Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Circa, Jane Sheldon, Lauren Stephenson
City Recital Hall, Sydney
8 May, 2019
A collaboration with Circa must seem like taking a friend to a party only to find that they steal all your attention.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s third collaboration with the Brisbane based contemporary human circus company Circa, is probably its finest yet, with the currently touring English Baroque programme following on the success of the breathtaking Spanish and French Baroque series, 2 and 4 years ago. The escapades of the acrobats were transfixing, to the extent that several times, I had to force my attention back to the music. If there were to be a genre of music that was perfectly matched with acrobatics, it would have to be the Baroque style. The Brandenburg’s Paul Dyer AO and Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz created music and movement that were perfectly matched in their elements of strong, clear structural elements, embellished with breathtaking flourishes and feats of skill.
Joining the 12 musicians of the orchestra, led by violinist Shaun Lee-Chen and directed from the harpsichord (with short stints at the organ and the harmonium) by Paul Dyer AO, were seven acrobats from Circa and sopranos Jane Sheldon and Lauren Stephenson.
This was a celebration of human sound and movement. It embraced dance and drama, acrobatics and song, music and design, infused with a liberal dose of humour. The feats elicited wide-eyed tension, belly laughs and gasps from the audience. It integrated instrumentalists, singers and movement artists in a performance which bore the hallmarks of steely focus, stamina, Herculean strength and pinpoint precision that were nonetheless, touched by gracefulness.
The Baroque setting started in an imaginary court and ended at the fairground, having moved through the bedroom and the court, depicted by correspondingly themed music. Plinths adorned the set serving as pedestals (and later as props) for the acrobats brought onto the stage in the manner of statues which came to life.
Dyer’s musical curation looked to rarely heard gems from Purcell and Handel with a nod to Dowland, Corelli and a collection of traditional songs, featuring some charming arrangements by Sydney-born, London-based composer Alex Palmer, notably his realisation of the traditional Scarborough Fair. Circa director Yaron Lifschitz created a moving canvas of acrobatics that mirrored the music, from the fluid and the delicate, as in Dowland’s Behold a Wonder Here, to the more masculine, as in the excerpts from Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D major opus 6, no 4. That the acrobats were able to perform these feats in the relative confines of a recital hall stage, shared with other performers seemed miraculous in itself.
For the musicians of the Brandenburg, this was their ‘home ground’; their specialist repertoire, performed with panache. The poignant Adagio from Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor op 4 no 3 and the instrumental elements of Scarborough Fair deserve special mention.
Jane Sheldon and Lauren Stephenson were worthy additions to the ensemble. Jane Sheldon’s pure, and shimmering tone lends itself admirably to the two ends of music’s chronological spectrum. Ornamentation, timbre and stylistic touches placed this performance firmly in the Baroque. Her rendition of Handel’s Gentle Morpheus from Alceste was transporting, as American Circa member Noah Nielsen wove his magic with first one, then two and three diabolos.
Sheldon and Stephenson performed a sublime account of De torrente in via from Handel’s Dixit Dominus as Jessica Connell transfixed us with her hula-hoop. No spoilers but, the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby, another engaging Alex Palmer arrangement sung exquisitely by Sheldon and Stephenson, was very special, integrating the acrobats into the action. Watch out for the fun and the daring in the last moments of the evening’s line-up.
The sense of cohesion, the empathy and trust, not just within each ensemble but between them as well as the soloists, along with the mastery of their craft, are clearly critical to the success of this offering which brought the house to its feet in a well-deserved ovation.
This is a ‘must -see’ – and do take the kids.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
‘English Baroque’ continues at the City Recital Hall, Sydney till Friday 17 May before touring to Melbourne and Brisbane.