Review / Salut! Baroque’s disappointing, distant performance

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Salut! Baroque… What was missing in this performance was any sense that the players were enjoying themselves. Photo: Peter Hislop

SALUT! Baroque has been performing music of the baroque for more than 23 years using what is currently termed “historically informed” performance practise.

The ensemble plays on instruments of the period (or modern copies) and researches performance and playing styles to present the music as it might have sounded 250 or more years ago. This is the first concert of its 2019 series, with performances in Sydney and Canberra.

Each of the four concerts this year are thematically based, this one entitled “Melancholy & Mirth”. The printed program does little to explain the thinking or the selection of works behind this title. Where the reader might expect some background notes on the 11  disparate works in the program, all that is offered is a rambling dissertation on bodily humours.

The “mirth” is obvious in Leopold Mozart’s well-known “Toy Symphony” (more properly entitled “Cassation in G major for Orchestra and Toys”) and the “melancholy” equally to be heard in Simon Fraser’s “Caledonia’s Wail for Niel Gow”.

Where arrangements of arias from WA Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for string quartet and czakan fit into this emotional landscape is less recognisable. The czakan is an end-blown flute briefly popular in early 19th century Vienna and tunefully played by Hans-Dieter Michatz.

What was missing in this performance was any sense that the players were enjoying themselves. When a group of musicians is working well together they are communicating through eye contact, encouraging and lifting the performance. Little of that seemed to be happening and there was a raggedness at time which suggested perhaps not enough rehearsal time for the music to sit comfortably. At times the pitch was variable and the strings especially struggled to keep in tune.

Overall this was a disappointing concert with a fragmented program lacking highlights, and an ensemble lacking engagement, both with the music and the audience. Hopefully this is but a minor blip after a long and notable performance career.

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  1. I can only think that Graham McDonald has not fully read the programme notes of the recent Salut Baroque concert. For this member of the audience they provided a very profound foundation on which to listen to the music with new ears.
    Yes, the Scot’s wail for Neil Gow and the Toy Symphony were obvious and extreme examples of the Humours which transcend cultural change, but even they had more subtlety than poor Graham was aware of. The Struggle of Jane Downer to stop bursting into hysterical laughter as she had to keep repeating the Cuckoo element was clear to me and those around me. Sally Melhuish’s relentlessly determined poker face only enhanced the totally ridiculous combination of the superb bird whistle and footy rattle.
    The Scots Wail for Neil Gow was, for this folk musician, pure folk. The violins were as far from classical as they could be and conveyed the profound grief of the Highlands in what was, for me, their own musical language. I was intensely drawn in to this one as an individual has studied Scots history and heard the Border Ballads frequently sung by such as Ewan McColl and Danny Spooner.
    I’ve been watching this ensemble for several years now, and while they all maintain a professional decorum, it’s been a joy to me to watch the subtle interplays, brief eye contacts and half smiles that indicate musicians both fully concentrated on their work, but also sharing warm, quiet pleasure in it. I grant I have seen a number of the players dancing and moving to what they play, but if other players are not so obvious, that is no case to suggest they are not enjoying what they do,
    After reading Tim’s notes, I listened very closely to all the works trying to imagine the sort of intent the original composer might have had in a certain harmonic structure, a certain movement of the bass line- always so competently delivered by Tim. Again, my efforts were rewarded by a deeper understanding.
    As for the Csakan, apart from Hans-Dieter’s fiery expertise with which he plays all his armoury of whistles, for me it was a triumphant vindication of a relatively unknown historical instrument, and anybody who failed to see the twinkle in the master’s eye that is almost always there, was not looking.
    Salut Baroque is not a group that flaunt their emotions. They are professional musicians focussed on playing fine Baroque music and helping us broaden our understanding of the people and the times that made it. In this task they have, for John Warner and Jenni Mc Allister, fully succeeded.
    John Warner and Jenni McAllister,
    Murrumbateman NSW.

  2. Graham McDonald seems to be alone in his opinion of Salut! Baroque’s concert on 22 February as his views are not shared by either the musicians or audience – although he claims to speak on behalf of them. Here are just a few of the comments from the audience:

    • “The concert last Friday in Canberra was one of the best I’ve been to. And my friends with me agreed. The variety was great, the oboe was an inspired inclusion, and the whole evening was great fun. I’m looking forward to the rest of the 2019 series. Thank you all for really wonderful concerts, and Tim for his witty concert notes!”
    • “It’s a great theme to pursue, the gamut of which was touched upon in the program and its title: melancholy and mirth. There was a contagious energy from the very first note that spread to us in the audience.”
    • “I think the Salut Baroque ones are the most enjoyable of all the concert series we subscribe to.”
    • “It was lively and full of surprises, and executed perfectly as always. Salut! Baroque Friday nights are always a treat to look forward to.”
    • “Profoundly moving. We enjoyed every moment of last Friday as much as we always do.”
    • “It was a particularly dynamic and enjoyable program of pieces last week and we are very much looking forward to the next concert.”
    • “So much of the enjoyment of your concerts comes from reflection of them with the aid of Tim Blomfield’s notes. They are a learned delight to read…The enlightenment that Tim brings extends beyond music.”
    • “What a BEAUTIFUL concert the other night … this was special.”
    • “The concert last Friday was terrific – and everyone left with a great smile on their faces.”

    One audience member has offered this review on the “review”: “Not a word about technique, variety of program and instruments … I could see eye contact and communication, where was he?”

    Salut! Baroque

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