Reviewed by Iris Zeng

Photo – Robert Catto

“Stable temperatures… the weather was just right,” said Nicole van Bruggen, Co-Artistic Director of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra (ARCO), after the concert. Her relief wasn’t simply for the sake of concertgoers, but the delicate period instruments.

On Friday 2 June, ARCO brought the charm of a Viennese salon to Walsh Bay. Audiences sat in tiered rows for a rare treat: a historically informed performance of Louise Farrenc’s Nonet in E-flat major (1849), nodding gracefully to another divertimento, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major (1799).

What might have entertained a small palace or restaurant in 1800 found new resonance in The Neilson, a braille-wall auditorium referencing a famous Beethoven quote (“…music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”). The modest stage, set with just nine music stands, did not disguise the prowess of the crème de la crème cast. Their sensibility as early music specialists coaxed raw yet sublime beauty from nine antique instruments.

Opening with Farrenc’s Nonet, an elegant interplay between strings and winds unfolded. The star was American violinist Jenna Sherry, who spun mesmerizing cadenzas throughout the evening, while sharing colourful moments with various members – one particularly tender dialogue with Van Bruggen’s clarinet was drawn in Beethoven’s second movement, Adagio Cantabile. In Scherzo Vivace, the initial pizzicato melody trickled into the winds, giving way to a dreamy, lyrical section led by oboist Tatjana Zimre and flautist Georgia Browne. When the full ensemble came together to reinstate the first theme, they charged with a rousing conviction just shy of a rallying cry.

Unique colours (to the modern ear, at least) were unearthed by the players – as in Beethoven’s Scherzo, which stretched cellist Daniel Yeadon into the high register of his instrument while still preserving a surprisingly rich, mellow tone. Such sonorities were true to its era, as was the rather ‘crude’ model of some antiques. Notably, for Beethoven’s Septet, a set of horn crooks (thin metal loops used to extend the horn, as valves had not yet been invented) hung decoratively on the music stand. Only a seasoned hornist such as Anneke Scott could ever so swiftly switch between her crooks, without skipping a beat!

Particularly impressive was the group’s synergy. Despite the intricate layers, all musicians seemed to move as one, matching each other’s breaths, bowing and resolving tempo changes with natural ease. It was hard to believe the ensemble only met a few weeks before – some were
visiting from overseas, like bassoonist Lisa Goldberg, whilst others were based locally, like violist Stephen King and double bassist Rob Nairn. Communicating with glances and encouraging nods, they built an effortless rapport that was a delight to watch.

In short, ARCO’s New Perspectives concert was as much a masterclass as a divertimento.