The sweet sound of Melissa Farrow’s lone recorder drifted through the Art Gallery of New South Wales as people filed into the gallery’s summer blockbuster Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Farrow, dressed in period costume (autumnal floor-length dress, hair in ringlets), gave the audience its first taste of Rembrandt Live – a collaboration between the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and AGNSW as part of the Sydney Festival – as the sound of hooves, birdsong, church bells and muted Dutch voices filtered through the speakers.

Rembrandt LiveMelissa Farrow in Rembrandt Live at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo © Jamie Williams

In the spirit of last year’s Nude Live, which saw artists from Sydney Dance Company performing alongside, and responding to, the artworks in AGNSW’s Nude: Art from the Tate Collection, Rembrandt Live featured the Brandenburg musicians playing the music of 17th-century Dutch composers – including Constantijn Huygens, Jacob van Eyck, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and their contemporaries – amongst the works of the Golden Age masters in a performance that gave the gallery space the feel of a bustling Dutch city.

Against the backdrop of the paintings, this immersive musical and theatrical experience, directed by John Bell and choreographed by Kelley Abbey, saw the Brandenburg players dressed to the nines, delivering performances that moved through the rooms of the exhibition. Violinist Matt Greco, wearing a resplendently feathered cavalier hat, joined Farrow, lutenist Tommie Andersson (in glittering black and gold attire) and viola da gambist Laura Vaughan (in dark green satin) to kick off proceedings with a lively dance tune as costumed players and dancers moved amongst the audience, stopping to admire paintings or listen to the music. The performance featured various combinations of instruments from solos, to small ensembles and trio sonatas – the combination of Josie Ryan’s warm soprano against the sound of the lute was particularly compelling.

Rembrandt LiveMatt Greco in Rembrandt Live at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo © Jamie Williams

And it wasn’t just music that filled the gallery space. Dancers Neale Whittaker and Stephen Tannos entertained with vigorous street-performance numbers, tumbling and capering (making liberal use of the gallery’s cushioned seats) in whirling choreography that seemed to merge period-style movements with elements of breakdancing. Dancer Talia Fowler took centre stage – in front of a larger band of musicians around Joanna Tondys on chamber organ – to perform an expressively twisting, balletic dance, her red skirt twirling, before the two male dancers competed for her (and the audience’s) affections.

Tondys played the harpsichord beneath Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter in the next room before she was joined by more musicians and the dancers set up shop amongst the Rembrandts across the way. Gamba and baroque guitar played beneath the famous Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul.

Rembrandt LiveTalia Fowler and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra musicians. Photo © Jamie Williams

Though Rembrandt Live has been billed as a “non-linear” experience, the audience was shepherded (particularly early on) through the exhibition from one room to the next rather than being encouraged to wander at will, sandbox style. First Farrow then Greco lured audience members along like pied-pipers, while dancers (and sometimes AGNSW staff) ushered and cajoled. As the performance progressed there was a chance to drop behind and enjoy the artworks at a more leisurely pace, the music dialled back to gentle accompaniment – but only for those willing to miss out on what felt like the main event.

Greco led the audience into the final room with a solo violin work by Thomas Baltzar, his double stops ringing in the space, coming to a halt by the luminous grapes and red lobster of Pieter de Ring’s Still Life with Golden Goblet. The militant anthem Merck toch hoe sterck, performed with full ensemble, voice and drum was a lively send off for the band before the audience was allowed a final 15 minutes of free play in the exhibition.

While in his review of Nude Live Clive Paget referred to “a two-way mirror where the art itself is enhanced, while an audience is permitted to see something more of itself through the prism of movement, sculpture and painting,” Rembrandt Live was unfortunately no more than the sum of its – admittedly very fine – parts. There were times when the juxtaposition of music and art was particularly effective – the rich sound of Greco’s violin and Vaughan’s gamba seemed to echo off the dark hues of the Rembrandts, like the bleakly poignant Still Life with Peacocks (the master’s only still life) and the brooding, smouldering Denial of St Peter – but at other times the bustling activity of dancers and musicians seemed to compete too loudly for attention, leaving the masterpieces to fade into the background. But if the busy-ness of the experience meant no single aspect could be absorbed fully, there was still much to love in the street-carnival atmosphere created by the gambolling dancers, fine musicians and magnificent paintings.


Rembrandt Live is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of the Sydney Festival until January 23.

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