Camerata Academica of the Antipodes Back

Camerata Academica of the Antipodes was founded in 2014 by musicologist-perfomer Dr Imogen Coward, together with her brothers Taliésin Coward and Leon Coward (both PhD candidates in Music at the University of New England, Australia), and a group of talented young multi-instrumentalists. It brings together an exciting and diverse group of thirteen music researchers, scholar-performers and advanced music students.

The inaugural concert of the Camerata Academica of the Antipodes presented a delightful spread of bite-sized musical morsels, drawn from five centuries, to a full-house of enthusiastic concert-goers and scholars. It featured vocal and instrumental works by Handel, Vivaldi violin concerti, Purcell airs and incidental music, Gilbert & Sullivan songs, as well as a Schubert lied, and a new work by Leon Coward, performed by members of the Camerata together with guest artists, soprano Georgia Kokkoris and tenor Michael Handy.

Given that this concert was also raising funds for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation, along with the Brissenden Foundation, two organisations seeking to enhance the lives of children through music, it was fitting that proceedings kicked off with a surprise performance of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” by a young children’s string and piano ensemble. A treat to watch, the young violinists – many looking no older than five or six years old – were also impressively in control of their intonation.

Getting down to the main affair, Dr Coward introduced the Camerata Academica to the audience. Encouraging all in attendance to act as historically informed listeners, she told everyone to clap whenever they wanted to applaud, just as an audience in the eighteenth or nineteenth century would have. This provided a refreshing change from the stuffiness and sideways looks often found in typical classical concert halls, where etiquette often reigns supreme, and enthusiastic displays of musical appreciation must wait their turn.

In keeping with this, the Camerata’s approach to the music was very much historically inspired. Where possible, the performers prepared the programme from facsimile manuscripts or early editions and together had explored the historical performance practices and the performing traditions associated with the specific pieces, drawing on the Musicology and Historically Informed Performance backgrounds of the director and several of the members of the Camerata. As Dr Coward succinctly wrote in her programme introduction, it was not about re-creating any one era’s performance practices, but rather the approach belongs in and extends the tradition of performers as co-creators (rather than just transmitters/interpreters) which not only allows, but calls for significant creative musical input by the performers.

The approach is closely connected to the practices of the Camerata violinists’ pedagogical ancestor, the nineteenth-century virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and his contemporaries who were influenced, as scholar David Milsom points out, by the concept of ‘total musicians’. Here, scholarship and inspiration are fused, marrying an attitude of ‘respect’ for the composer and scholarly knowledge with freedom and informality in the treatment of the actual score. It is also an approach that would have been familiar to, and in many cases expected, by all the composers represented in this particular concert’s programme, and especially those from the Baroque era. Inventiveness, economy and pragmatism (including freedom to change instruments and so forth) are inherent features of this music, alongside the expectation that the musicians would invent and embellish according to ‘good taste’ upon what the composer had provided, and that no two performances be the same. This was very much reflected in the Camerata’s inaugural concert.

Opening confidently with the “Rondo” from Purcell’s Abdelazar, the ensemble took listeners on an exciting journey through musical favourites. The opening bars of the “Rondo” from Abdelazar shocked one awake. The sound was rich beyond belief, luscious, harmonically balanced, but also clean and precise. It was Purcell, totally embodied, and all this from just twelve string players (plus conductor).

As a conductor, Dr Coward was totally confident with the music and her players. She clearly conveyed all musical nuances with the minimum of movement. It’s rare that one sees an orchestra and conductor so clearly united. Dr Coward, a soprano, then sang airs from Purcell and Handel. Her voice has a beautiful quality and she interpreted the songs with great musical understanding. The performance was unaffected and moving. Too often in Sydney we hear singers trained for opera, who occasionally delve into other musical areas. Dr Coward showed she has a voice for the music.

“Sound an Alarm” from the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus by Handel was likewise handled admirably by Michael Handy, whose true, high tenor voice and clear tones carried well through the hall. It was delivered effortlessly and again, there was no affectation – the singer sang the music beautifully. The string arrangement by Dr Coward displayed a thoroughly informed musical sensibility, remaining true to the spirit and character of Handel’s original vocal and basso continuo line, and fitted seamlessly alongside Handel’s “Water Music Suite 3″.

Going from Handel’s “Lascia ch’io Pianga” (from Rinaldo) to Purcell’s “Strike the Viol” (from Come Ye Sons of Art) and “Dido’s Lament” (from Dido and Aeneas), and back to Handel for the “Water Music Suite 3” and the first movement of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico Concerto No.10 for four violins showcasing the Camerata’s wealth of soloists, the audience was not only aurally stimulated, but visually entertained as well. Stage lights were employed to great effect, helping to distinguish the mood and atmosphere of each piece; members of the ensemble also frequently moved about the stage, changing positions and instruments between items, further sparking visual interest.

