The wonderful time machine that is the modern period ensemble is one of the true delights of music today. When that ensemble has as much fun as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the delight is doubled.

Under the direction (and buoyant spirit) of the boundlessly energetic Paul Dyer, the Brandenburg has been knocking out music fans for over two decades. And having great fun with it, as was clear from the opening performance of their ‘Beautiful Minds’ Series at Sydney’s City Recital Centre.

Recreating the sounds of Baroque composers on instruments of that period seems a dry old thing – an academic purism, an airless stifle in the vacuum of a bell-jar. Dyer’s Orchestra achieves the exact opposite – taking us back to a time when these pieces were not Concert Hall art-pieces, but the Pop music of the time, sometimes functional, often fun. It was music for people, written for an event or an entertainment that was part of church, court or daily life.

We hear the music as the composer – Bach, Handel, Mozart – thought it; in the timbres that he wrote to. In the hands (and soul) of the Brandenburg, it leaps to life in a transporting and transfixing way.

Three of the four works played (performed seems too formal a word for the evening’s vibe) on the opening night were by Mozart – which added towering, glowing art and, at the same time, deep humanity to the program. Mozart, maybe more than anyone – even Bach – seems to take us to the outer limits of beauty, yet without our feet ever leaving the earth. The choice of these works could not have been better for an ensemble whose perfection is matched by its humanity.

The Brandenburg Orchestra had intended to open with the Allegro 1st Movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D, but rehearsals went so well Paul Dyer decided to perform the whole thing. And I am glad – it was a joy: the ear sometimes needs to adjust to the faint wooliness and subdued volume of the period orchestra and this was a great way in. The slightly odd timbres (flutes are a good example)  and ‘imperfections’ of the period instruments – the ear being used to more brazenly ‘perfect’ modern instruments – add to the humanity of the experience.

This quality was obvious in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A. Clarinettist Craig Hill performed the work on the basset clarinet, an early relative of the modern clarinet. Oddly resembling a hashish-smoking implement and played between the knees, the basset clarinet has an entirely different tone to its modern cousin, filling the room with pearly, rounded upper notes and cocoa-blue lower tones. It was a case of the ‘imperfect’ instrument (falling out of favour over time) having whole qualities unachievable on the perfected modern version. And it was utterly beautiful.

Period violinist Madeleine Easton followed with the Mozart Violin Concerto in G, the formality of her midnight blue dress contrasting with the fun she had with the ensemble. With Easton playing entire passages turned in towards the Orchestra, her 1682 Grancino violin (not anchored with a chinrest as modern violins are, but floating freely on the shoulder) skittered and flew through the first and third movements and wept through the lovely Adagio. Mozart composed this when he was only 19 and it holds both youthful bounce and, in the Adagio, a sweet ache beyond sentimentality.

Because of the lighter overall dynamic of the period orchestra, there is room for wonderful contrasts – which both the Clarinet and Violin Concertos exploited: meditative solo sections answered by, or wrapped in, rollicking or deeply rich tutti passages. The final piece, Mendelsohn’s ‘Die Hebriden’ (known as ‘Fingals’ Cave’) seemed to push the ensemble a little too hard. The group used timpani (yes, period timpani) and trumpets in its evocation of crashing waves and roiling waters. Maybe I had been lulled a little too deeply by the spritely Mozart triple-whammy to be in the mood for cold Hebrides waters and salt spray.

But the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra could charm a stone, and in the end I loved it. There were grins in the violas, the basses were dancing, every player cared deeply about every note, they were all friends, we were all friends. The two hour-plus program flew by and I enjoyed every note of it as much as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, if that were possible.

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Published October 2012 on


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