Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Cirque du Soleil Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities

Writer/Director : Michel Laprise; Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park; 2 Oct – 24 Nov 2019.

Reviewed : Oct 2, 2019

Photo : Supplied

Every time I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil – here, in Canada, in Las Vegas – it’s the total theatricality of the whole that has most impressed. Sure, the acts are world class and the skill and exactitude of the performers stuns every time, just as they do in other circus-style events. But Cirque du Soleil is different. It isn’t just circus, it’s theatre – where the ‘circus’ is tied to a central theme that infuses the whole.

Every new program is a lesson in imaginative innovation, scrupulous planning and meticulous direction. Costumes, colour, choreography, continuity – and live music – are part of the on-going motif that pervades the performance, which is meticulously directed and precisely timed.

For Kurios, writer/director, Michel Laprise gone to the motif of Steampunk, the 1980s ‘science fantasy’ genre based on writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the steam-powered machinery of the industrial revolution. The possibilities for a director with a creative imagination are endless, and Laprise makes the very most of them in his Cabinet of Curiosities.

Photo : supplied

The ring and big top become a modern museum of steam powered artefacts and machines. Clocks similar to Tim Wetherill’s Clockwork Universe at Questacon shimmering in glass covers move around the outskirts of the ring. Enormous industrial-style constructions frame the entrance to the stage. A steam train chugs in and disgorges suitcases carrying performers who deftly introduce the next sequence. An airship hovers above the stage in one scene; an open bi-plane delivers a performer in another. A top-hatted Wonderland figure’s huge bronze skirt opens to reveal a diminutive Edwardian lady who emerges with a miniscule watering can. Banks of lights pick up and sustain the electro-futuristic Steampunk theme. Funky musicians and a trilling soprano standing high above the ring set the ticking pace of the action.

As they arrive, some audience members accept the offer to cross a shiny, wobbly, metallic suspension bridge for a guided tour back stage. Dismantling that bridge prior to the beginning of the show is a perfect example of the organisation and timing needed for a performance such as this.

Victorian costumes – bustiers, corsets, gowns, waistcoats, braces, top hats, bowler hats, tailcoats – are contemporised in multiple shades of mustard, brown, cerise and varied blues and greens. Timepieces, chains, parasols and driving goggles abound. All are carefully coordinated, harmonised. Old-fashioned yellow raincoats and hats are shed to reveal multicoloured leotards and tights, some decorated with colourful cogs and wheels. Every costume, whether worn by an acrobat flying on a bicycle or ladder high above the ring, or a clown scrutinising the safety of a performer, is ‘geared’ to the theme. Gold and brass sparkle on the leggings of athletes swinging on elastic arm bands; ruffles are fluttered of the fish-like head pieces of daring trampolinists.

Photo : supplied

That theatricality is what makes Cirque du Soleil different. Every performer is part of the theme. There is a sense of ensemble rather than individual acts framed by a ringmaster or a clown. Don’t get me wrong, the individual performers are the best in their field. Their acts are first class. They are highly trained, superbly fit, daringly brave. Their timing is exquisite, their skills incredible. But they are also required to be actors, dancers, comedians, every one of them an intricate part of the theatre that is the trademark of a Cirque du Soleil program.

Even the ‘clowns’ give more than tricks and pratfalls. One of the most memorable ‘curiosities’ in this program that involved everything from finger puppets enlarged through a curved airship screen, to extraordinary balancing, to impressive yo-yo twirling, was that of the clown who became the ‘confidant’ of the audience. Lithe, quirky and a master of the art of mime, his depiction of a cat making up to a member of the audience hijacked on to the stage was a brilliant example of his art.

Kurios has all the intrepid, breathtaking acrobatic and balancing feats you expect of a circus. It has all the fun of clowning. The spectacle of the big top. But it is so much more.


Echoes of the Picture Palace

Nick Russoniello and The Golden Age Quartet. The Independent Theatre, North Sydney. September 29, 2019

Reviewed : September 28, 2019

Photo : supplied

Back in the early 1900s, the Independent Theatre at North Sydney was the Coliseum Picture Hall, screening the black and white silent movies of the era. What better setting to present Nick Russoniello’s tribute to the creative musicians who provided the atmosphere for the action on the silent screen? And who better to present it than Russoniello himself?

