Adelaide will have a its own permanent period instrument orchestra if Adelaide Baroque has its way. Other cities boast such orchestras and have been wowing audiences for many years with Baroque masterworks played according to historically informed practice and using instruments of 18th-century specification. Sydney’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has been doing this since 1990, and a fleet of others have followed including the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra and Bach Akademie Australia.
So why don’t we have one here in the city that was right at the forefront of the early music movement back in the 1970s? This is a question that has vexed enthusiasts for years, but at last their prayers are being answered in the shape of the Adelaide Baroque Orchestra. The creation of Lynton Rivers and his colleagues at Adelaide Baroque, this new enterprise has so far given five concerts since its debut last year.
Their plan is to present an annual orchestral concert series that surveys both familiar and lesser known music from the Baroque period, to participate in regular period performances of Messiah and St Matthew Passion, and even collaborate in Baroque opera productions – as Orchestra of the Antipodes does with Pinchgut Opera in Sydney and Melbourne.
So, a substantial chunk of repertoire would be served by their presence. The vitality of 18th-century music being played on gut strings, valveless horns and theorboes gives it a whole new excitement, and this was fully evident in Adelaide Baroque Orchestra’s sparkling first showing (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with guest violinist Davide Monti in May 2018 at Elder Hall).
Four other recent concerts, including one at this year’s French Festival, have seen the orchestra led by violinists Ben Dollman, Simone Slattery and Melbourne-based Rachael Beesley who co-directs the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra. Their repertoire on these occasions has included Lully, Rameau, Telemann and Handel.
The new orchestra’s players number around 16 to 20, and fortuitously most happen to live in South Australia. Flying in musicians from interstate is expensive.
“Our main motivation is this confluence of very skilled musicians in Adelaide, and freelance musicians who live here as well,” Rivers says. “There is enough of a core of musicians to make it happen.” Key members he mentions are violinists Slattery and Dollman, violone player Rob Nairn and violist Heidi von Bernewitz, but he says a dozen more players have the training and enthusiasm to have also stepped on board.
“We have some incredible musicians in Adelaide who have studied early music and historical performance, and this goes back to when Adelaide Baroque started,” Nairn says. “We had some of the very highest Baroque musicians here in Australia when the group began 40 years ago.” He is another driver behind the project and member of Adelaide Baroque. For 14 years he taught historical performance at New York’s Juilliard School of Music before returning to Adelaide.
It is extraordinary to think how attitudes towards early music have changed over the years. When Adelaide Baroque started in 1977, Rivers had just finished studying recorder under Marion Verbruggen in Amsterdam and Hans Maria Kneihs in Vienna. Around the same time another key member of the group, harpsichordist Anne Whelan, was studying at Switzerland’s Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and with Ton Koopman in Amsterdam.
Historical performance back then was viewed with deep suspicion by the establishment. Conservative strongmen Roger Scruton, Richard Taruskin and Pierre Boulez were scathing towards it – the latter famously declared that “one must liquidate the past to move forward”. So, only a few brave souls were daring enough to step into the arena. Sydney violinist Cynthia O’Brien and Melbourne gamba player Ruth Wilkinson were two others; they taught here with Adelaide Baroque in 1977 in some of this country’s first early music workshops.
“I feel excited about the way the future could develop and I don’t see any boundaries. It pays to dream big. This city has the capacity to offer much larger musical opportunities than it does.”
Since then, interest in early music has of course exploded. Classical radio stations have it constantly in their playlists, record companies make money out of it, conservatoriums teach it, and audiences can’t have enough of it.
“The time is ripe for Adelaide to have a period orchestra of its own,” Nairn says. “Other cities have them, and there’s an enormous amount of repertoire that’s just not played here.
“The message, though, has to change. Early music’s catchcry used to be ‘come and hear Bach as he intended it’, but now it needs to be more about making concert programs attractive and thematically linking them with the present world through the prism of the past.”
One idea that Nairn wants the orchestra to explore, for example, is South Australia’s German heritage in the Barossa region as seen through German music of the Baroque era.
“There’s an embarrassment of riches, not only if one considers Bach and Handel but also if one looks at dozens of other names such as Telemann and Hasse whose music rarely gets performed,” he says.
Neither would the new orchestra be exclusively concerned with the past. Rivers and Nairn see it as vital that the orchestra speaks to the present. They say this will be done by commissioning contemporary works from young composers.
As a second orchestra for this city, Adelaide Baroque Orchestra would not step on other people’s toes either. They would be distinctly set apart from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra because they use period-type instruments, lower pitch and earlier playing styles.
“I welcome the initiative to establish an Adelaide Baroque Orchestra, especially led by an early music stalwart such as Lynton Rivers,” says Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s managing director Vincent Ciccarello.
“There’s a devoted audience for much of the era and it’s music that we at the ASO only get to tackle on rare occasions. It would be great to have such an ensemble as a regular presence in the City of Music’s concert landscape.”
It just remains for Adelaide Baroque Orchestra to gather enough funds to make itself a going concern.
“I feel excited about the way the future could develop and I don’t see any boundaries,” Nairn enthuses. “It pays to dream big. This city has the capacity to offer much larger musical opportunities than it does.”
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