Have baroque, will travel

26 October 2020

Performing in a brewery and private homes is one way a local baroque ensemble is finding fresh and new audiences. Ara Jansen talks to Australian Baroque to find out if they go together well.

Hanging by a bar with a beer in your hand while a piece of Bach gestures to your ears from across the room isn’t exactly an expected picture.

It is however just the kind of picture that Australian Baroque wants you to have as they take it to the streets with their spring season. In this case, it’s a city brewery as the ensemble perform two shows this week called Bach & Beer.

Australian Baroque is a relatively new ensemble and early music initiative based in Perth. They comprise world-class musicians and bring together artists with a wealth of experience performing and studying in Europe. Their main point of difference is that they are not just an orchestra for the concert hall.

Their spring season comprises the more expected concerts at Government House Ballroom and Christ Church Claremont, but also the less expected ones of shows at Bright Tank Brewing Co. and a house concert series.

Artistic director and violinist Helen Kruger brings more than a decade playing in baroque groups in Europe and has been back in her hometown for a few years. She’s excited about being able to play these potentially unexpected venues and feels the lively program of Bach & Beer will be a lot of fun.

Kruger says it’s not about abandoning the halls and ballrooms – where they will perform a program of orchestral works by Telemann, Bach, Vivaldi and Handel with the full baroque orchestra – but wanting to expand their reach and perform to some new audiences.

“Playing new venues both connects us to new listeners and them to us,” says Kruger. “When we performed at Fringe there were people who had never been to a classical concert and I’ve never seen a more enthusiastic audience.

“Ultimately, we want to make this kind of music more accessible without dumbing it down. I think people can recognise great music and great playing. I love the idea of the complexity of music with the complexity of a beer. We’re in other people’s spaces and we’re connecting with them.”

Read: A review of Australian Baroque’s Fringe World concert describes how kittens are the perfect antidote to the sometimes stifling formality of Baroque concerts.

The Bach & Beer shows feature soprano Sara Macliver, soloist James Huntingford (harpsichord), Kathryn Aducci (baroque trumpet) and former brewer Robin Hillier (baroque flute). As a bonus, the music has also been matched with a series of specially designed beers.

“Our members usually play in a number of different groups but being able to play in a baroque orchestra is something different. To me it’s an exciting style of music. It’s more gestural. The first time I heard someone play a baroque instrument it was like it was talking. That just made sense to me and that’s where I come to baroque from.

“It’s not just trying to make nice sounds. There’s the idea of it as rhetoric. We are trying to say something with the music, the textures and tones and trying to give it all the knowledge and research around what the composer was trying to say, even at the moment they were writing it.”

While you might well argue that baroque music should never play second fiddle to a beer (or indeed the other way), Kruger feels the two elements will be well matched in the right room. 

“Part of the premise of music is to change your state of being and affect your internal state to come away transformed. I think baroque has that power.”

Helen Kruger performs in a trio at a house concert. Photo Nic Babic.

Shifting gears slightly, the house concert series offers both performers and the audience a different experience. Held in local homes with up to 100 people, it puts both groups in within metres of each other.

“You can really feel the music and the low strings resonate in your chest. They get so close they can become really drawn in. That’s my favourite experience of music, being able to be that close to see it being made.

“We also take questions after and everyone can come up and talk to the players and ask about the rare instruments we play. We also often talk about the music during the concert and explain the piece we’re about to play or what’s amazing about it. I think that also breaks down the barriers and helps people feel more comfortable.”

Kruger says being involved in the WA community is central to the group’s aims and part of that ethos is to build ties with regional and metro communities which includes performing in a variety of venues such as galleries, schools museums and cafes. Education is also a core branch of their practice and they’re thrilled to be Ensemble in Residence at WAAPA.

“There’s so much enthusiasm for our work and this style of music and it has really been met with open arms. These are the types of concerts we definitely want to do more of. It’s a time for baroque music to really take off in WA.”

The group is looking to record and hoping to commission their first new work next year.

PS: jeans will be totally acceptable at Bach & Beer – while pearls are totally optional.

Bach & Beer is 29 October and 1 November with concerts continuing at various locations until December.

Picture top: the members of Australian Baroque launch their innovative program this month. Photo supplied

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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