Accomplished composer and performer – and gifted raconteur – Russoniello begins the program playing Rudy Wiedoeft’s Sax-o-fun on a 1920s saxophone that beautifully conjures the smoky, flickering atmosphere of the early days of cinema. Joined by violinist Julia Russoniello, pianist Daniel Rojas, and cellist Paul Slender, he presents a potted history of early ‘movie music’, including L’assassinat du duc de Guiseby Camille Saint-Saëns, excerpts from Motion Picture Moods, a collection of pieces scored especially to ‘enhance’ specific scenes – the sinister, the grotesque, western, love and, strangely, firefighting – and an example of Charles Chaplin’s own compositions, Falling Star.

Photo : supplied

A special treat is the screening of the very first piece of movie footage shot in Australia – a skilled comedic roller skater filmed in Sydney by the famed Lumièrebrothers at the end of the nineteenth century. Russoniello returns to his 100 year-old saxophone to complete the first part of the program with Stephen Cronin’s foot-tapping Perihelion Rag.

Daniel Rojas preludes the ‘main event’ of the program with a virtuoso performance that invokes a myriad of emotions. His energy and faithfulness to the mood and timbre of the music is spellbinding – and a fitting preamble to the screening of Charles Chaplin in The Immigrant with music specifically composed by Russoniello himself. Every hilarious and superbly timed scene is skilfully accompanied by deftly devised phrases that followed the zany pratfalls – and the gentle pathos that Chaplin used to compliment his comedy.

This is a concert with a wealth of appeal, compiled and presented by talented performers who know how to amuse, inform and entertain. What a lovely way to end the first month of spring!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

In a Nutshell

Lane Cove Theatre Company. The Performance Space @ St Aidan’s, Longueville. September 27 – 29, 2019

Reviewed : Sept 29, 2019

Photo : supplies

Putting together a program of short plays – each approximately 10 minutes long – is ambitious, daunting and perhaps a bit risky. Finding the plays for a start. Ensuring their entertainment value. Shaping them into a program … to say nothing of finding directors, cast members and a crew to change sets and organise multiple sound and lighting cues. It takes time, consideration, imagination, organisation … and even a little ruthlessness!

In their ‘inaugural 10-minute play competition’ – part of the Lane Cove Festival – this resolute and courageous little theatre company, that has faced two completely unwarranted setbacks in the last two years, has taken to the task with its usual grit and determination.

With producer Rachel Ashley, they have devised a program that is original, varied, entertaining … and offers new creative opportunities for its membership. Imagine plays by 10 different playwrights, supervised by10 different directors, played by over 20 actors and managed by a crew of four! That’s pretty amazing when one considers the behind-the-scenes organisation and commitment required.

The topics/themes of the plays selected are remarkably diverse. A theatre haunted by a dead Shakespearean actor; a rookie police constable infatuated by CSI; a ‘new’ technology that enables one to reconstitute one’s dead spouse! A dead woman re-visiting the cliff where her husband met his death; an elderly woman who finds a heartbreaking revelation during speed dating; a job interview that isn’t really what it seems! A young couple that meet at a bus stop and manage to connect despite the guy’s dependence on 350 apps on his phone!

Photo : supplied

The imaginative directors use the space and props sparingly – as is necessary to ensure speedy transitions and audience attention. Cast members – all with varying levels of experience – are well-rehearsed and committed, bringing appropriate characterisation, energy, humour … and in one instance, touching pathos to their performances. To name anyone specifically would detract from the inclusiveness that Ashley and her directors have achieved in the production.

LCTC is to be congratulated on this first foray into a venture that involves so much organisation, time and so many people. Perhaps a little commentary between items could have been used to break the blackouts between items, or even some dim light to allow the program to be read easily, but, that’s something to think about for the next In a Nutshell – and I’m sure there’ll be another.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Diary of Anne Frank

By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Castle Hill Players. The Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill. September 20 to October 12, 2019

Reviewed : September 20, 2019

Photo : Chris Lundie

Few World War II stories are more touching than schoolgirl Anne Frank’s naïve description of the three years she and her family spent hiding with others from Nazi occupation above her father’s factory in Amsterdam.

Her guileless words tell the story of eight people crowded together in a makeshift hideout, keeping silent by day lest the factory hands grow suspicious. How they shared meagre rations scrounged on the black market by two trusted friends. How they lived in fear every moment of being informed upon by ruthless Nazi sympathisers.

