Baroque And Roll: Sydney Baroque Music Festival

Baroque And Roll: Sydney Baroque Music Festival

Exploring Sydney's student-driven baroque festival.  

Hannah Spracklan-Holl
Melbourne, Australia

Baroque And Roll: Sydney Baroque Music Festival

Exploring Sydney's student-driven baroque festival.  

For many young musicians, camps and workshops are a highlight of our pre-professional development; everyone knows about post-camp blues! Rarely, however, is there a workshop that is entirely devised, planned, and run by students. The Sydney Baroque Music Festival is one such workshop, in which I recently participated for the second time. To combat the post-camp blues, I spoke with festival founder, director and participant Meg Cohen about taking the plunge into historically informed performance, the challenges of creating your own festival, and the future of period performance in Australia. 

What is the Sydney Baroque Music Festival? 

The Sydney Baroque Music Festival is an entirely student-driven initiative bringing together young musicians from all over Australia who share a passion for early music. The concept for this festival was to bring together the next generation of period performers from around the country. In creating the festival, I envisioned a dynamic environment in which these musicians could share their passion and craft with audiences.

The annual event sees musicians rehearsing a diverse program for one week, in preparation for a public concert. 

This is the fourth SBMF, and has grown from a small group of Sydney musicians to this year’s 18 musicians from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, and Canberra. The festival has been mentored by players from Australia’s leading baroque ensembles, including the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Ironwood and Pinchgut Opera. This year, the festival orchestra was mentored by the Muffat Collective.

How did you become interested in period performance? 

Completely by accident! As a first year undergraduate music student, I was shoved into the anonymous crowd of the choir, and, seeking any opportunity to avoid this inevitable boredom, I landed myself a place in the Early Music Ensemble (the only group which would reply to my desperate emails). I found myself in a supportive environment full of intelligent, interested students and teachers, and my love for this performance style quickly grew. 

The aspects of period performance that particularly appealed to me were the challenges of spontaneous problem solving and the freedom from a set interpretation of the music. I really enjoyed the collaboration that took place in rehearsals, in which everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the process of interpreting and performing the music. 

 Photo by theo small

Photo by theo small

What distinguishes SBMF from other period performance development workshops in Australia?

It’s free! I think it is so important to keep this festival accessible to any musician who wishes to take part. SBMF prides itself on its collaborative approach to learning – everyone has a voice here – which is also quite different to other programs available. To my knowledge, it is one of only a few baroque orchestral workshop operating in Australia.

I like to think of period performance as 'scholarly performance'. Do you think this is true and how does the rehearsal process for SBMF reflect this?

I would definitely agree, that while a period performer does not necessarily have to have read all available treatises by Leopold Mozart, Geminiani, Tartini and so on, there is a required level of understanding of the concepts and principles of these major works. Once all performers understand these principles, the performance of the music can make sense to all who are involved with performing it (much like a group of dancers, who, once knowing the steps, can move seamlessly together).

Over the course of SBMF, we first worked on collectively agreeing on all these principles, and then applied them directly to our repertoire. The Muffat Collective were vital here – their knowledge and expertise guided us through this process. In the first days of rehearsal, we spent a lot of time talking through the music, trying to understand the structure, style, and expressive elements. Once this was established, it directly influenced our approach to specific dance movements, and the instrumental techniques we used. A valuable lesson learnt was how to apply the principles thoughtfully and appropriately, so that what was happening in the music justified our choices – a dotted figure in a dance movement is so different to one in an overture.

How do you see the future of period performance in Australia, and how is SBMF contributing to this?

Baroque music is a burgeoning field of study for young musicians in Australia. It is exciting to be a part of such a fast-growing entity, and to see high-level ensembles forming all over the country. There has been a distinct trend of Australia’s brightest period performers seeking education elsewhere, and the knowledge that they bring back home to share with musicians of my generation is, I believe, the perfect foundation on which to build on that and form a strong baroque movement in Australia.

Australia is pretty good at meeting the performance education needs of its young musicians, but unfortunately for period performers, there are only a small selection of programs on offer. And most of these cost a pretty penny. This is where the Sydney Baroque Music Festival comes in – here is an opportunity for young baroque musicians to work with some of Australia’s best, on important repertoire, in fantastic Sydney venues, and all for free. I like to see the future of SBMF as an important stepping-stone for these young musicians into professional performance careers, perhaps the same way that the Australian Youth Orchestra provides for young ‘modern’ instrumentalists.

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