Camerata Academica of the Antipodes concert: Corelli, Purcell, Bach, Nachez, Gilbert and Sullivan Back

The second and final concert of the year for Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, a vibrant performance of Corelli, Purcell, Bach, Nachez, Gilbert and Sullivan, and more, harked back in the best of ways to its inaugural performance (held just four months earlier in August 2014). The enthusiasm and flair of the performers, the wide variety of musical styles and flavours presented, and the genuinely welcoming atmosphere created by the musicians and their guest artists were all present once more in full force, and will no doubt be hallmarks of this exciting ensemble’s performances in the years to come.

The programme spanned six centuries of music, with an emphasis on the Baroque. Both the items selected and their performance were, as the concert programme noted, thematically linked by the concept of inventiveness on the part of master-musicians, and the dynamic interplay between scholarship and musical creation. The timeless role master musicians have often played in re-inventing or revitalising music inherited or acquired from other times and places for a new audience was also a central touchstone, whether in the form of Geminiani’s ‘La Folia’ Concerto Grosso No. 12 (after Corelli’s ‘La Folia’ variatios) and Mendelssohn’s baroque-influenced Sinfonia No.4 in C minor, or in the arrangements of carols, and a new setting of Lewis Carroll’s Beautiful Soup premiered at this concert. Director Dr. Imogen Coward brought a synthesis of scholarship and musical ability to the performance, with this orchestra of multi-instrumentalists-vocalists accordingly delivering, as they did at the inaugural concert, a distinctive sound and artistry.

Dr. Coward kicked off proceedings by asking the audience to relax, and (with a nod to the performing traditions of earlier eras) applaud whenever they felt moved to, setting a comfortable tone for the evening. A surprise performance of Good King Wenscelas by a group of young violinists and pianists followed. Charmingly on point, their surprise appearance was also in keeping with the Camerata’s continued support for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation.

The ensemble then took over the stage, opening with a spirited performance of Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ Concerto Op.6 No.8, with dual pairs of soloists (Christopher Porteous/Taliésin Coward, and Kathryn Hall/Laura Chung) taking the movements in turn. Selections from Purcell’s Abdelazar followed, with each featuring excellent balance across all parts. Geminiani’s ‘La Folia’, introduced to the audience as the ‘cello killer’ for its fiendishly difficult violoncello part, came next. Dr. Coward – who neglected to mention that this work could also be considered a ‘violin killer’ – was nothing less than a master at play as the solo first violin, together with the solo second violin Taliésin Coward and solo cellist Jemma Thrussell, who all delivered with effortless flair. Thrussell performed impressively, executing dazzling and (as promised) difficult passages with panache. Added to this was the delight that shone through in her playing, not only in this work, but also in her performance of the slow movement from Porpora’s Cello Concerto in G, which highlighted her constant superb tone quality.

Popular songs ‘Glee’ (performed in a new arrangement for strings only) and ‘Alone, and Yet Alive!’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, were thoroughly moving, with guest artist mezzo-soprano Catherine Bulfin giving us a sympathetic rendition of Katisha’s famed aria. As in the Camerata’s recent inaugural concert, stage lighting was used to great effect, with the shifting colours subtly underscoring musical and lyrical changes.

Two of Leon Coward’s compositions followed, with Leon himself performing each. The premiere of Beautiful Soup, inspired by a poem of the same name from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was envisaged as being the Mock Turtle’s lament, and was charming in its ethereal beauty. The delicate sounds Leon brought forth from the piano, together with the orchestra in this purely instrumental work, intertwined with the memory of the words of the poem, which, having been read aloud just before the piece began, still hung in the air. As one audience member commented, it felt so logical, as though it was ‘always meant to exist.’ Nocturne, performed at the Camerata’s previous concert, seemed even more appropriate and beautiful on this dark and stormy night, with the rain and lightning only enhancing the atmosphere created by Coward’s Chopin-esque composition.

The Filipino Chaplaincy Chatswood Parish (FCCP) Vocal Ensemble’s performances of the French Noel Nouvelet (with soloists Dr Imogen Coward and associate guest artist Tania Polhill) and Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring were honest, enjoyable and impressive. The traditional French carol was arranged by Dr Coward for two sopranos, choir and orchestra, with haunting renaissance-inspired harmonies introduced gradually and the carol finishing on a full, rounded tone. Bach’s cantata was all the more impressive for the fact that it was the FCCP Vocal Ensemble’s first foray into this music, sung in German. The quality, fullness, and range of sound was, in both instances, a pleasure to hear and appreciate.

Handel’s Water Music Suite No.3, which also featured in the inaugural Camerata concert, was included in the programme by popular audience demand. It was executed with a luscious sound, and with added interest through the inclusion of solo and improvisatory passages by James Tarbotton, Amelia Tan and other members of the Camerata.

Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No.4 in C minor was a revelation. The Camerata, with its focus on scholarship, and intense engagement with Baroque-period works, brought a new vision that was very much ‘baroque-style’ rather than the sound we associate with nineteenth-century orchestral music. It seemed at once radical, and at the same time a logical, organic and unified expression of what Mendelssohn created. As with the whole programme, the orchestra produced a clean but rich tone throughout. Each line could be discerned clearly, and was always well balanced.

The third of the Coward siblings, Taliésin, gave a spirited performance of the rarely heard virtuoso show-piece, Nachéz’s Gypsy Dances, on the violin. The pizzicato section, in particular, was just the right mix of humour and pizzazz. Present throughout the performance was precisely the right energy and wildness needed to evoke the spirit of the piece. This was a virtuoso performance, and rapturous applause rightly followed.

In keeping with the ensemble’s positive, collective-oriented atmosphere, the concert closed with all performers coming back on stage for a joyous rendition of Oh Come All Ye Faithful arranged by Dr. Coward. Taliésin Coward swapped violin for voice in this item, with the first verse sung in Latin as a solo with orchestra, giving us a second chance to  hear his rich baritone voice (heard earlier in the programme in a Schubert Lied). The choir sang the second verse in English, with a third verse in Latin finally bringing together all the performers. The evergreen carol was given full justice, the medley of musicians and singers breathing new life into the familiar tune, and giving the audience a wonderfully warm feeling with which to end the evening. There was no showmanship from these musicians – just an honest love and sharing of music, which translated itself into utter joy for the performers and audience.

What continues to impress about Camerata Academica of the Antipodes is their obvious passionate positivity, coupled with the richness of sound produced by the fairly modest number of musicians. The results of their engagement with scholarship and historically informed practices, their enthusiasm, talent, and entertaining variety of repertoire, make for a musically combustible mix, and will no doubt produce many more fine concerts in 2015.

Camerata Academica of the Antipodes performed in Sydney, Australia on December 6th 2014.