Goodrich and Hackett’s play, based on her diary, captures the anxiety, the crowding, the claustrophobia, the petty disagreement, the fear … and the artless naivety of a thirteen-year old’s impressions. But it needs an intuitive director, sensitive actors and imaginative creatives to bring the oppressive atmosphere of the play to the stage.

Fortunately, director Faith Jessel never does anything by halves. This is a play that requires research, understanding and empathy from everyone involved. From the very start, Jessel immersed the cast in Jewish traditions, the enormity of the holocaust and the minutiae of Anne’s descriptions. Her enthusiasm and energy are infectious. Her commitment compelling. “It’s been such an experience,” a cast member recalls. “From the start, we all loved being involved.”

Photo : Chris Lundie

The many creatives were similarly committed. Armed with the play, the diary and photos of the original rooms, Jessel and designer Steve Wimmer recreated the cramped congestion of the rudimentary three level ‘apartment’, with its hidden door, kitchen, table, chairs, stove, beds … and the tiny attic through which Anne sometimes caught a glimpse of the sky. Lighting designers Andrew Kinch and Heidi Brosnan produced the sombre ambience of lives lived in shadows. George Cartledge and Jack Woodford conceived the music and frightening sound effects.

Genevieve Papadopoulos leads the cast as Anne Frank, finding in her interpretation the innocence, curiosity and optimism that the diary revealed – as well as the normal frustrations of growing up. Papadopoulos moves lightly and surely on the stage, confident in her characterisation and her relationship with her family – and the other characters.

Especially appealing is her relationship with her father, Otto Frank, played with gentle understanding and compassion by Dave Kirkham. Kirkham shows the weight of Frank’s plight and those he has pledged to protect in a sensitive performance that captures his generosity and fairness as well as his fear of inevitable discovery.

Judy Jankovics plays his wife, Edith, kind, protective, equally generous. Jankovics realises this with a busy-ness and a warmth that encompasses her own family – as well as those with whom she shares space, food and responsibility. Though her relationship with Anne is fraught, she is accepting and constant.

Her relationship with Margot, Anne’s older sister, played by Brittany Macchetta, is more adult and amenable. They share the workload companionably, with Macchetta depicting Margot’s quiet acquiescence and watchful awareness. Like her mother and father, Margot realise the fragility of the situation and the need to be ever vigilant.

Not so the Van Daans, the family who shares their congested space. They are much more highly strung and volatile – and as such raise the tenor and mood of the play.

Kim Schad plays Mrs van Daan with an edgy energy that captures the real vivacity of the character – and how hard it is for her to be so confined. Schad finds both the humour and pathos of this larger-than-life character and brings a genial zest to the play.

David Schad plays her grumpy, intolerant husband. Unlike Otto Frank, Mr van Daan is easily irritated, selfish rather than self-effacing, and Schad’s depiction of him is suitably tetchy, impatient and often insensitive.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Their withdrawn teenage son, Peter, is played with quiet reserve by Yarno Rohling, who finds the initial gangly, self-consciousness of the character and his gradual maturity. His growing acceptance of Anne’s bid for friendship and their eventual closeness is sensitively directed – and convincingly portrayed.

David Hill is Mr Dussel, the reluctant latecomer to their hideout. Unused to children or family life, Dussel is touchy and irritable and Hill makes fittingly stand-offish and brusque.

Miep Gies and Mr Kraler, the loyal Dutch friends who bring supplies and news to succour their refugees, are played by Kristina Ulich and Nick Hoschke. Both show the dedication and constancy of those who braved the “Green Police” and their Nazi controllers.

Stories such as this need to be told and re-told, especially in a world that has become increasingly de-sensitised to the effects of war and aggression. Faith Jessel and her cast are doing so with insightful perception and sensitive characterisation. They are to be congratulated on such a compassionate production.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

The Wharf Revue 2019: Unr-dact-d

By Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott. Sydney Theatre Company. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. September 18 – 21, 2019 and touring.

Reviewed : Sept 18, 2019

Photo : Brett Boardman

2019 has given the Wharf Revue creators – Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott – a wealth of material with which to work. Their sharp eyes and mischievous minds have crafted a revue that maintains the trademark of their brand: cutting satire interspersed with a few serious moments. Politics and parity loom large this year – and nothing is redacted!

Revue is exacting. It’s got to be fast as well as funny. Characters and costumes change constantly. Voices must be clear to stress the bite of the satire. It takes talent and timing to get it right. This year’s cast has all of this in spades!

