Illuminate: Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Rebecca Varidel
20th Feb 2021

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra specialises in Historically Informed Performances of the late 18th- to early 20th- centuries orchestral and chamber music - and performed this week in Sydney at the splendid music venue of City Recital Hall, Angel Place.

Historically Informed Performance on period instruments is a movement which began in Europe in the 1960s, and is a performance style which was previously referred to as Early Music. Although I'm just a music loving concert goer and still learning, it's a style of music performance that I particularly enjoy. There are added flow, nuances and patina beyond the precision of a modern orchestra, which I appreciate. Although these may not be the technically correct terms, I do understand that Historically Informed Performance is based on research into the aesthetics of the period of which the music was conceived and originally performed. And I love and appreciate that in itself.

By example, the use of portamento (sliding from one pitch to another) is a commonly used expressive technique of this approach. Another recurring technique is the use of rhythm freedom (freedom from notation) to highlight the phrasing structure and balance between parts. To me this sounds like a flowing wave (rather than the technical correctness of a rigid concrete wall); it's like wearing silk (and we saw that flowing silk billowing in the stage set behind the performers). There is an openness of creativity and musicality, beyond the precision of following the notes. In large ensemble productions as in this performance, this is no mean feat as it requires complete synchronicity in the same ensemble section. And it was exquisitely achieved at City Recital Hall by the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra.

So, if you are new to this, it will certainly be a different sound to the traditional orchestra, and I'm sure just like me, that you will enjoy it immensely, especially as this orchestra is brimming with internationally renowned artists such as director and 1st violin Rachael Beesley.

The program this week was Illuminate advertised as Bruch, Britten and Tchaikovsky. And Bruch and the strings is where I would have liked the evening to start. For a few minutes at the beginning of the performance, I was confused by tone and off rhythm, of a brass March - which was rather a let down to the magnificence of the rest of the evening.

As a Romantic, it was Bruch's Serenade for Strings that I embraced most. Softly caressing. Reminiscent of folk songs and lullabies. Cradled. Transported in time and place.

The crowning regal core Illuminate brought soprano Jacqueline Porter to the stage with the string orchestra, for Britten's remarkable song cycle Les Illuminations, with text by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Like his poems, the music seems to float in a stream of consciousness, through the nine movements that opened my heart and beckoned my dreams.

Assez vu. La vision s’est rencontrée à tous les airs.
Assez eu. Rumeurs des villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.
Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie. – O Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!

After interval, the audience was regaled with the crowd pleasing Tchaikovsky. Well executed, and despite the sensory visions it evoked of the dance, it was my least favourite. Not because of any faults in the musical performance, just my preference against the predictable. And phrases already known even in an unknown piece.

Let me leave on praise, and extol the talents and virtues of this group, that does indeed transport you to the era of the composition, if my memories from past lives are faithfully represented. And if I had a task to choose only one group to hear, to see this year, it would be a request to return for the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra concert season for Evoke Beethoven & Berwald, and Emerge Haydn, Mozart & Mannheim.

Photograph by Robert Catto