Over the past 29 years, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has grown from a two-concert twinkle in the eyes of founders Paul Dyer and Bruce Applebaum into a national organisation with tentacles reaching from Brisbane to Perth. During that time, baroque music has gone from a fringe concern to one of classical music’s most rapidly expanding branches with a horde of devotees eager to see what forgotten treasures will be dug up next. Dyer himself has led the charge down under, with a host of enlightening Australian premieres enriching the average ABO season.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, 2019, ABO, Paul DyerPaul Dyer. Photo © Pedro Greig

Of course, as Dyer says, looking back over the years and choosing highlights is “like trying to pick out a favourite child”, though he broadly singles out the pleasures of engaging with loyal supporters and the chance to meet and hear from audience members who explain how a particular concert or recording has changed their outlook on life. “That’s powerful for me and spurs me on,” he says, going on to elaborate on a few special moments. “Our European tour with Andreas Scholl is of course a stand out, following on from the success of our Vivaldi recording for Decca, which culminated in a sold-out BBC London Prom concert. A track from that Vivaldi disc went on to feature in the soundtrack to the James Bond film Spectre, which was a real thrill for me. We’ve performed concerts with some sensational artists over the years, who have not only been great collaborators but also have become like family to Bruce and I – people like Philippe Jaroussky, Yvonne Kenny, Elizabeth Wallfisch, Sara Macliver, Dmitry Sinkovsky… and this is [just] the tip of the iceberg.”

There have been some crazy moments too, like the time they played three concerts in one day for a festival in Western Australia. “First, we played in an Arabian horse stable, with me performing on a harpsichord on a stage made of hay. There were about 40 horses all snorting loudly around us, and one bit an audience member,” recalls Dyer ruefully. “Then it was off to perform in a shed at an apple orchard. We played during a hail storm and so no one heard a thing. That evening, we played the refined and beautiful music of the baroque wearing hard hats with lights in an underground mine!”

Next year will be the orchestra’s 30th, a chance to peer Janus-like into the future while indulging in a backwards nod to the big gun composers who have formed the heart of their repertoire: Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. “This is the core of what we do and the music on which we’ve established ourselves,” explains Dyer. “But I’ve chosen joyous and jubilant music, which appropriately marks the milestone of three decades.”

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, 2019 Season, Paul DyerLeanne Sullivan. Photo © Pedro Greig

The three ‘blockbuster’ concerts kick off in February with the iconic works from which the orchestra takes its name. Five of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – they skip the fiendish Second, either for lack of time or want of a trumpet soloist – will showcase the full range of ABO talent with taxing concertante roles for strings, horns, flutes and Dyer himself on harpsichord.

Handel gets his turn in July, with a concert featuring the Brandenburg Choir in his four Coronation Anthems as well as the celebratory Music for the Royal Fireworks, plus Emma Black as soloist in the G Minor Oboe Concerto. And then there’s The Four Seasons – a perennial but a hardy one – a work they played early on with Elizabeth Wallfisch as well as tackling the Max Richter ‘re-composed’ version and even an arrangement for multiple recorders by Genevieve Lacey. “In this landmark year, I wanted to give it to our concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen. He’s a dynamic young musician with plenty of charisma, and I know he’s going to bring it to life with new vibrancy and an interpretation that will be his own,” says Dyer. “We’ve also got plans to stage the performance in a way that is visually innovative and arresting. We are still in development mode, but it will be like nothing I’ve ever seen before on the concert stage. It is absolutely Future Baroque!”

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, 2019 Season, Paul DyerShaun Lee-Chen and performers of Circa. Photo © Pedro Greig

The future is very much at the forefront of Dyer’s mind right now. He speculates in the season brochure about the impact of AI on composers and composition, how virtual reality might become a part of concert presentation, and even on performance opportunities in space! ABO have certainly been exploring the boundaries in recent years through collaborations with Circa, the Brisbane-based contemporary circus company. So far, they’ve tackled the French and Spanish Baroque, and 2019 will see them team up to create a pasticcio exploring English music from the 16th to the 18th century. “I feel like I’ve met an artistic soul mate in Circa Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz,” enthuses Dyer. “It is thrilling for the audience and it is thrilling for the musicians and acrobats. It will be hard to narrow down from the huge list of possibilities, but there’ll be a lot of Purcell, Dowland and Playford, theatre and court dance music, played on strings, lutes, theorbo, flutes, recorders and percussion. And I’m pleased to announce that soprano Jane Sheldon, another important character in Brandenburg history, will return to our stage to sing in this show.”

Of course, the future isn’t just defined by new ways of presenting old material. Crucially, it depends on a new breed of performer, and Dyer has plans to present a handful of the most exciting – the youngest only 11 years old – in a September concert entitled Next Generation Baroque. The four in question are Christian Li, who hit the front page of Limelight earlier this year when he won the Menuhin Competition aged 10, baroque violinist Annie Gard, and a pair of young proteges from the Guildhall School of Music in London: New Zealand singers Madison Nonoa and Filipe Manu. “I’m excited to see what the future holds for Christian and proud that he’s a part of our next generation line up,” says Dyer. “Annie Gard has been training at The Juilliard School in NY and has played with the Brandenburg on return visits. She’s a rising star and as a musician to watch, she’s kicking lots of goals and being noticed internationally. Madison and Filipe have both been studying under the great Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny in London. Yvonne was an artist we regularly performed with in our first decade, and we won an ARIA Award together in 1998, so it seems a beautiful artistic circle that we welcome a new decade with singers who have been mentored by her – a passing of the baton, in a way.”

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, 2019 Season, Paul DyerBrandenburg Quartet. Photo © Pedro Greig

With a NSW regional tour in March, the Brandenburg Quartet of Shaun Lee-Chen and Ben Dollman (violins), Monique O’Dea (viola) and Jamie Hey (cello) on national tour in April, and the ever-popular Noël! Noël! concerts rounding out the year, there are busy times ahead. So, with all this speculation on how music-making will look and feel in 30 years time, what new ways to present music does Dyer see the ABO exploring in the immediate years ahead?

“We will never turn away from giving performances on the concert platform,” he speculates, “but it is no longer the only way to present this music. Everything old is new again, and there will be a return to playing baroque music – which was originally played in drawing rooms and large houses – in venues and spaces outside concert halls. The interaction between the music, the audience and the performers will only become greater and more important, and this will involve stimulating other senses and of course the use of new technologies. Audiences today have so many different ways of personally consuming and experiencing music, and these will absolutely impact on the type of concerts and events we program into the future.”

In other words, watch this space…


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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine