Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French Baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants' legendary 1985 production of Lully's Atys this year brought that home. (They are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau's Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully's Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF's chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
The Modigliani String Quartet has quite a definite personality as a musical ensemble and so has Sabine Meyer in her playing. This is perhaps part of the reason they get along so well together in performance. The differences in style and color of each member of the quartet, though not great, are enough to create a consistent pellucid ensemble sound — one can hear straight through to the bottom of the music like a pristine glacial lake. Sabine Meyer's tone slipped in without a splash, though caused interesting ripples, without any sense of the strings merely 'setting off' a soloist, rather her clarinet combined when the music so called for to shade the sum color of the ensemble or conversed with the quartet on equal terms, and the musicians were always looking, glancing, listening closely to one another. The group did sound perhaps as if they would prefer a somewhat brighter acoustic, but they made the best use of the City Recital Hall (which was certainly adequate either way). Their tempo changes were always well judged to let the sound rebound — however dim on its return —, catch up, and shade in the sound and their pauses and silences were perfectly judged to satisfy the local drama and drift of the melodic structure of the music while allowing as best one could hope for for the fast-fading ring of the hall.
Nearly to the point of self-parody, Sculpture by the Sea is the quintessential Sydney art exhibition. Every spring for fifteen years, the cliff top walk between Bondi and Bronte beaches has become an appropriately sculptural place to view sculpture. The weathered sandstone of the cliffs, sometimes smooth and rounded, sometimes broken and angular or pitted with lacy indentations, is already a kind of found sculpture, its grace clashing with the boxiness of so much Sydney architecture. Along the two kilometer walk, itself one of the city’s unmissable experiences, are a variety of natural “galleries” — works can be perched amidst the mineral minimalism of the cliffs with ocean as backdrop, tucked into lush grottoes on the inland side or clustered in the parks and beaches, either on the sand, on trampled lawns or along concrete paths. Everywhere, limpid sunshine pours down, mercilessly chiseling the surfaces of the works.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720's and 1730's (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L'Orfeo, Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company's production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.
In the interstices of the Sydney Opera House, between the Opera Theatre, the famous steps up to the podium and the stage door loading dock, is the Utzon Room looking out to the east over Sydney Harbour. Jørn Utzon redesigned the former "reception room" with a mind for its use for chamber music and recitals (he also redesigned the Western Colonnade to welcome theatre goers into the playhouse theater, though unfortunately not the Opera Theatre itself). The Utzon Room magically feels at once like a natural sandstone cave and a modernist version of an English drawing room. It is cozy, long relative to its depth and ceiling height (though not at all cramped being about 3 meters high) with plate glass windows about the height of a person stretching the length of the room facing east, looking across Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove) with the Botanic Gardens, the sandstone ledges by Mrs Macquarie's Chair and the industrial iron architecture of Garden Island navy base behind. Opposite the windows, along the other length stretches Jørn Utzon's tapestry Tribute to CPE Bach, its islands of clear and vivid secondary colors complement the pale gray cement ceiling beams which hold up the Opera House above. These beams run the length of the roof, sloping at the end right to the floor, supporting the outside steps, gradually tapering and changing shape as they do from decahedral to rectangular. The musicians stand in front of the window, facing the tapestry which no doubt has a strong favorable effect on the acoustics. Thus the room, also seeming, like a sandstone cave, much older than it really is, has more than its fair share of atmosphere and gravitas, especially for a Sydney concert hall, and could risk overshadowing its musicians in a way, for example, the City Recital Hall at Angel Place could not. The acoustics are very clean and balanced across the spectrum, contributing to the clean, lucid, rounded sound of the ensemble and although the view of the Harbour shows constant maritime activity, no noise gets through the windows, even when an enormous cruise ship floated by (albeit under tug) or one of the hooning speedboats which give joy rides to tourists.