Forsythe and musical director Andrew Worboys are back, with Simon Burke, Helen Dallimore and Lena Cruz. All have extensive experience across the theatrical spectrum – and the energy and ‘zing’ that make satire work.

As prime ministers, presidents, politicians and presenters they make a satirical journey through a year of big events and bigger blunders. Burke is Boris on Brexit; Forsythe is Hanson rationalising the Al Jazeera hoax. All lampoon Trump’s rise to power in a clever parody of Hamilton.

Sketches merge seamlessly. Burke querks as Clive Palmer explaining how his campaign gave Scomo the edge: “there’s nothing like a scare campaign to terrify the mob”. Cruz and Dallimore sweat in a sauna as Penny Wong and Jacqui Lambie. Dallimore, Forsythe and Burke are entertainingly wicked as Germaine Greer, Bob Carr and Tony Abbott. Burke excels in equally wicked impersonations of Alan Jones and Mark Latham.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Reviews of revues are hard to write. One wants to share but is loathe to give too much away. Nevertheless, watch for a superb piece of theatre where Dallimore ingeniously ‘takes on’ some of the gifted girls of the ABC.

The more serious moments? Two are special. Forsythe as a nostalgic Bob Hawke, accompanied by Warboys, uses “Thanks for the Memory” to reminisce inside the Pearly Gates. The jokes are gentle, the tribute tender. Less tender is Cruz as a cold-hearted Aung San Suu vindicating the Rohingya persecutions with an ingenious parody of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

Backed by Worboys’ music and the inevitable projections that set the diverse range of scenes, this “unredacted” look at politics, parity and policies is deviously devised and artfully entertaining. It’s on tour before opening at the STC in November, so check if it’s coming to somewhere near you.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine.

A Night’s Game

Alleyne Dance. FORM Dance Projects. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. September 5 – 7, 2019.

Reviewed : Sept 5, 2019

Photo : Lidia Crisafulli

FORM Dance Projects presents the premiere Australian performance of Alleyne Dance Team’s A Night’s Game at Riverside Theatres. Beginning touring in the UK, Kristina and Sadé Alleyene have taken this dynamic piece of dance theatre to over nine countries. Acclaimed for their eclectic use of styles to create works inspired by true life events, this performance explores dark images that reflect “the turmoil and strife of human emotion when faced with the prospect of incarceration”.

Both dancers bring athleticism and contained strength and power to their performance. Carefully focused spotlights pick out isolated ‘cells’ in the otherwise dark space of the stage. In one a chair becomes a metaphorical prison where the performer suggests the disturbingly destructive – and possibly abusive – effects of confinement by a rising, drumming rhythm created by tightly choreographed body percussion … slapping, striking, thumping, stamping.

Photo : Lidia Crisafulli

Punishingly physical, emotionally effective and intriguingly unusual, this symbolic piece of restricted choreography sets the tone and tempo of a performance where both dancers create the repressive tension of restriction and restraint, the psychological stress of enclosed spaces, and the debilitating desolation of despair.

In some sequences they use space sparingly. Imprisoned in these moments, their movement is locked in, meticulous, exacting. In other sequences they move into the wider space of the mind. Hope or memory take them into a freer world, where they move with more abandon, the choreography faster, more lyrical, yet somehow, subtly, still repressed.

This performance exemplifies the essence of contemporary dance. The Alleyne sisters use the artistry and grace of movement to explore a controversial theme, and they do so in a way that is evocative analytical, hauntingly real.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Fire’s On – the Streeton Trio

Part of the Prelude in Tea program;  Independent Theatre North Sydney; 25th August 2019

Reviewed : August 25, 2019

Photo : supplied

A Prelude in Tea is a series of musical events presented in the Independent Theatre – ‘preluded’ by a decadent afternoon tea! Cream cakes, gateaux, tea, coffee and fresh orange juice! A delicious entrée to any concert, but particularly to this one. The Streeton Trio’s name pays tribute to Australian artists Arthur Streeton. Fire’s On  cites his famous painting smoke rising from a mineshaft.

With an image of the painting projected as a backdrop, the trio – violinist Emma Jardine, cellist Eliza Sdraulig and pianist Benjamin Kopp – presented very different works by Russian composers Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Arensky.

Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No.1 In G Minor, Kopp told us, was unpublished for some time because of its similarities to the work of Tchaikovsky, but Rachmaninoff’s  injection of  “love into the piece” was evident in the energy and expressiveness of all three musicians as they played.

