Sydneysiders are alerted via Brandenburg’s (may I say, thoroughly effective) marketing strategist that the company is bursting with a contemporary energy, that the ensemble tastes vastly different to your garden-variety Baroque group and that founder/artistic director Paul Dyer is a first-rate handsome devil. Many of us are familiar with the brand: digital portrait of Dyer in tight, high-shine suit, bold tagline, commercial vibrancy: ‘you’re in for a surprise’ Dyer coos, a twinkle in his eye. In promising a freshness and a decadence, Brandenburg’s Messiah ‘with a twist’ invites in a younger demographic. Classical music could do that a little more often.
The performance commences with the pat of bare feet across the stage, which unifies the entire chorus, lead performers, orchestra and conductor. (Dyer jovially enters in a velvet jacket, barefoot and grinning.) The chorus must be commended for a particularly rousing Hallelujah chorus and a veritable stamina musically, although a vacant glare surged from some. Spirited USA ‘celebrity-guest’ delivery Kyle Bielfield, tenor, drew our attention in animated vocal renditions. Outstanding soprano Lucia Martin-Carton performed with a uniquely warm vocal agility, particularly in sections ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet’ and ‘Rejoice! Oh Daughter of Zion’, where the challenging passages were sublimely run. This singer has a pristine quality, a technical magnificence and natural onstage charm.
Lamentably but not fatally, there seemed a slight discomfort among the performers in the ‘moves’ which (as I could understand) had been prescribed to them. At one point, spanish soprano Lucia Martin-Carton fell to her knees in a moment of fervour and in a very tight gown. ‘I hate this bloody move’, her face read. (Translate into Spanish). The fusion of raw/trendy costuming and theatrics bore a cost of general discomfort, with Greek countertenor Nicholas Spanos singing exceptionally, though wide-eyed and possibly afraid, more likely struggling with committing to his ‘moves’ than worrying he’d overstayed his Visa. While we’re here, I’ll also comment that Dyer took out some of the beautiful parts in lieu of some of the more Blah parts, but I could be argumentative about that for a while.
Where the International Artists reached technical heights, we saw something different in Australian tenor David Greco. In a performance that by no means intended to steal the show, Greco delivered on Brandenburg’s ambition for theatrics, intensity, passion and flair, not exceeding expectations in vocal ability (as we experienced with the international artists) but executing a performance that paralleled Dyer’s vision. Greco was refreshingly self-aware, running alongside the other performers, gesturing appropriately, finding an engaging balance of theatrical vigour and vocal intensity. Easy-on-the-eyes US tenor Kyle Bielfield was certainly theatrical too, leaping about, exerting a bright sort of drama without a great deal of contour. One can’t say he isn’t pretty/entertaining. He should play Frederic in the Pirates of Penzance.
This was no performance like the 1742 opener in Dublin. Confetti rained down gaily in large sweeps at the final number. It could be ascertained from the post-concert rabble that this show had divided its audience. Only one thing is sure: it will be remembered. As far as I’m concerned, Dyer is an invaluable force in classical music here in Sydney. Few artistic directors, and musicians for that matter, are courageous enough to attempt changing our image. It is becoming more apparent that it must be done. A merely coherent performance is charming, but an exciting performance secures the future of the art form. Well done Brandenburg. They mightn’t care to admit it, but they’ll be back.
Performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, City Recital Hall, Saturday, 4th March 2017