The abrupt closure of the Victorian border last week almost threw a giant spanner in the works for the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s return to live music.

When the lockdown was announced some interstate musicians were already in the air, but more importantly soprano Jacqueline Porter, the star of the show, was stuck in Melbourne with her husband and child and no means of getting to the gig.

Jacqueline Porter and ARCOJacqueline Porter and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Robert Catto

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s General Manager Nicole van Bruggen frantically rang around government agencies and arts contacts for help and information. The hunt was on for sheet music and concert programs were ready to be rewritten in case the program needed to be adapted, when she was granted permission in the nick of time for Porter and her family to  come to Sydney if she isolated while not rehearsing, and it was back to Plan A.

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra was back on the City Recital Hall stage with a flourish and a fanfare – three trumpets, three trombones and Brian Nixon’s Baroque timpani lined the balcony above the stage for CPE Bach’s March ‘For the Ark’. The martial theme of the music was augmented by visual creative director James Browne’s use of a giant parachute as a backdrop.

A march – less bellicose this time – introduced the next work, Max Bruch’s Serenade for Strings after Swedish Melodies, for which director Rachael Beesley and her 20-strong platoon took the main stage. Bruch is often dismissed as a three-hit wonder – his first Violin Concerto, the Scottish Fantasy and Kol Nidrei are concert hall staples – but he wrote more than 200 works, including two other violin concertos that are often overlooked.

The Serenade is a five-movement short work in which he skilfully weaves folk tunes into an attractive and entertaining 15 minutes. Beesley, always energetic and exuding enjoyment as a leader, ducked and weaved, teasing out the best from her colleagues.

Another fanfare opened the main work of the evening, Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, composed on the eve of World War II in 1939. Porter gave a radiant and beautifully controlled performance, her bright, pure soprano ringing out with the opening lines, “I alone have the key to this savage parade” – words that Rimbaud echoed occasionally throughout the nine poems Britten chose to set.

The cycle contains some of Britten’s most erotic and personal music, especially the song Antique, dedicated to his lover Wulff Scherchen, and Rimbaud’s allusions to war, so visceral in Being Beauteous – “black and scarlet wounds burst in the superb flesh” – struck an obvious chord with the composer who would live out the war in America as a conscientious objector.

Porter, with her faultless diction and lively facial expressions, gave a beautifully nuanced performance, bringing out the swatch of colours Britten uses with such subtlety, and effortlessly negotiating the vocal acrobatics of Marine.

To help evoke Browne’s vision of a European village on a spring day “about to be changed forever by the horrors and absurdity of conflict”, Porter, wearing in a bright red dress with floral embroidery, was placed on a rostrum surrounded by meadow flowers centre stage while the parachute was artfully lit by coloured spotlights.

After interval the strings returned for a top-notch performance of Tchaikovsky’s stirringly romantic Souvenir de Florence. This work, originally written as a string sextet, is not meant as a portrait of the Italian city – in fact he includes Russian folk tunes and even a couple of plugs for Swan Lake – the title merely marks where it was composed.

The cantabile duet in the second movement between Daniel Yeadon’s solo cello and Simon Oswell’s viola was a highlight and Beesley and her band were in excellent form.

ARCO return in April/May for a program of Beethoven and Franz Berwald.

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra presents Illuminate at Melbourne Recital Centre on February 22


Supported by the City of Sydney

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