Photo : supplied

Kopp’s explanation of each of the movements in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E Minor cleverly prepared the way for the changing moods and tempos of the music, which was then skilfully and sensitively presented by the trio. The high pitched “artificial harmonies” of the cello in the first movement were a stark contrast to the instrument’s usual mellowness. It was interesting, but strange, to hear the tautness of those notes in contrast to the lower notes of the violin and piano.

The second movement was more melodic – though Kopp described it as “sarcastically joyful” – the third and fourth movements brighter and more emotionally pleasing. Each movement showed the skill and energy of the performers, their perfect synchronisation and their evocative reaction to the music as they played.

Arensky’s Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor was brighter and more lilting, evoking a more complex emotion, trills merging to more powerful repetitions of the motifs as fingers flew and bows swept, making this final segment of the program excitingly memorable.

A Deal

By Zhu Yi.  USU & Flying House Assembly.  Chippen Street Theatre, Chippendale.  Aug 22 – 31, 2019.

Reviewed : August 24, 2019

Photo : Kelvin Xu – Luky Studio

A Deal brings the work of two creative Chinese women to the Sydney theatre scene.

Billed as “China’s leading playwright”, Zhu Yi is an internationally acclaimed writer. Born in Shanghai, she moved to New York to study playwriting at Columbia State University. Her many works have been presented in Canada, Norway, China, Mexico, Italy, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A Deal was first produced in New York in 2017.

Director Shiya Lu is a producer, director and stage manager, founder of the Sydney-based artist collective Flying House Assembly, dedicated to promoting Chinese contemporary performance and cross-cultural collaboration in theatre and visual arts. Born in China, Lu has lived and worked in different countries in Europe and Asia, but now calls Sydney home.

Lu, with USU Bright Ideas and Flying House Assembly, has assembled an enthusiastic band of performers and creatives to bring this very topical play to the stage. It tells the story of a young actress from China whose parents have funded her fees and accommodation to study Arts in America. Anxious to win the leading role in a play that actually has a Chinese heroine and Chinese storyline, she invents a similar background for herself, namely an orphan and human rights victim. Unbeknown to her, her parents have smuggled one million dollars in cash from Shanghai to buy her an apartment in Manhattan.

The play uses humour and pathos to tell of the clash of values between Chinese parents and their more-worldly children. It touches lightly and comically, but nevertheless seriously, on past struggles, present success, nostalgia about things given up and lost, trust in ‘the system’ – where ever and whatever it may be – and the difficulty of “letting go”.

Photo : Kelvin Xu – Luky Studio

Katherine Nheu plays the young actor, Li Su. Shi-Kai Zhang and Susan Young play her doting parents. Together they establish a believable, tangible family bond that is, unfortunately ill-fated. Both Zhang and Young used comic timing well, exemplifying how Yi has used humour to temper the themes. Edric Hong, as a real estate agent – and Mrs Li’s former acting partner and boyfriend – also uses comedic skills effectively, suggesting his reactions with his eyes as effectively as his voice.

Simon Lee plays Josh, in whose play Li Su is performing and Abigail Coffey, Paul Chambers, Suzanne James and Sally Williams play a variety of supporting roles, including eager Chinese investors being ‘conned’ by a slippery sales person.

Zhu Yi’s play presents a multitude of opinions – at a time when all of them are even more in the public forum than when the play was first written.

Shiya Lu’s inclusive production makes a compelling point about the ‘politics’ of the Sydney theatre scene. Hopefully it will reach out to a wider audience than the intimate theatre in which it sees its Sydney premiere.


West Side Story

Music: Leonard Bernstein.  Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim.  Book: Arthur Laurents.  Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment and BB Group. J oan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.  Opening Night: Tuesday August 22, 2019
Reviewed : August 20,  2019
Photo : Jeff Busby

William Shakespeare borrowed the family feud scenario from a sixteen-century story and called it Romeo and Juliet. Arthur Laurents raised the bar by re-setting it in mid-twentieth century New York. Leonard Bernstein shifted the bar even higher with a score that conjured the pulsing throb of discontent. And Stephen Sondheim conceived lyrics that picked up that throb and let the plot soar. Placed into the creative hands of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, this “iconic dance musical” hit Broadway with a ‘bang’ in 1957, ran for over 700 performances, and was made into an award-winning movie in 1961.

