A Venusian volcanologist and a Baroque specialist invite you to explore the universe in a different way. Julie Hosking talks to the creative couple behind Space Music.
You could say the stars – or perhaps the planets – aligned for Helen Kruger and Antony Brian.
The Bassendean violinist had gone to the Royal Academy of Music in London to do a one-year post grad. This led to a Masters and then a fellowship until, almost before she knew it, the student had become the teacher, appointed director of Chamber Music at the Junior Royal Academy.
“Every year, I was like just one more year, and then I got to 10 years and I thought ‘maybe I’ll apply for residency’ and then I met Antony,” she says.
While his bride-to-be was mastering Baroque, Brian was also buried in studies, though in his case it was the world of science – one that took him to another planet (more on that soon). He also had a musical bent, taking trumpet lessons at the Royal College of Music, but he and Kruger didn’t cross paths in concert halls, or in the streets or pubs of London. The couple met online.
“I think having an interest in music, and going to concerts, being in that world as well has always been really nice, to have that connection,” he says over tea and homemade crumble.
His wife, the artistic director of Australian Baroque, concurs. “You can appreciate what it takes, what it means and what it is,” she replies with a smile.
It’s one of the reasons why their collaboration for Australian Baroque’s next concert, Space Music, is so special. The show, which will be performed at Perth’s Liberty Theatre before heading to Wickepin and Balingup at the end of the month, brings their passions together in a celebration of Baroque music and an exploration of space.
For though Brian has been in finance for 16 years, he is also a former planetary geologist, or more specifically a Venusian volcanologist. (No, I didn’t know what the latter was either.)
“Back in the day NASA would send out all their images to what are called regional planetary imaging facilities, usually at universities or research institutions,” he explains.
“I was doing my PhD on the geology of large volcanoes on Venus and working with a planetary group at University College London. My supervisors had already started to work on Venus, being part of the primary investigating team for the Magellan mission (the spacecraft sent to map Venus in 1990).”
Brian put his hand up to geologically map areas of Earth’s nearest neighbour in 1999 and ended up discovering a topographic rise – “a sort of a mound about 1000 by 2000km in size that is pushed up from below by a big mantle plume that causes volcanoes or lava to come out”.
It had been overlooked in earlier investigations and Brian was rewarded with naming rights, though he couldn’t call the Venusian find any old thing. He holds a globe of the fiery planet and points to Laufey Regio, named for a Norse goddess of fire.
Brian spent several years working as a planetary geologist, including a stint at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States, but the uncertainty of work – “it’s quite a niche field” – prompted a career change.
While there are no regrets about his move into finance, Brian’s clearly excited about revisiting Space Music, which was first performed in 2021. This journey through space is divided into sections, which the scientist introduces to give context for the striking images of the universe unveiled on a huge screen as Australian Baroque makes beautiful music.
But how did these seemingly disparate worlds come together? Whittling down thousands of amazing NASA images to just 50 or so for the concert was one challenge, finding the music to match was another.
It all begins, naturally, with the Big Bang, which they have paired with Chaos from French composer Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet Les Elémens.
“We initially thought we’d see who had written a suite called Mercury or similar but that didn’t really work, so we found other pieces that were big and majestic, that had a sort of cyclical element to them to match the majesty of the universe,” Brian says.
“That starts with a cluster chord, the first cluster chord in musical composition history, it’s just like the Big Bang – when you listen to it and watch the images, it’s like they were made for one another,” Kruger says.
“And then in the section about the Sun, there’s an aria called The Glitt’ring Sun, which Pru Sanders is going to sing, and it sounds like the sunrise. When you have two things that are greater than the sum of the parts, the experience is amazing.”
While there was lots of passionate argument about what to feature the first time around, take two has been far more relaxed.
There are a few changes from 2021, including the addition of another aria, Handel’s Gentle Morpheus, Son of Night. “Every single piece is a real banger, it’s just gorgeous music,” Kruger says.
“I had my vision and Antony had his vision and it was like who was going to give in,” Kruger says with a laugh. “It was the first time we’d worked together in that capacity, so it took us a while to agree on what we wanted.”
The couple left the London lights for Perth in 2017, when their children were tiny so Kruger could be closer to family. She intended to take a bit of a break, working for Perth Symphony Orchestra as one of their concert masters and doing some coaching and examining at WAAPA.
By the end of 2018, however, she was nursing another baby, Australian Baroque. At the time there wasn’t much in the way of Baroque music in Perth, and Kruger moved heaven and earth to ensure musicians could play the music as it should be played – with Baroque instruments.
“There are so many more players now. We’ve been kitting people out, getting violins sent over, bows sent over from the UK,” she says.
“We have really great musicians in Perth. Dorée Dixon, who lives in Perth, plays Baroque French horn for the Australian Brandenburg, and she’d never played it in Perth until she played with us. She always had to travel overseas for work. I didn’t want to do that.”
It’s one of the reasons she was determined to make Australian Baroque work. “I didn’t want to be off touring with two children and for that to be my only work option,” she says.
Starting an orchestra dedicated to music from the 1600s to the 1700s seems like a brave move in a small city like Perth but Kruger knew that it would be well received.
“I’d done a tour over east with my London group, Little Baroque Co, years ago and we sold out every show and got standing ovations and I’m not a name – people were just so drawn to Baroque music,” she says. “It showed me that there was a huge appetite for it and Australian Baroque has proven that to be true.”
Even during COVID, the orchestra was in demand. “I’ve never been so busy. A lot of the bigger orchestras couldn’t perform but even with the capacity restrictions we could have like 150 audience members at Winthrop Hall. We did more than 90 shows in 2021,” she says.
“That was really strange because over east they had nothing and all my colleagues in the UK had no concerts for two years and here we were exhausted from having done so many, and I’d done another 30 concerts on top of that (for the likes of PSO).”
Australian Baroque has also been smart about bringing new people into the fold, pushing preconceptions about where classical music should be performed, and what with. Space isn’t the only frontier they’ve crossed, with forays into hops (Bach and Beer) and aerobics (Abs, Butts, Vivaldi).
“People have really embraced that,” says Brian, who is also the orchestra’s finance director. “I had a colleague at Westpac who said ‘it’s not really my thing, classical music’ but she came to Space Music and really enjoyed it. This type of pairing is an eye-opener for people who might not normally attend.”
For Kruger, it doesn’t really matter where Baroque is played (although the venue can’t be too big or it requires the kind of modern-day amplification purists avoid). It’s all about the feeling that the music brings – to those who play it and those who hear it.
“The whole premise of Baroque music is that it was meant to move your internal state,” Kruger says. “You know they were really manipulative in a way, Baroque composers; they would choose specific keys and motifs to really pull at your heartstrings, whether they wanted to make you laugh or cry or feel that kind of longing. It’s really emotive.”
Kruger and Brian are doing some manipulating of their own with their marriage of science and music. It’s an experience that they hope will fill the audience with wonder.
“Last time we did it, we had an email from a lady who came to one of our shows who said that she’d been up all night, just thinking about her insignificance,” Kruger says. “It really does have an impact. I’m really proud of it.”
Pictured top: Antony Brian can’t wait to share some secrets of the universe in ‘Space Music’. Photo supplied
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