★★★★☆ Meaty winter fare delivered with authenticity and heart.

Kincoppal Rose Bay Chapel, Sydney
August 16, 2016

There’s nothing quite beats intimate music making in an appropriate location when the musicians are clearly playing for the sheer joy of it. This was my second time hearing Richard Gill’s marvellous young period instrument ensemble orchestra seventeen88, and if anything it was even better than the first.

One of the best things about this orchestra is their willingness to programme big, bold and beautiful, willing an audience to step out of the comfort zone of the mainstream rep and try something intriguing and new. Of course, Mozart and Haydn are hardly rarities, but how many of us will have heard the 16-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus’s Symphony No 17 played live? Or for that matter Haydn’s 62nd Symphony, tucked away as it is in his middle-period and without benefit of catchy subtitle (I’d have lamely called it “the Resolute” for it’s determination to stay resolutely in the key of D Major).

The first half of the programme was chamber music – a Mendelssohn String Symphony (No 6 in E Flat) and a delicious Reicha Octet for winds and strings that lasted longer than many classical symphonies. The Mendelssohn, with its spirited Allegro, elegant Menuetto and dashing Prestissimo was a backward-looking work (hardly surprising given he was 11 years-old at the time!) and received a winning performance, the warm, woody sound of the gut strings perfectly suited to the generous Kincoppal Chapel acoustic. The Reicha was a real find – according to clarinettist Nicole van Bruggen it had taken her 26 years to get the chance to programme it! The combination of four sonorous wind instruments (horn, clarinet, oboe and bassoon) is revealingly scored against string quartet in what often felt like a game of musical tennis. Packed full of ear-worming tunes and perky rhythms it bubbled along very nicely despite its considerable length.

I realise that this has nothing to do with the price of fish but I might just add that as an ensemble (and an impressive line-up of some of Australia’s finest H.I.P. musicians), not only were they a decidedly non-po-faced and communicative bunch (several were prepared to come out and chat us through the music and the vagaries of tuning period instruments), but they were also effortlessly co-ordinated in elegant blacks despite, one imagines, not having access to an international fashion house to sponsor the look.

After tea and/or bubbles and sandwiches on the terrace (enjoying possibly the view of Sydney), the forces expanded to 18 players plus harpsichord (the splendid Benjamin Bayl) for the substantial orchestral half – two symphonies and a concerto. Mozart’s 17th has more rockets in its first movement than Mannheim on New Year’s Eve and a real ‘tallyho’ finale. In the middle is a lovely Andante, which really benefitted from the antiphonally placed violins and director Rachael Beesley’s graceful solo.

The Haydn, with its dogged key choices, received an energetic reading from sunny start to Beethovian finish. Somewhere in the middle was a lovely Allegretto with Melissa Farrow’s flute singing sweetly over a bed of swelling strings. Perhaps the highlight, though, was Emma Black’s thoroughly idiomatic performance of the Mozart Oboe Concerto. Now Professor of Oboe in Graz, her spiky tone cut through the heaviest orchestral tutti while her phrasing was a dream. The Adagio was most eloquent, its cadenza quite enchanting.  

At their age, orchestra seventeen88 are presumably yet to get a decent leg up on the funding ladder, relying primarily on private donations. With a gap in the market for a Classical-cum-Romantic orchestra, it is to be hoped that the powers that be (whoever they might be post-Brandis raid) will spot that and help them on their way. In the meantime, those of us in at the start can hopefully look forward to more of this kind of intimate, informed, intelligent and really rather magical musical experience.