Dietrich Becker - Sonata No.5 in F major (1674)
Borderlands Suite (assembled by Julia Fredersdorff)
Georg Muffat - Sonata No.1 in D major, from Armonico Tributo (1682)
María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir - Clockworking (2013)
Anonymous (attributed to Biber or Schmelzer) - Sonata Jucunda
Donald Nicolson - Spirals (2022)
Thursday 28 April 2022, 7:30pm
Adelaide Town Hall
Van Diemen's Band
Julia Fredersdorff, artistic director & violin
Simone Slattery, violin & recorder
Katie Yap, viola
Laura Vaughan, bass viol
Anton Baba, bass viol & cello
Donald Nicolson, harpsichord
Van Diemen's Band play like a band; they come from diverse corners of the country (I wonder what qualifies them as a Tasmanian group?), but they blend well in sound and phrasing, and also in physical gesture and visual expression. Fredersdorff reminded us that Baroque music is all about the extremes of emotion, and this came through strongly in their playing: there were no 'neutral' passages, everything was played with expressive intent. Yet it never sounded forced or heavy or tiring. There was a lightness even to the bleakest emotions – which got me thinking, because this kind of lightness seems to be missing in most contemporary art of every genre, perhaps for fear that it belittles those negative emotions which are 'all the rage'. But what's the point of art if it doesn't do something with an emotion, put it in a context, a story?
The music (as always) being incapable of selling itself, we were offered a context for it in the form of the concert's title: 'Borderlands'. It's a nice little spark of an idea to set the brain whirring, and to fill program notes and reviews with many fuzzy statements about what borders are and how music (of course) transcends them. And it encourages us to make connections between the music and certain current world events involving borders, which all involved in presenting this program were at pains to point out. But the truth is that such a nebulous term was only ever going to be peripheral to my enjoyment of the concert; it feels weird to even bring it up, except that everything in the program booklet told me it was important. It's funny how complicated it can be to enjoy music. As one given to over-thinking, I know all about this; what I particularly enjoyed about this music was the way it quietened, rather than engaged, that part of me. At least until I sat down to write just now.
There were six musicians in Van Diemen's Band, and most played in all the pieces. Simone Slattery, second violin, also whipped out a recorder for a few of them. Several of the works made full use of the available five-part counterpoint (most notably Tomaso Albinoni's C major Sonata, dominated by its two wonderful fugues), but at times I wished more could have been done to aid the spatial-acoustic separation of parts. The ensemble stayed in an identical formation throughout, with the two violins side by side (their sounds virtually on top of each other), and the viola and first bass viol separated by the continuo (harpsichord and cello/second bass viol). This was all quite understandable, given the need for optimal projection in a space like this, and the presence of ABC's microphones, but it obscured the counterpoint in the fugues a little, and made the duelling 'trumpets' (violins) in Samuel Scheidt's Galliard Battaglia sound more like they were echoing rather than fighting.
The centre of the first half was a Borderlands Suite assembled by Fredersdorff, made up of five short movements from a diverse selection of composers, structured into a effective 'war and its aftermath' narrative. We were assured that this kind of Baroque mix-tape approach was common practice back in the 1600s, and I thought it worked beautifully. The standouts for me were Les Pleurs ('The Tears') by Jean de Sainte-Colombe, for its evocation of tortured despair; and a Courant by Samuel Scheidt which Fredersdorff told us would express 'resentment' – and somehow it did exactly this, its dark, compelling energy reminding me how easily resentment can turn to hatred. And yet, in music, still be beautiful.
The highlight of the concert's second half, for me, was the anonymous Sonata Jucunda. This came across as more of a riddle than a joke, its bizarre excessive repetitions, crazy harpsichord cadenzas, moments of whole ensemble unison, emphatic semitone clashes, and overall restless structure appearing to be laced with some inscrutable meaning. If it was a joke, it was like one of those elaborate narrative jokes in which it suddenly dawns on you that there is no punchline to make sense of it all, just a weird and wonderful array of bizarre images.
The were also two contemporary pieces on the program. Clockworking was written for Baroque string trio and backing track by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, an Icelandic composer who also plays in an indie band, amiina. While very beautiful, this work confused me a bit: the backing track consisted of acoustic sounds (more strings playing glassy ostinatos, along with some kalimba or bell-like sounds moving in slow, regular patterns), which drew attention to its 'not live' quality, because it's always impossible to perfectly balance such things. Here, the pre-recorded accompaniment was slightly too loud, and definitely too 'bassy' compared with the thin sound of gut strings coming from the live instruments. The music itself stood out from the rest of the program because of its simplicity, being essentially a single extended gesture. A cloud of ostinatos created a neutral-sounding chord below which a bass line was slowly repeated and developed. It was like someone sitting at a piano and looking for a tune to go with a single chord, very gradually getting more harmonically adventurous (yes, I've been there).
The concert concluded with its newest piece, Spirals, commissioned from the Van Diemen Band's harpsichordist, Donald Nicolson. It was a carefully crafted passacaglia for the whole ensemble, using a very Baroque harmonic progression. It slowly dissolved into a Slavonic Orthodox lament, led by Slattery on the recorder and shadowed closely and thinly by the treble of the harpsichord. This special ending was apparently added to the piece as an afterthought, in February, from a desire to include something in the program that acknowledged the unfolding events in Ukraine. While I am a big fan of drawing connections between music and the world around us, this did feel a little forced to me. It's hard to fault the motivation, but motivation isn't everything.
I sat down to write about this music, because I really liked it and wanted to re-enjoy it, and now I've found that it's disappeared like dust. If I started writing about borders and Ukraine and bandwagons, maybe what I would have to say would seem more relevant, but simultaneously the music would be further away. So I will stop now.