Concert Review: Master And Pupil/ The Marais Project

James Fraser
James Fraser

Master and Pupil – The Marais Project 

Jennifer Eriksson – director and viola da gamba/ James Fraser – actor and writer/ Belinda Montgomery – soprano/ Tommie Andersson – lute and theorbo/ Catherine Upex – viola da gamba 

29 May 2016, The Independent Theatre, North Sydney

The Prelude in Tea concerts in the Independent Theatre at North Sydney are an especially civilised way of spending a Sunday afternoon.  A substantial afternoon tea is provided prior to an enticing series of concerts.

The Marais Project generally strives to present programs which add a novel dimension to the music they perform.  Their Master and Pupil concert took as its starting point the 1990s French film Tous les matins du monde which featured Gerard Depardieu and his son Guillaume.  The film explores, in a fictionalised way, the relationship between the two 16th – 17th century French masters of the viola da gamba, Jean de Saint-Colombe and Marin Marais.

The concept of this concert was for actor James Fraser to recount the story of the film, interspersed with musical items.  The major question posed by the film and Fraser’s dramatic re-telling concerned the relationship between performing artists and their art and audience.  Is the prime responsibility of artists towards their art or to their audience?  Do artists need to sacrifice part of their art in order to reach their audience?  These questions are, of course, unanswerable, but the journey of exploration was highly involving.

The text which Fraser prepared was dramatically lively and often established a charged atmosphere.  With his careful sense of timing Fraser developed a momentum which became dramatically absorbing and the theatrical effects were heightened by atmospheric stage lighting.  Unfortunately, the dramatic flow of the narrative was somewhat undermined by intrusive audience applause after each musical item.

The music which interspersed the narrative was by the two protagonist composers and a few of their contemporaries. These items were carefully selected to heighten the sense of the drama.  The printed program quoted Robert Fripp: ‘music is the cup that holds the wine of silence’ and this was amply exemplified by excellent performances from all involved.

Musically, the concert again demonstrated the superb playing of the members of the Marais Project.  The acoustic of the attractive Independent Theatre is clear and warm and it allows the performers to establish a congenial intimacy with their audience.

The concert opened with two earlier French chansons excellently sung by soprano Belinda Montgomery who is a stalwart of Sydney’s early music singing world.  These successfully captured the style and spirit of the French chanson.  Montgomery’s clear tone and natural projection, her true intonation and expressive sense of line were excellently suited to all the music she sang.  Her choice of ornamentation was idiomatic and her execution exemplary.

Throughout the concert the short musical items were presented by varying permutations of performers which provided continually refreshing changes to the sound palate.  Many of the items were played by Jennifer Eriksson and Catherine Upex as viola da gamba duets.  In these they displayed their close rapport, developed over years of close collaboration.  Their phrasing was expressive and at times moving.  Their tuning, intonation and ensemble were all impeccable.  Their performances underlined the fact that music written 300 years ago can speak directly to an audience today and evoke the same emotions as it did then.

For most of the concert Tommy Anderson provided discreet but sympathetic accompaniments to the other performers.  In his own solo theorbo transcription of Marais’ Le Rêveuse, however, he had an opportunity to display his individual musicianship, creating a mood of introspection and deep longing.

The prevailing mood of the music throughout the programme was reflective and often poignant, demonstrating the same sense of melancholy that permeates the music of the contemporary Englishman John Dowland.  In Fraser’s words ‘art speaks when words do not’.  The concert concluded, however, with a spirited rendition of Marais’ Chaconne en Rondeau which ended this often dramatically intense performance on an upbeat note.

The Marais Project’s next concert will be at the Sydney Conservatorium on 16 October and will include music for French baroque flute.  The next concert in The Independent Theatre’s Sunday afternoon Prelude in Tea series will be on 26 June.  Promoted by the Schubert Society, the attractive program will include the Trout quintet and selected Lieder.

Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©

Larry Turner is an avid attender of concerts and operas and has been reviewing performances for Sounds Like Sydney for several years.  As a chorister for many years in both Sydney and London, he particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque.  He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.



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