Now hailed as “the greatest Broadway musical of all time”, West Side Story comes to the Sydney Opera House in a production that has wowed audiences throughout Australia and overseas. And no wonder! Directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, an incredibly talented cast bring Laurents’ characters to vivid life as they sing and dance to the Opera Australia orchestra conducted by the magical baton of Donald Chan.

From its opening chords until its last sad moments, this West Side Story pays dazzling homage to the brilliance of its creators. It’s fast, tight, moving … and polished to a sophisticated theatrical shine. From fight, to rumble, to love scenes, to a beautiful spectral ballet, the production finds the pulsating essence of the music, the poignancy of the plot and the naïve vulnerability of characters who struggle to find their place in the sordid tenements and alleys of the Upper West neighbourhood of New York City.

Set designer Paul Gallis and lighting designer Peter Halbsgut use giant sepia images of 1950s New York skyscrapers and iconic buildings as a backdrop for moving scaffold ‘tenements’ that stretch high above the stage. Light filters through them, catching and refracting at times, gently isolating an area at others, always brilliantly evoking fraught feelings and simmering tension. The suggestion of incandescence in the ballet scene is especially evocative.

Photo : Jeff Busby

Unfortunately Todd Jacobsson was ill on opening night, but the role of Tony was ably – and very successfully – filled by Daniel Assetta.  Assetta is an accomplished performer whose Tony is hopefully buoyed by the feeling that Something’s Coming. That ‘something’ is Maria, played with naïve, artless trust by Sophie Salvesani. Together they portray the innocent optimism and desperate despair of their bitter-sweet “star-cross’d” passion, their voices blending beautifully in the touching notes of “Somewhere”and “One Hand One Heart”.

Chloé Zuel gives a vibrant performance as Anita, carefully mothering Maria in one moment, swinging powerfully into the demanding choreography of “America”in another, and finally the finding the heartfelt anguish of “A Boy Like That”.

Noah Mullins and Lyndon Watts face each other tautly as Riff and Bernardo. Wired and edgy, they lead their rival gangs in fast, deft dance routines and tense dialogue. Every gang member is in every moment, the tension emanating physically in time with the orchestra pulsating below them. Molly Bugeja is artfully lively as the tomboyish Anybody’s.

Singling out these performers in no way diminishes the way the cast work so closely and dynamically together. Energy and vitality pulse through every routine, every song, every character in this production. West Side Story is musical theatre at its best – and this productionof it is absolutely dazzling.

ARCO Recital – New Constellations

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. City Recital Hall.  August 18, 2019

Reviewed : 18 August, 2019

Photo : supplied

In the beautiful setting – and wonderful acoustics – of the City Recital Centre, the orchestra warmed a wintery afternoon with the music of Mendelssohn and Brahms. It was a pity that there were not more in the audience to share music composed in a time when romance and the emotions were so much more important in the arts and literature.

Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, written when he was only sixteen years old, seems far too complex and allusive a composition for one so young, suggesting as it does a more mature appreciation of sensations and beauty – and the depth and variation of both that can be conjured by the strings. Nothing really describes this composition better than Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny who wrote: “The whole piece is to be played pianissimo … the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning … so near to the world of spirits, carried away in the air …”

Under the fine touch and deft control of visiting Berlin-based violinist Jakob Lehman, the musicians skilfully brought those “trills” and “spirits” from the Romanticism of the late 1800s into the less light and sensitive world of the twenty-first century. The tempo of each of the four pieces invoked subtle emotional responses from each of the instruments, their voices echoing the sensitivity of the composer … and that of the perceptive performers who were interpreting the work.

RCO’s 2020 Sydney Season will be just as exciting and varied as this one has been. Check the website for the program and bookings.

Serenade NO 1 in D Major for Nonet, written in 1858 by Johannes Brahms, is no less quixotic, invoking images of a times past where horses cantered through cultivated forests and nature blossomed exotically around them. Here the triumphant notes of the horn blended with strings and winds as motifs were picked up, repeated and thrown back in a kaleidoscope of musical imagery. The mellow notes of the bassoon and bass tempered the thrilling changes of tempo and emotion, the clear notes of the flute adding piquant purity.

It is always inspiring to watch the expressive faces and sustained physicality of musicians as they respond to the lure of the music – and these perceptive performers never disappoint. Their passion and talent were especially evident in these romantic idylls, their poignant touch and emotive responses to the music, and to each other as they worked as individuals in harmony, made the performance more personal and persuasive.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine