After an awful two years, the first program for the new year from the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra is a return to the music and the universal search for meaning and hope of artists and their audiences. While the rain is back in Sydney, Northern Serenades paints meadow landscapes of fresh blooms and gentle night breezes.
Bringing together composers from across the 19th century, the concert program included a mix of conventional composers and those less popular amongst general audiences for a pretty, relaxing program of new beginnings. The springtime spirit even broke into the traditional black garb of the musicians with a smattering of floral prints amongst the orchestra.
The opening composition “St Paul’s Suite in C Major, Op.29, No.2” by Gustav Holst was a rousing start of a jaunty jig in the first movement that moved into a delicate second movement of shimmering violins and pizzicato for an overall upbeat and almost cinematic energy. But the third movement was a stand-out for Rachael Beesley’s languid violin overtop the pizzicato that was arresting as it transitioned into a sense of grand urgency.
The second piece began the evocations of spring with “Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op.20” by Edward Elgar. With a viola opening, the rhythm was calm and undulating like a hilly stroll with Simon Oswell, Marianne Yeomans, Heidi Von Bernewitz, and Darrin McCann maintaining a regular hum on the violas underneath. The following two movements were similarly relaxing with a hint of reflective melancholy, especially in the piercing violins of the closing sequence.
Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade in G major”, arranged for strings by Lucas Drew, introduced a darkness to the program. A jolly opening duologue between the violins and violas fell into a light and airy rhythm with the occasional double bass from Marian Heckenberg and Chloe Ann Williamson poking through for added depth. But the rollicking climbs repeatedly broke down, distilled into provocative tête-à-tête moments between the violin and viola or into a solo cello by JiEun Lee. These moments were haunting in their simplicity, hinting at a larger problem the music hoped to reassure itself about.
For the second half of the program, ARCO brought out the heavy hitters including the world premiere of a new arrangement of Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke, Op.73” by Shauna Beesley. This serenade continued the feeling of the countryside with a prominent violin in the second movement that evoked a feeling of dappled sunlight and the gentle toing-and-froing of natural movement. Though the third movement provided more dramatic punch, as Hugh Robertson noted in the program notes, this is the “duality of the serenade: the peaceful, night-time mood and the greeting of a friend or lover.”
The closing number, and the grandest of the program, was “Serenade for Strings in F major, Op.12” by Victor Herbert. This piece was a return to the joyous jig of the beginning of the concert but with a bold, marching rhythm to the first movement, signalling the end of the night with a heraldic flourish. The second movement was playful and curious with an unusual stop in the middle through which the double bass burst through like a thumping heartbeat. The crystalline violin of this orchestra shone in the third movement before climbing to a hysterical height and eventually mellowing in the upbeat and lilting fourth and fifth movements. The great hum shared between the strings in the closing moments was a resonant final image of ripples and reciprocity.
What is so joyful about watching the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra play, and what especially came through in this program of light and air, is their embodiment of the music, the clear pleasure they take in their art. ARCO musicians perform, creating an all-encompassing atmosphere in their concerts that is infectious. And, especially at this time, the relief of joy, hope, and new beginnings was palpable.
Northern Serenades was performed at City Recital Hall on March 23rd
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