Several performers were featured on a number of instruments. Taliésin Coward, for example, played the guitar in Purcell’s “Strike the Viol” (pleasantly arranged for cello, guitar, and voice), violin in Vivaldi and Handel works, and was the vocal soloist in both Schubert’s “Ständchen” from Schwanengesang, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die” from Pirates of Penzance. Dr Imogen Coward herself was variously conductor, violist, and vocalist. Audience members were, as a result, continually surprised and impressed by the breadth of ability displayed by ensemble members, with at least one listener being overhead to say, “they play that instrument as well?”

The programme moved suddenly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the twenty-first century. This should have jarred, but a nocturne, played by the composer himself, leaned towards nineteenth-century piano music and so followed seamlessly from the earlier works. Leon Coward, the third sibling of the Coward triumvirate featured in this afternoon concert, may not yet have as lofty a name as fellow composers Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, or Schubert, but his Nocturne, composed for piano, held its own in the programme. Performed by the composer, this Neo-Romantic work possessed the delicacy of a Chopin nocturne, with a clear right hand melody beautifully brought forth by Leon to great effect. He played sensitively and the required tone colour and texture were brought out with apparent effortlessness. This was a piece of such simple beauty, one wanted to hear it played again. Despite the enthusiastic applause, there was no encore.

Schubert’s lied “Ständchen”, performed by Taliésin Coward, seemed to fit well at this point. Taliésin has a rare musical ability. Layers of subtle musical interpretation held back any desire to indulge in passion and affectation. His Ständchen ” was suitably evocative and provided a pleasant moment of calm at the halfway mark of the concert. This was lieder at its best. He was accompanied sensitively by Dr Coward. Again, the unity between one musician and another was complete.

Schubert was immediately followed by Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Oh Better Far to Live and Die” from Pirates of Penzance, performed by Taliésin with the Camerata. This would have seemed incongruous were it not for the fact that Taliésin has the ability to honour the music and, at the same time, the personality to convey the character. It was fun.

This led straight on to the last vocal solo in the programme, performed by Georgia Kokkoris, who has a strong, beautiful, soaring, soprano voice.  She sang “Poor Wandering One”, also from Pirates of Penzance, with a consistently beautiful tone throughout her range. Appearing entirely in her element, Kokkoris’s powerful voice, animated, expressive delivery, own cadenzas and genuine sense of enjoyment made hers a standout performance, leaving quite an impression on the audience.

Rounding off the programme, the final bracket returned to the Baroque with excerpts from Vivaldi’s “Spring”, “Winter”, and “Summer”, each featuring a different solo violinist from within the Camerata: Christopher Porteous (Spring III), Amelia Tan (Winter II) and James Tarbotton (Summer I), showcasing their diverse talents. In particular James, although young, seems well on the way to becoming a violinist of note.

Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero” from the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, featuring all four vocalists (Imogen Coward, Taliésin Coward, Michael Handy, and Georgia Kokkoris), guest chorus members and the Camerata, rounded out the concert, with the audience demanding an encore repeat performance of this last work. It was a musical triumph of delight for the performers and the audience alike.

Throughout the programme, the Camerata Academica of the Antipodes and guest artists all maintained the same quality of sound heard in the opening bars of the “Rondo”. How did this programme of such dissimilar music work so well? The standard of performance, instrumental and vocal, was of a high quality from beginning to end. Throughout the programme, the performers showed understanding and respect for the music and its performance. All were able to convey their love of music – not because they had a chance to perform – but because they engaged on a high level with the music, through their talent and intelligence, and no doubt years of hard work. It was a programme more easily described as a ‘degustation menu’ rather than a ‘feast’. Each small course was attended to with care and precision and served graciously.

What also proved most enjoyable about this concert was the performers’ total lack of contrivance or artifice. Performers could be seen exchanging quiet laughs on stage between works. Ensemble members, when not themselves performing, clapped just as enthusiastically for their colleagues as audience members did, unabashedly supportive. The atmosphere within the hall was one of sharing, giving, and enjoying – a relaxed communion between performers and listeners, without the typical distance between the two. This made for a thoroughly entertaining, musically fulfilling afternoon, and left audience members keenly looking forward to Camerata Academica’s next concert.

The inaugural concert of Camerata Academica took place at St Alban’s Church Hall, Sydney, Australia, on August 31st 2014.