Illuminate: Bruch, Britten & Tchaikovsky | Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Image by Robert Catto

For the first in-person concert from Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra in nearly a year, the strings performed a selection of European pieces from the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries with shared themes of beauty and folk influences. Set between World War I and World War II, the program captures a continent holding its breath.

Illuminate featured the unique added element of a set and lighting design from ARCO’s Visual Creative Designer James Browne. Across the stage billow clouds of white fabric symbolising hope and peace but with a central parachute as a reminder, or foreshadowing, of wartime. Throughout the performance, smatters of light splash across the fabric in cools blues and greens then brash pinks and reds to emphasise the emotions of the music. This visual design added an unexpected dynamic to the music and helped build a clearer narrative arc, especially underneath the lyrical piece.

To welcome the audience back into the City Recital Hall, ARCO’s brass and percussion sections began with the grand march “For the Ark, Wq. 188” by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The remainder of the concert, though, platformed the string instruments of the orchestra, beginning with Max Bruch’s “Serenade for Strings after Swedish Melodies”. This five movement piece includes reworkings of Swedish compositions and folk songs, exemplary of Bruch’s influence from folk music from around Europe. The opening march felt like a conversation between the cellos (Daniel Yeadon, Rowena Macneish, Anton Baba, and Ruben Palma) and double basses (Kirsty McCahon and Marian Heckenberg) and the violins (Rachael Beesley, Lerida Delbridge, Jessica Oddie, Natalia Harvey, Marlane Bennie, Meg Cohen, Peter Clark, Caroline Hopson, Madeleine Easton, and Julia Russoniello) with them exchanging the melody before slipping into “Andante”. This second movement was fluid with the instruments dipping in and out in sections. In the fourth movement this slow building grew into a romantic swell, bringing the listener easily along with it and then breaking in a prancy and quick final march.

The featured piece of the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations, Op.18” with soprano Jacqueline Porter providing the voice for Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry. The tones of this piece across the nine poems and movements vary wildly with the surreal images provoked by Rimbaud’s poetry. “Fanfare” begins with a literally buzz and a rising tension that was passed from violin to viola (Simon Oswell, Karina Schmitz, Steve Wright, and Darrin McCann) under the repeated refrain “I alone have the key to this savage parade” (translation from French by Ahmed E. Ismail). In the following movement the pace ramped up to a racing pitch before it all burned back down to the deep earthy hum of the cellos. In “Antique”, Porter sung out in awe of Pan as the violas and cellos dropped their bows for a unique guitar-like pizzicato plucking and strumming section.

For the final movements, Porter’s song took a turn towards humanity’s paradoxes and the “violent Paradise” of Rimbaud’s imagination. “Parade” built a sinister tension in the air before “Départ” closed with a mix of discordant rhythms and staggered flourishes. The poetry reflected the slow descent to silence, repeating “Enough seen … Enough has been … Enough known.”

The final piece of the concert took the audience back nearly a half century to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence, Op.70”. This four movement piece was a more conventional choice for closing out the concert than the Britten but with a rocking, lulling tone that was a relief after the evocation previously. The piece opened with smooth waves of sound moving like a tide rhythmically over the audience and then building to a racing crescendo that cracked upon the shore. An extended plucking section in the second movement was playful and lead well into a broken jumbled section with instruments veering off from each other only to come together again pleasantly. This part in particular was a brief reminder of the immense challenge of an orchestra to coordinate and synchronise such a large group of people, instruments, and sounds. The feat of an elegant, expert performance only becomes apparent when the synchronicity is lost, even purposefully.

Overall, the choices of Illuminate from the programming to the performance to the staging and design showed an interest in crafting a context and story around the music in an accessible and engaging way. In particular, this concert drew compelling connections across composers but imagining a Europe on the verge of war, in breathless recovery, and then in the throws again as a conversation about hope, beauty, and humanity.

Illuminate was performed at the City Recital Hall on February 19th

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