Camerata Academica of the Antipodes: Corelli, Purcell, Mozart and Vivaldi Back

Enthusiasm for Camerata Academica of the Antipodes is gaining ground, with the final concert of the 2015 season rounding off a year which has seen this young group not only present well-received concerts, but also launch and host a series of lectures and workshops bringing together local and international music researchers, performers and students. Playing to a full house, the Camerata’s December concert once again had the Baroque era at its core. This time the programme also featured Mozart, approached, as always, with the Camerata’s combination of scholarly, historical knowledge and the tradition of performers as artistic co-creators. Whether in the form of subtle interpretative choices surrounding ornamentation, timbre and balance or in the presentation of new arrangements by members of the ensemble, the distinctive identity of the Camerata and their historically inspired approach is ever present.

In her introductory programme notes, the director, Dr Imogen Coward, noted that the concept of performer as an informed co-creator would have been ‘familiar and expected’ by the composers represented in the night’s performance, with the musicians inventing and embellishing ‘according to “good taste” upon what the composer provided’. Dr. Coward’s sincerity about the music, and her sense of joyfulness in its presentation, is clearly shared by all the performers.

The audience was invited to enjoy music from the last 600 years, the ‘Rondo’ from Abdelazar (Z.570) by Purcell providing a perfect opening. The sound was rich and exciting, setting the tone for the entire programme. We later heard the ‘Air’ and ‘Jig’ from the same suite. Two vocal solos were performed by Dr Coward, who is both an instrumentalist and a fine soprano. A reprise of an audience favourite from previous concerts, Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io Pianga’ (from Rinaldo HWV 7), had a moving, slow and stately interpretation, allowing for the rich interaction between orchestra and singer to be brought out. Those who had witnessed previous Camerata performances of this song were given an interesting insight into the dynamic nature of its evolving interpretation.

Moving swiftly from one master of vocal writing to another, Dr Coward also performed Mozart’s aria ‘Vedrai Carino’ (from Don Giovanni, K.527). Her voice was smooth and rounded, and the high notes clear and pure, allowing the music to shine through unadorned. The familiar ‘Non piu andrai’ from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (K.492) was a treat, in what appeared to be an effortless performance by baritone Taliésin Coward. Both orchestra and singer maintained a galloping pace and the rich baritone sound was always present. Expressions of joy flitted across Taliésin’s face and one suspected that it was not only the character having fun, but also the singer.

As this was a December concert, a reference to the season and also a change in mood was provided by four selections from Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ Concerto Grosso (Op.6 No.8). Taliésin Coward swapped voice for violin, joining James Tarbotton to share the solo first violin part, Christopher Porteous and Kathryn Hall (who shared solo second violin), and cellist Jemma Thrussell, giving us an exciting performance with a balance of colour and texture within a precise framework.

Vivaldi’s music featured strongly in this programme, with selections from L’Estro Armonico and his Gloria (RV589). Jemma Thrussell and fellow cellist Thalia Ucksche delivered deep, rich tones with a surprising clarity of sound in the first movement of the Concerto for Two Cellos (RV531) in an intense and engaging interpretation. An electrifying performance was delivered in the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins (RV522) by the director together with fellow violinist Christopher Porteous. The texture set up between the two soloists was smooth and rich, and demonstrated a brilliant contrast in colour and dynamics to the orchestra.

Vivaldi’s ‘Domine Deus’ from Gloria was sung beautifully by guest soprano, Ngaire Kirwan. Usually performed by solo voice with obligato oboe and continuo, it was instead performed in a new arrangement for voice, obligato violin and strings, which convincingly employed Vivaldian harmonic and textural qualities to good effect. Although the pace was slow, Kirwan’s smooth phrases and steady tone were well matched to the style of the piece and balanced against the orchestra.

Moving from the Baroque to the twenty-first century, composer-performer Leon Coward introduced his piano and orchestral composition ‘Beautiful Soup’ from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a lament written to commemorate the 150 year anniversary of the book.  Although it was a purely instrumental composition, the words to ‘Beautiful Soup’ could be clearly ‘heard’ in the line of the music and it was a delight from beginning to end.

While vocal performances have been a feature of the Camerata’s programmes since the ensemble’s first concert, this was the first programme for Sydney audiences featuring the Camerata’s own chamber vocal ensemble. The performance of Mozart’s motet, ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ (K.618) by the eight singers together with the instrumentalists, left the audience visibly moved. Shivers ran down the spine with a rich and rhythmic performance of the Renaissance pavanne “Belle qui tiens ma vie” in a new setting drawing upon Arbeau’s 1596 (2nd edition)  Orchesographie and the well known arrangement for strings by Peter Warlock.

Returning to Vivaldi, it was risky to present such a well-known piece as ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons (RV297), as audiences are so used to hearing their own favourite recordings of this concerto. However, the Camerata placed its unique and enjoyable stamp upon it with soloists Taliésin Coward and Christopher Porteous giving new insights as only a live performance can, with energy, precision and refinement.

The instrumentalists’ ability to work together in precision and tone, without any one violin dominating inappropriately was evident in Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins (RV580), performed by soloists James Tarbotton, Taliésin Coward, Amelia Tan and Christopher Porteous (who shared the third solo violin part) and Kathryn Hall. A tremendous sense of momentum characterised the first movement, with applause enforcing a pause before the second movement. In the slow middle movement, the Camerata made convincing use of texture and dynamics to reveal the musical structure and give a crystalline clarity. A deliberate and sudden change to a piano dynamic at the end of the movement provided a tantalising and slightly unsettling feeling, making the energetic start of the third movement all the more powerful and satisfying.

An encore was demanded and, as has been the custom with the Camerata’s concerts to date, all members of the orchestra and vocal ensemble returned to the stage to perform a sparkling interpretation of the traditional carol, ‘Adeste Fideles’.

As one audience member noted, throughout the concert the sense of interest and excitement was added to by the director and many performers moving between roles, virtually playing ‘tag’ as they swapped positions and instruments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no matter which ‘hat’ the director wore, whether playing violin, viola, cello or singing, a slight body movement or a free hand indicated that she was leading and the ensemble remained with her direction. The Camerata is an ensemble in the truest sense, with their unique sound and rich tone allowing members to blend or pull away from each other to provide the appropriate colour and texture demanded by the music. Precise but never rigid, refined but exciting, these musicians give of themselves by entering the music and allowing the audience to experience this generosity of sound.

Camerata Academica of the Antipodes performed at St Alban’s Church Hall, Sydney, on 27th December 2015.