Camerata Academica of the Antipodes concert: Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, G&S Back

The first concert of the 2015 season given by Camerata Academica of the Antipodes played to a capacity audience; a reflection of the anticipation and enthusiasm with which this young ensemble and their concerts have been met by Sydney concert-goers. Before the commencement, the founder and conductor of the orchestra, Dr. Imogen Coward, invited the audience to ‘share a journey’ as we ‘time travelled’ through the centuries. The best word to describe this musical journey would be ‘joy’. Although scholarly knowledge underpins the programme and their approach to performing, the orchestra, players and soloists alike displayed joy in the music and their ability to share it.

The programme brought together a selection of well-loved gems and some historical curios spanning six centuries of Western music, from works by Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi, to familiar, though perhaps less lauded tunes such as the ‘Pavanne’ from Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesographie (1546) and Mr Beveridge’s Maggot published in John Playford’s Dancing Master (1695). Some were performed from the facsimile autograph manuscripts, others from new editions and arrangements developed for the Camerata, drawing upon original sources and historical performance practices. To present a concert so diverse in style might at first glance seem somewhat ambitious. However, the historically inspired approach of this orchestra allowed for seamless movement between items. The many different styles and music structures and their performance were, as the programme suggested, thematically linked through the concept of ensemble and invention from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.5, HWV 323, to solo concerti for cello, viola and violin.

The programme opened with Peter Warlock. The ‘Basse Dance’ from the twentieth-century Capriol Suite was followed by the sixteenth-century ‘Pavanne’, the tune of which had also been used by Peter Warlock as the second movement of Capriol Suite. In this concert though, it appeared in the programme as a new arrangement by Dr. Coward for orchestra and two soprano voices. The performance, which featured associate guest artist soprano Tania Polhill together with Imogen Coward, worked well and was sensitively balanced, especially given that the acoustics of the performance space tend to favour orchestra dominating over voice.

‘Verdi Prati’ from Handel’s Alcina, HWV 34, was followed by the intricate vocal trio ‘The Flocks Shall Leave the Mountains’ from Handel’s Acis & Galatea, HWV 49 – performed by Imogen Coward, tenor Michael Handy and baritone Taliesin Coward – which brought the house down. Also from Acis & Galatea was ‘Love Sounds the Alarm’, sung by Michael Handy. His clear, high voice was perfectly suited to this air and he sang easily and without any artifice. The Camerata performed these works as a string ensemble, and, as a practical acknowledgement of the pragmatic willingness common in the Baroque era to substitute instruments as needed, the solo lines originally written for oboe were taken by two violins for this performance.

A feature of a number of the arias, and also Handel’s complex trio, was that the connection between ensemble and singers was adeptly handled without a director or conductor on stage; a testament to the performers’ intuitive interaction and their understanding of the music and performance style. In particular, the solos from cellist Jemma Thrussell and violinists Christopher Porteous and Leon Coward, woven around the ornamented vocal lines in the arias and trio, exemplified sympathetic interaction between instrumentalists and singers.

The character of the performances and of the Camerata’s interpretations reflect the fact that most of the members of the orchestra are also soloists in their own right. The orchestra is never less than fully engaged with the audience, and we are invited to meet them in the music. The tone is consistently rich and precise. The orchestra never takes second place to the soloist and itself is a performer. Every member of the ensemble combines to bring the best to the music and the performance, without fail.

An interlude in the programme took us into the nineteenth century, with ‘A Maiden Fair to See’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, equally well presented by Michael Handy. Lieder has been a feature of each of the Camerata’s programmes and in this concert, Taliesin Coward sang just one song from Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe Op.48. Dr. Coward accompanied him in a breathtakingly beautiful performance of  ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ and we were left wondering when we might hear more.

Leon Coward, although a twenty-first-century composer, clearly has a love of nineteenth-century music.  He played selections from his The Two Kings ballet suite, which he had arranged for piano. Bursting with creative enthusiasm, he invited us to ‘use our imaginations’ as we listened to the dance. This was an easy task and we were delighted with him as he sat at the piano and led us through a beautiful ballet sequence.

It would be difficult to suggest a stand-out performance in the programme. Jemma Thrussell’s performance of the first movement of the Violoncello Concerto in G by Porpora was beautifully played and appropriately supported by the orchestra, and led us gently back to the Baroque era. This particular performance was prepared from a number of historical sources, including the manuscript held in the British Library. Although Dr. Coward had informed the audience that tradition allowed for applause between movements, if the audience so wished, she clearly wasn’t ready for the outbreak of enthusiastic applause between the first and second movements of her performance of the rarely heard Concerto in G for Viola, TWV 51:69, by Telemann. The delighted smile on her face was clearly for the audience’s response to the music. The showcase of each member of the string instrument family as a solo instrument was rounded off with solo violinists Taliesin Coward and James Tarbotton who again brought the house down in their performance of ‘Winter’, from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Op.8 No.4, RV297. After such an exciting performance, we weren’t quite ready to return to the more sedate ‘Pavanne’ heard earlier in the programme, but this time sung by the four vocal soloists. The audience applause demanded a reprise of the ‘Pavanne’. At this point we were left feeling that the programme was complete. 

The extraordinary thing about this orchestra and the soloists is that their individual and combined talents are exceptional and yet there is no artifice, no affectation; just pure music, given generously to the listener. The performers could not have given more of themselves in a programme that yet again left us anxiously awaiting the next concert.

Camerata Academica of the Antipodes performed on May 24th 2015 at St Alban’s Church Hall, Sydney, Australia.