Cellist Camilla Tafra has gathered a group of early-career instrumentalists from around the country who will perform a concert in Melbourne called Chaos & Chasms, which weaves the works of French baroque composers Jean-Féry Rebel and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre into a narrative featuring enamoured mortals, passionate gods, nymphs, demons and nightingales. The music, which is performed on baroque instruments, evokes the emotion in the mythical world of the tales, while soprano Karen Fitz-Gibbon voices a proud lover’s turmoil. Camilla Tafra spoke to Limelight about the collaboration.

Camilla Tafra. Photograph supplied

When did you first fall in love with baroque music?

I’d always been curious about baroque music and I think was first drawn to it by the drive of the bass lines (as a cellist), but I really fell in love with it after travelling to Canada in 2011 and participating in the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute. It was there that I discovered the diversity of baroque repertoire and the new (well, old!) sound worlds that could be created on period instruments. What made me fall head over heels, though, was the demands in interpreting baroque music to connect directly with story, emotion and text.

How long have you played a baroque cello?

I first started playing on gut strings in 2011, but on a modern cello with a baroque bow, which is sort of 80 percent of the way to a period setup and sound. In 2016, I commissioned a baroque cello from Sydney luthier, Justin White, and I’ve been playing on that instrument since 2017.

Are you a particular fan of French baroque music?

I love playing French baroque music, particularly because of the infectious rhythms of the dances, and I also think it’s sort of the underdog of the baroque world. The very distinct style means it isn’t played that often as it’s at a bit of a further distance from what people are “used to”, compared to say Italian baroque. And I do tend to have a soft spot for the underdog! We have enlisted the help of baroque violinist, Julia Fredersdorff, to work with us on this program during some of our rehearsals, to help us in mastering this very particular style.

Can you tell us what music you are using and how you have structured it into a narrative for Chaos & Chasms?

The program for Chaos & Chasms uses music from Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Elemens and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s opera Céphale et Procris. Nine scenes following the narrative of the opera have been devised, and the movements from these works have been woven into suites to accompany these scenes, to suit the action and moods of the story. While most of the movements in Les Elemens are dances similar to those in de la Guerre’s opera, the opening movement of Rebel’s work definitely stands apart. This movement, Le Cahos, was written to express the chaos that preceded the formation of the universe, before the elements of earth, wind, fire and air came into harmony (according to Ancient Greek philosophy). It features harsh dissonance, which was extremely experimental for the time. This movement is performed at the very end of our program, both to reflect the chaos of the opera overall and to express the turmoil in the characters’ hearts at the end of what is a great tragedy. The nine scenes are: Prologue, Enamoured, Betrothed, Divine Intervention, Seduction, Revenge, Nuptials, Confession, Chaos.

Do you think the music lends itself to the mythical type narrative you describe in the press release?

French baroque music is very florid and at times sounds almost improvised, as the direction of a line may suddenly run away in a flurry of notes and decorations. It is also full of dances that contain exaggerated lifts and lilts, while at other times can be dark, deep and even harsh in character. This huge range of colours and characterisations makes it the perfect accompaniment to a mythical narrative involving gods, demons and nymphs, as well as mortals.

What does the soprano sing?

The soprano sings three arias from the opera Céphale et Procris that mark key points in the narrative. Everything she sings is from the role of Procris, the tragic figure of the opera. Through these arias we hear Procris lament the loss of her beloved Céphale; be tormented and manipulated by demons; and finally come to terms with her fate. The remainder of the narrative is communicated through a brief synopsis for each scene in the program and the weaving together of Rebel and de la Guerre’s instrumental movements, to carry the audience through the action and emotion of the story.

You have gathered a new generation of baroque musicians from around the country. How did you get to know them?

I got to know all the musicians in this project by playing with them in various different contexts around Australia. Some of them I’ve met in my current hometown of Brisbane, playing in local projects, while I met recorder player, Alana Blackburn, in my actual hometown of Armidale, NSW. Others I played with during my Honours year in the Melbourne Conservatorium Baroque Ensemble or met at festivals and camps such as Ironwood’s Developing Artists Programs or the Peninsula Summer Music Festival run by Julia Fredersdorff. A few players I met only last year, when performing in Handel’s Radamisto with the Apollo Opera Collective in Sydney.

Did you devise the project alone or did you collaborate with the other musicians to develop the concert?

Initially this concert was just a blank canvas, starting with an email from me to a number of baroque musicians I know asking if anyone wanted to work on something together. I had just returned from Tafelmusik’s Winter Institute in Toronto and I was having withdrawals from playing baroque music with other musicians on the instruments and in the style of the time. Once I had various people on board, I developed the concept for the project myself based on the ensemble I had to work with and my artistic interests. While the majority of the administration has been managed by me, I have had support from other musicians in the program in organising venues, proofreading, advising on arrangements, and helping with marketing.

How do you hope that the project will connect with audiences?

I really hope that the combination of story-telling and the live performance of this repertoire will draw the audience further into the music. In our rehearsal hours, my main focus (after making sure all the notes are in the right place!) will really be ensuring that each movement clearly communicates the affect, or the feeling, of the music in relation to the narrative we are telling, so our audience can connect with a range of emotional expressions that they simply may not have time or opportunity to experience in their everyday lives.

What kind of audience are you trying to attract?

We are really trying to attract any audience that is eager to hear this music, no matter their age or background. I feel the concert has appeal for anyone who has never heard this sort of music before, and for seasoned musicians, since music of the French baroque, in particular, is not performed often in Australia. It’s also a great opportunity for members of the community to support young artists and self-directed artistic projects.

Are you hoping that this group of musicians will continue to work together in the future?

We are absolutely hoping to continue working together in the future, and see this project as the first meeting and collaboration of this group of people. I feel so often the first step in starting a group is coming up with a name and building a website before even performing together, but I’m trying to do things a bit differently: we start by working together and see what grows from that. This way things can progress organically and I think whatever comes out of it will be a collective initiative, which I believe has a lot more strength than projects with one main leader or visionary sort of dragging others along (whether they’re willingly dragged or not!)

Chaos & Chasms will be performed at the Abbotsford Convent Oratory in Melbourne on January 18 at 7pm and January 19 at 2pm. Tickets (from $5 to $25) can be purchased on the door for cash only, or online