Australia’s first period orchestra have been flying the early music flag for 25 years and now their founder and artistic director tells the story from his perspective

It came to me on a plane. I was flying home after post-graduate studies and work in Europe, when it dawned on me that I could actually direct my own ensemble and I visualised myself gathering together musicians who could work with me to produce the first period instrument orchestra in Australia. 

After my studies in Sydney, I had headed for the ‘Mecca’ of early music learning at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. There I fine-tuned my craft and received an induction into new ways of thinking. Having only played alongside modern classical instruments in Australia, I soon realised that the harpsichord made more sense when surrounded by the sound of instruments of the same period. 

While there I was inspired by musicians and educators like Frans Brüggen, the recorder player who became orchestra leader, conductor and director of the renowned Orchestra of the 18th Century.  He brought together the very best people from around in the world. They toured vehemently and were hot property. Period instrument performances and recordings were the fastest growing segment of our industry.

There were pockets of early music players performing in Australia, such as Winsome Evans and her wonderful Renaissance Players, but I was ambitious and believed that Australia was ready for me to unleash the Brandenburg! 

I started at the top… 25 years ago I sat in front of the General Manager of the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd Martin with my co-founder Bruce Applebaum and we asked for his assistance. He laughed when I told him that our orchestra wasn’t yet formed, but we had registered a company name and had put together a Board of highly skilled business people.  The calibre of our Board matched the excellence of the musicians we wanted to present on stage… his stage!

Lloyd introduced me to conductor Stuart Challender who knew of my work overseas. Stuart gave me a trial run, conducting a concert and it was a big success. Stuart and Lloyd decided to give us a chance and the Brandenburg Ensemble was launched in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House in January 1990 to a capacity audience.

Soon after we became The Brandenburg Orchestra, but everyone thought we were a German band, so we changed it to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  

It was Bruce’s strong belief that what we needed to establish was credibility. We did this initially by engaging four of the finest singers in Australia as soloists: Yvonne Kenny, Jennifer Bates, Elizabeth Campbell and Jeffrey Black. They became early draw cards as we began to establish our own audience. 

We exposed our players to exceptional musicians from around the world, including expats such as Elizabeth Wallfish, Graham Pushee, Kate Clark and Jane Gower, and this helped build our skills in period styles and techniques. 

Over 25 years literally hundreds of extraordinary artists have jumped on a plane to work with the ABO and many solid friendships have been forged.

We’ve been at the forefront of popularizing the countertenor voice in this country, having presented Derek Lee Ragin, Graham Pushee, Andrew Dalton, Brian Asawa, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, and the Brandenburg Choir is distinguished as one of the few choirs with male altos in its lineup. Now I’m fostering the next young generation of countertenors, such as young Melbourne singer Maximilian Riebl.

But the instruments and their unusual and beautiful sound are the key to our story. We’ve introduced mainstream audiences to the sound of gut strings, the theorbo, the rare keyed trumpet, wooden flutes, the lirone and the fortepiano, just to name a few. 

There are so many highlights over the years, including numerous ARIA Awards and prestigious concerts and operas. We’ve circled our continent, tracked from Tokyo to Townsville, from Wollongong to Weisbaden, and even played for the late Diana, Princess of Wales on the same program as Sting.

But what does the future hold? I’d like to find new ways of taking our music to new ears in new ways in new places. I want to create work with other art forms and artists, use developing technologies, have more regular appearances in other cities and initiate new training opportunities for the next generation. There is still so much to explore!

Catch the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra performing with Avi Avital this May.