque Music Festival is now in its fourth consecutive year. Cohen is completing a Master’s degree at the Sydney Conservatorium. She is drawn to Historically Informed Performance (HIP) practices which re-imagine and re-create the sound world of the time. She says “What draws me the most to HIP is the challenge of spontaneous problem solving and the freedom from a set interpretation of the music. When we are workshopping a piece, we try to combine our understanding of the stylistic practices set out in 18th-century treatises with our own musical instincts – for phrasing, dynamics, even rubato!. “ She adds tellingly “The real magic happens in the collaboration that takes place in rehearsal.” It is a world away from the role of the tutti orchestral musician where she observes, “everything is set, everything is already worked out for you by someone else.”

Distance from Europe and separation in time are challenges for baroque music aficionados in the Antipodes. The baroque era, a quintessentially European movement, dates roughly from 1600 to the middle of the 18th century and ended before European settlement in Australia. Despite this, the style has tremendous traction and the study and performance of baroque music in Australia though growing is still small. “The whole concept for the festival” says Cohen, “is to bring together all the little isolated pockets of HIPsters from around the country to meet each other and play together. I really liked the idea of fostering a friendly environment to encourage young baroque performers.”

The inaugural festival in 2013 had 11 musicians from the Sydney Conservatorium, mentored by 3 tutors. The following year, the festival doubled its attendance hosting 23 musicians from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide, mentored by 8 tutors. After consistent figures in 2015, it was time for a re-think and Cohen says “I decided to take a step back and dedicate the next festival to a focused string orchestra, to build up a solid string foundation for the future.”

The strategy has worked because this year, there 18 musicians attending representing a record number of interstate participants from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth,  Adelaide and Canberra.

As well, the eclectic group of tutors from previous years is replaced by an ensemble, the Muffat Collective, Sydney based performers of period instrumental music, who will act as mentors, along with soloists flautist Mikaela Oberg and violinist Matthew Greco. Last year’s soloist Rafael Font will also return as a tutor.

For Cohen it is a labour of love. She says “This year is entirely self-funded, which means that I’m footing the bill for everything. Obviously, this isn’t very sustainable for the future, since the rapid growth of the festival comes with increasing financial needs.” It is also the first time that the festival concert is not being held at the Sydney Conservatorium, as Cohen faces the daunting step of graduating from student to young professional. Working intensively through the week, the young musicians will perform a programme which includes Georg Muffat’s Nobilis Juventus, Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, and Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 4 at the historic Glebe Town Hall.

Next year Cohen plans to apply for funding from the City of Sydney and the Australia Council. “We are also hoping to connect with passionate donors. As the festival grows, we intend to explore more performance venues around Sydney, and work with a variety of soloists and tutors.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Click here for more on the Sydney Baroque Music Festival.





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