On the 9th January 1990, an enthusiastic group of young musicians entered the stage of the Sydney Opera House for their very first concert together as members of the newly founded Brandenburg Ensemble (what is now called the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra). Some of the best local freelance musicians were joined by experienced guest players from other countries: for example, the cellos were led by Japanese musician Hidemi Suzuki. The 24 year-old Richard Tognetti (soon to become an internationally recognised name as Artistic Director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra) was the concert master, and an energetic harpsichordist called Paul Dyer led the ensemble. Being the founder of the orchestra, the concert was his ambitious dream come true: the plan was then, as it is today, to present to Australian audiences compositions of the Baroque and Classical era in a historically informed style.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at City Recital Hall, Sydney © Steven Godbee
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at City Recital Hall, Sydney
© Steven Godbee

Fast-forward to this week, and the ABO celebrated the beginning of its 30th season with a fittingly chosen programme. The festive atmosphere was set with an eloquent speech given by Dame Quentin Bryce, a former Governor-General of Australia, giant bouquets of flowers decorated the City Recital Hall and confetti showered onto the jubilant musicians and audience at the conclusion of the concert.

The anniversary programme consisted of five of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos. Why the second one of these wonderfully varied works – the shortest, lasting a mere eleven minutes – was omitted, remained unexplained, and its absence left the concert slightly unbalanced. The order of the programme was similarly curious with no. 4, 6 and 5 in the first half, and no. 1 and 3 in the second.

No. 3 was also part of that 1990 concert, and this was not the only connecting link between the distant past and the celebratory present. Apart from Artistic Director Paul Dyer, the only other musician who participated in both performances on the two ends of the nearly three-decades long span was violist Monique O’Dea (then Curiel), who played one of the important solos in the Concerto no. 6 in B flat major. And I could not help but feeling sentimental about the generational link, noting that the father of recorder player Mikaela Oberg, shining in the Concerto no. 4 in G major, is Howard Oberg, one of the recorder players who performed in that very first concert.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at City Recital Hall, Sydney © Steven Godbee
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at City Recital Hall, Sydney
© Steven Godbee

One of the amazing features of the Brandenburg Concertos is that – as their full title suggests – each of them calls for different soloists. Two of them, no. 3 and 6 are, in fact, clearly ensemble pieces, even if all of their individual parts have soloistic functions.

Opening the Concerto no. 4, the solo parts were in good hands with Oberg and Melissa Farrow (an erstwhile student of Oberg senior) presenting the two recorder parts with amicable flexibility, particularly in the gentle dialogue of the second movement. The demanding violin solo performed by Shaun Lee-Chen includes rapid passages with some regularity, and these did not always come through clearly, in part because the accompanying orchestral texture was not delicate enough.

While the musical execution of this Concerto sounded more safe than daring and could have had greater contrasts in dynamics and articulation, the musicians’ approach to Concerto no. 5 in D major seemed to be quite the opposite. Farrow excelled again, but this time on a wooden traverso flute, sharing the solo parts with Ben Dollman (violin) and Paul Dyer (harpsichord). Dollman’s opening gestures in both fast movements radiated energy: tempi were on the fast side and cheeky musical sparks brightened the air. The lights were dimmed over the orchestra during the famously virtuosic extended harpsichord cadenza at the end of the first movement, spotlights on Dyer.

Concerto no. 6 with its moody, often dark colours – how radical of Bach, often said to be conservative, to leave out violins altogether from this string ensemble! – offered a very different atmosphere. The balance here was less than ideal though: there was perhaps too much emphasis on the solo playing of violas O’Dea and Deirdre Dowling, whereas the potentially game-changing golden honey hues of the two viola da gamba players were seldom noticeable. I also wished cellist Jamie Hey’s elegant continuo playing was more often reinforced by the excellent double bass player of the ABO.

After the interval, Concerto no. 1 in F major offered fresh colours with the largest ensemble on stage, including three oboes, two natural trumpets and Matt Bruce’s violin solo. It was a rousing, jubilant performance, and with more polish on ensemble and intonation, it could have remained the highlight of the concert. That role, however, fell on the last item, Concerto no. 3 in G major, performed with lightness and sensitive phrasing. The slow movement’s seemingly improvised harpsichord solo felt overly long, offering an unfair comparison to all the magnificent music around it. All ended well though, with the whirlwind dynamism and splendid performance of the finale.

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