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Reviews/Music

Perth ‘Candlelight’ concert delivers on spectacle and talent

24 March 2021

Have you seen the online advertising and wondered if it was a scam? Claire Coleman checks out “Candlelight: Vivaldi Four Seasons” at Winthrop Hall and discovers good news.

“Candlelight: Vivaldi Four Seasons”, Fever and Australian Baroque ·
Winthrop Hall, 22 March 2021 ·

You might have seen the advertisements for “Candlelight: Vivaldi Four Seasons” online and wondered, given the limited information provided, if it’s some kind of scam. Rest assured: despite a few oddities, the concert series running between February and April at Winthrop Hall by promoter Fever is no hoax.

Fever is an international company whose model involves replicating successful events in various locations around the world. It may be this intention to clone that contributes to vagueness in their advertising copy. Fever’s website indicates that tonight’s concert will include “a talented string ensemble” performing a “tentative program” of “selections” from The Four Seasons, leaving audiences unsure until the concert commences who and what they are actually seeing.

Thankfully the concert overdelivers on the promised “talent”. The soloist is Perth’s very own wunderkind Shaun Lee-Chen, Concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. The ensemble comprises members of Australian Baroque, a WA based national early music collective operating since 2018. On Monday night the performers included esteemed WAAPA lecturers Paul Wright (first violin) and Stewart Smith (keyboard), the Artistic Director of Australian Baroque Helen Kruger (second violin), and accomplished performers Alix Hamilton (viola / voiceover) and Noeleen Wright (cello). Double bassist Libby Browning deserves a special mention for coolness under pressure when her bow broke a few moments into the first movement of Spring and, without turning a hair, she swapped to pizzicato until a replacement bow was procured for the second movement.

While it was a pleasant surprise to arrive and discover who was performing, it’s puzzling that these illustrious names were not writ large beforehand.

Each concerto of The Four Seasons is prefaced by a reading of a sonnet, presumed to be written by Vivaldi, which informs the work’s performance. Hearing the poems primes the audience to notice Spring’s chirping birds, Summer’s thunderstorms, Autumn’s great hunt and the skittering ice of Winter. Hamilton reads the poems with beautiful elocution and pace, but a little more variation in the gravity of delivery would better convey the lighter and darker moments present in both music and text.

The ensemble’s tight knit virtuosity is particularly notable in the work’s dialogic sections, such as those in the first movement of Autumn, which are led with flair by Chen. His maverick tendencies and technical prowess are on display in his improvised cadenzas, which effortlessly combine microtonal ornaments reminiscent of the Muslim adhān (call to prayer) with decidedly Western Baroque terraced dynamics and scale passages.

Winthrop Hall can be a cavernous and cold space, but the promised candles (electric – it’s a fire ban people!) on every surface bathe the room in a warm, soft glow. The ambience of the candle-decked Hall carries the simultaneous closeness and solemnity of a votive offering. The positioning of the stage in centre of the hall, with audience seated around it in four quadrants, allows us to occasionally catch a glimpse of those seated across from us, with their mesmerised, upturned faces awash in golden light. Chen makes for a mobile soloist, switching his position in the ensemble’s circle, which allows audiences on all sides to see him and puts his natural showmanship to good use.

The organisers’ slightly baffling communication choices were more than overcome by the spectacle of the venue and the programming of well-seasoned (get it?) musicians. What was clear in both the marketing and the spiel outlining concert etiquette at the show’s commencement is that it was geared towards new classical audiences. Judging by the unconventional applause between almost every movement, this targeting worked. These enthusiastic fresh ears, coupled with an exceptional performance, bring new perspectives to an old favourite.

“Candlelight: Vivaldi Four Seasons” continues at Winthrop Hall until 16 April 2021.

Pictured top: The stage of Winthrop Hall is filled with candles. (This photo is from a different performance to the one described in the review). Photo supplied.

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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