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You’ve never seen anything like it: baroque music and acrobats

Canberra International Music Festival 17 April 2019
Llewellyn Hall Canberra
02 May 2019, 7:30 PM - 9:00

The broad stage of ANU’s 1,400-seat Llewellyn Hall normally hosts dark-gowned academic ceremonies or more sedentary forms of arts entertainment.  On Thursday 2 May the unlikely combination of a circus troupe of bendy acrobats and an orchestra playing instruments of the period will banish such sluggish notions.

Centre-stage for the opening night of the Canberra International Music Festival are the Brisbane-based Circa contemporary circus and the Sydney-based Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

Their English Baroque concert, given its world premiere in Canberra, is “an explosive and thrilling collision of music and circus”.  Brandenburg’s founding artistic director, Paul Dyer, sees this programme as an exhilarating combination of art and entertainment. “Just like two people in a relationship – standing independently of each other but working with love in harmony”.

Split second timing

Circa has good experience of such split-second acrobatic and sonic choreography.  It includes Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus and Rite of Spring in its current touring schedule.   In 2015, however, Yaron Lifschitz, Circa’s artistic director, and Paul Dyer devised a French Baroque spectacular, for “artists of the air” and more grounded musicians, which played in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.  So successfully, in fact, that they renewed the collaboration two years later with a Spanish Baroque programme that especially featured Stefano Maiorana on guitar  and Tommie Andersson on theorbo and guitar.

Circa has come to Canberra pretty regularly in recent years, including Carnival of the Animals in 2016 and Landscape with Monsters in 2017.  This English Baroque Festival premiere on 2 May is the Canberra audience’s first and only chance to see its collaboration with Australia’s baroque specialists, the Brandenburgs.  As Dyer promised for the Spanish Baroque:  “the audience will go away feeling like they have never, ever witnessed anything like this”.

So, what to expect?  A “pasticcio”, as Paul Dyer calls the music, borrows its musical routines and ideas from various sources, so you will hear something like a medley.  Some items involve just the orchestra, but quite a deal of it is sung by Australian/American soprano, Jane Sheldon.

Jane Sheldon – an acrobatic singer

Sheldon is at the height of her powers, indeed something of a vocal acrobat.  One review from late 2017 described how she “effortlessly executed the intervallic gymnastics required”. A  critic of her 2019 Sydney Festival appearance drooled over “a fluid sound of glowing pristine beauty and transcendent iridescence”.

The music of this ninety-minute medley comes mainly from composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as John Dowland and Henry Purcell, who both helped to define a distinctively English Baroque style. But  there are several numbers by Georg Frideric Händel, the German-born but English resident who drew much inspiration from Italy.

Traditional Tunes

Then there are a couple of sections by Italians (Corelli and Matteis), and the evening is topped by an English Overture, compiled by Australian composer/arranger Alex Palmer, and tailed by a concluding roll-call of half a dozen traditional tunes (such as Scarborough Fair.) So, it is really an English Baroque, but with a smattering of German, Italian and Australian accents.

This musical medley is the lively soundtrack to the centre-stage physical spectacle, that Circa weaves beside, across, above and around the musicians. The music has been shaped into four scenes, which are a key to the vibrant, on-stage action of the acrobats.

As Yaron Lifschitz explains:  “On one enchanted night the worlds of the court, the bedroom, the chapel and the fairground all get bathed in magical moonlight”. “Playful, lyrical and rambunctious, the show brings the different worlds of the English Baroque together for a night of beauty and pleasure.”

But this production is still in rehearsal, so you do really need to attend to appreciate the final artistic alchemy of its Canberra premiere. 

Re/discover Bach

English Baroque is the first of over forty concerts in the twenty-fifth Canberra International Music Festival, which plays until Sunday 12 May, in venues all over Canberra and its region (  The Festival’s binding theme is:  “Re/discover Bach”, a homage to that master musical artisan, the German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach may have died a good ten generations ago, but the way his spirit lives on in different musical styles, on different instruments or voices, and in different countries, is a wonder to discover, or rediscover.

The Festival’s final concert is poignantly entitled “Testament”.  It will include the piece Bach was writing when he died, but end with some more life-affirming cantatas, perhaps recalling some of the joyous English Baroque music of the Festival’s opening night with Circa and the Brandenburg Orchestra.


Thursday, May 2, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM Llewellyn Hall



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