Bully for us


Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra and CIRCA

Melbourne Recital Centre

May 13-14, 2017


I’m sorry but, try as hard as I may to wish it were otherwise, the musical content in these collaborations often goes through to the back of the net.   After three exposures to Circa, I thought I’d seen all their manoeuvres and manipulations; this last experience shows that, even when working with the tried-and-true, this troupe can often strike out in unexpected directions.   Added to which, the off-the-cuff showmanship and near-flawless expertise on display tends to swamp out the Brandenburg offering which on this night often became, to be kind, something close to aural wallpaper.

Paul Dyer and his small band of players began with an Entrada dinamica y ruidosa, put together by the man himself.   It was certainly noisy enough, being mainly for percussion and reminiscent of the sound onslaught generated by Les Ballets Africains of many years ago.   A canarios by Santiago de Murcia followed in an arrangement by Dyer and film-music writer Alex Palmer, which I seem to recall backed a rather impressive series of tall totem-poles and pyramid shapes  constructed from themselves by the eight Circa members.

Two women from the troupe then played balancing games on a long seesaw construct while soprano Natasha Wilson sang a Tarquinio Merula aria, Su la cetra amorosa – negotiated well enough although the singer’s range of vocal colours is not large and I think she underestimated the force of her accompaniment.   A Murcia fandango followed, arranged by Palmer and Stefano Maiorana, guest guitarist with the ABO for this program; lively and fiercely rhythmic, it was overshadowed by one of the Circa men twisting himself round a vertical pole, finishing off his routine with a heart-stopping vertical drop – the sort of accomplishment that threw the musical action well into the background, sad to say.

An organ solo from Dyer that sounded like a scrap from the Bologna school followed before Wilson contributed an anonymous cancion, Muerto estais, in an adaptation by Dyer, Palmer, and the renowned Argentinian-born lutenist Eduardo Eguez.   This proved most interesting because of the singer’s restrained address and the fore-fronting of Tommie Andersson‘s theorbo (amplified?), while the acrobats performed four pas de deux, interweaving and exchanging places in an engrossing display of inter-dependence.

Suddenly, we left the Spanish Baroque for the familiar Spanish Modern when Maiorana broke into Albeniz’s Leyenda, arranged by Palmer for the rest of the ensemble to join in but a touch demanding for the baroque instrument that the main executant was using; the version moved beyond the original’s simplicity of texture, naturally enough, with various accretions and excisions while a female acrobat climbed up a cluster of white ropes in an enthusiastic if not over-original solo.

Wilson sang Con que la lavare, better known to most of us as one of Rodrigo’s Cuatro madrigales amatorios; the earlier version by Luis de Narvaez sung here is a more languorous construct, even in this arrangement by Sydney-based composer Tristan Coelho.  As things turned out, the singer gave some of her best work in this piece, supporting seven of the Circa players before the rope-specialist from the preceding turn came on for an ensemble displaying sheer muscular control.   Vivaldi’s version of La folia, that simple theme subjected to so many variation-sequences across the centuries, is inevitably more light-filled than most, handled here with plenty of free-wheeling abandon by the Brandenburg strings (what there were of them), while a female trapeze artist dealt handsomely with the four Circa men who tried to disrupt her routine.

Palmer’s arrangement of the traditional Catalan song La mare de Deu, another Palmer arrangement, also gave Wilson fine exposure as her visual competition was a solitary female carrying out a sequence of hand stands on three slender-looking pillars – again, simple craft without fireworks but somehow matching the quiet tension of the musical content.   Back came the men with a table for plenty of diving across and under with a scattering of near-misses to the backdrop of an anonymous villancico called Rodrigo Martinez, reshaped by Dyer and Palmer.   This pre-Baroque melody is fairly familiar – Jordi Savall has treated it and it turns up in all sorts of formats from other ensembles – but, once you’ve played it, there’s not much else to do except elaborate it; yes, you could say the same about a wealth of material on this program.   Eventually, of course, the whole Circa corps joined in this perfectly-judged and -calculated frolic.

Another Catalan song, La dama d’Arago, enjoyed the Palmer treatment,  Wilson again given a considerate Brandenburg accompaniment while a female acrobat re-visited a Circa regular in manipulating herself up two cloth ribands, although she avoided that extraordinary move where the performer wraps the cloth around her, then lets herself fall floor-wards, spinning all the while; yes, the child in me (never far from the surface) missed it.

A  jacara by Murcia put the spotlight again on Maiorana who revelled in the slashing rasgueado chords in this version constructed by himself and Palmer, while a wheelbarrow provided a bull-representation for the Circa’s turn as matadors – Spanish, I suppose, but not over-entertaining.   The finale came in an improvisation called Passacaglia Andaluz, notable for yet more apparently off-hand body-throwing and a sense of predictability from the musicians, their creativity well-harnessed to a set pattern – naturally enough, given this traditional format, but we could have done with more linear and vertical extravagance.

Look, it was most entertaining; my grand-daughter loved it from start to finish, the whole experience bringing out her latent Nadia Comaneci.   But, like quite a few in the packed Murdoch Hall, she was barely aware of the Brandenburg players.   Which may have been the musicians’ intention – not to distract from their guests.   But I think that the collaboration has reached its use-by date and could well be rested for a few years.   Their first appearance together in 2015 proved extraordinarily exciting, exhilarating even to these well-worn eyes and ears; Circa alone at the Playhouse for a Carnival of the Animals production reinforced impressions of the company’s prowess; this Spanish night entertained but, when all’s said and done, the prevailing ethos at work is physical.   Until the two bodies can mesh more with each other with both bodies inside each other’s space for extended periods rather than a few slight juxtapositions, the gymnasts will enjoy the limelight and the formidable Brandenburgers might just as well be sitting in an orchestral pit.