Live review: PCO’s Baroque by Candlelight

Laura Biemmi reviews



Baroque by Candlelight
Perth Chamber Orchestra
St George’s Cathedral, 23 August


What’d you miss?

  • Mad skills of an eight-year-old banjo player
  • Viola jokes
  • Uplifting motorbike interjections


It’s not every day I walk into a cathedral that’s brimming with electricity. Among the excitement of the audience filling St George’s Cathedral to maximum capacity, electricity powers the soft, fire-free candles and the colourful lighting of the stage and walls.

The Perth Chamber Orchestra (‘little sister’ of the Perth Symphony Orchestra) presents Baroque by Candlelight among the awe-inspiring structures of one of the most well-known cathedrals in Perth.

I am already hugely impressed by the atmosphere (and my glass of wine), but feel somewhat anxious. PSO has a wonderful reputation for pushing the boundaries of classical music in our isolated city. But how many rules can you break in a church?

Enter Joshua Crestwell, the first performer of the night. It is announced that he will be playing JS Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.

From memory.

On the banjo.

And he’s eight.

At this point, I am equal parts thrilled and terrified. Bach on a banjo is a fantastic exercise in the redefining of art music, and I am 100 per cent on board. You can break rules in a church! But I can’t critique a child! What if he forgets a bit and stumbles? Do I rip him to shreds? Or do I compare him to my own (non-existent) musical skills at that age? This was not in the reviewer’s handbook!

As it turns out, I have nothing to worry about. Joshua, in his adorable medieval outfit, is a performer with maturity well beyond his years. He gazes serenely at the audience as Bach flows from his banjo, with appropriate rubato, emphasised pedal notes and dynamics suggesting a mature understanding of harmony and performance practice. Surprisingly, Bach sounds right at home on the banjo; the warmth of the sound directly contradicting the stereotyped ‘twang’ timbre associated with the instrument. Who knew that Bach and banjos were a match made in Heaven?

Some children flood the stage, and one informs the audience that he is JS Bach and he loves composing music. The rest of the children engage in witty banter with this Baby Bach, and it’s so cute, you can’t help but be delighted. This occurs several times throughout the night; kids act as famous composers or performers. It is a fantastic way to keep the audience engaged and the tone of the evening light and fun.

The (adult) performers of PCO are in fine form. Paul Wright takes to Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major with technical mastery and rambunctious energy, and yet with enough restraint that the music speaks for itself. The rest of the performers display remarkable ensemble skills and manage to maintain a clear balance between soloist and ensemble. Soprano Prudence Sanders shines in Gounod’s Ave Maria; her warm voice and splendid vibrato deftly navigating tightly controlled leaps, though her lower range sometimes becomes lost among the string texture.

Trumpeter Jenny Coleman executes tight ornaments and rhythmic precision whilst never sacrificing the clarity of her tone in Neruda’s Trumpet Concert in E-flat Major, though I feel she could take more time in her cadenza to savour the acoustics of the cathedral. Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata for Theorbo, made magical by Aiden Deasy’s sensitive phrasing and resonant bass notes, was preceded by some adorable dialogue between children-actors and soloist (‘What’s that?’, ‘It’s a theorbo!’, ‘Wow!’).

I must commend Katherine Potter for performing Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major right after a viola joke. Because, how hard would it be performing in front of an audience who loudly agrees that your instrument is best when the ‘case is closed’? (A viola is like a law suit, in case you haven’t heard that one before.) And yet, as Potter begins to play, I am glad her viola had been freed from its case. Her warm rich tone, and entertaining interaction with the rest of the ensemble makes for a highly satisfying performance.  In particular, her elegant, light cadenza seems to have the audience hooked on every note. So, who’s laughing now?

As far as recognisable Baroque tunes go, it’s hard to beat JS Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Young treble singer Lukas Steinwandel, with his beautifully pure voice, is never drowned out by his accompanying ensemble, who exercise great sensitivity to the acoustic and the young age of their soloist. The same cannot be said, however, to the roaring motorbike tearing up the streets of the Perth CBD around the cathedral. This makes an excellent reminder of the public space the PCO is occupying, and how an increased visibility of the arts in our city means interaction with everyday aspects of city life. It is actually an incredibly uplifting moment. So, here’s a shout out to the anonymous biker, whose performance has been reviewed to critical acclaim! Well done!

The visual highlight of the night is easily Let the Bright Seraphim from Handel’s oratorio, Samson. Amongst the stunning musical conversation between soloists Sanders and Coleman, lighting effects produce an array of captivating moving images to be reflected on Sander’s large white ‘princess’ dress (as described by one of the child actors). With Sanders positioned in the centre of the stage, it is ultimately a powerful performance. As a testament to this innovative approach to music as a holistic artform, I am feeling a strong urge to present all PowerPoint presentations in this manner.

As a sort of palate cleanser, the PCO finishes off the concert with a performance of Mustonen’s Nonet for Strings No. 2, to remind the audience that their musical prowess extends far beyond music of the 18th Century. Edgy and experimental, the ensemble navigates tricky rhythmic patterns with ease, though I feel the middle parts and their interesting harmonies are sometimes drowned out by the higher lines. The Adagio quickly rectifies this to produce a wonderfully blended sound, and the following percussive pizzicato is wonderfully effective in the cathedral’s acoustic.

As I leave the cathedral, my ears, eyes and tastebuds thoroughly satisfied (dinner and dessert was brought to my seat during the intervals, and that amazing experience deserves its own review), I decide to consult my guest, musical litmus test, and designated driver for the evening: Mum. Her response to the evening is an emphatic: ‘It wasn’t just a concert, it was an experience!’. And I absolutely agree. Turns out, you can break rules in a church. You can combine the experience of concert-going and adorable, kid-friendly pantomime. You can utilise a soprano as a source of music making and as a backdrop for stunning lighting. You can even make viola jokes right in front of a viola soloist! And, of course, you absolutely can play Bach on a banjo.

Images supplied.

Listen up!

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