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Erin Helyard will perform in this indulgent festival of Baroque classics

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BY MIRANDA ILCHEF, LEAD WRITER


Over the past decade, Baroque repertoire has made quite a resurgence in Australia’s orchestral programming. As a violinist, I feel fortunate that my development as a musician was timed perfectly with this explosion of interest in music from the 17th and 18th centuries, and with historically informed performance in general.

While winding up my tertiary studies, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the wealth of knowledge and expertise that our country’s finest historical performance experts have to offer.

One of these experts was Erin Helyard, who I first met when he directed a program of early orchestral music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The ARIA and Helpmann Award-winning artist is a senior lecturer at the university, though from a concertgoing perspective he’s known to many as the co-founder of Pinchgut Opera and the Orchestra of the Antipodes.

Erin’s extensive knowledge and clear stylistic goals were inspiring to learn from, but what impressed me most about his approach to early music was the reasoning behind each decision: rather than playing the music a certain way because tradition dictated so, every artistic choice Erin made had a clear creative purpose. I felt inspired after learning how orchestral music from the Baroque and earlier periods had a much greater propensity for experimentation than I’d initially realised.

In 2024, Erin was made a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Artist in Residence – and this April, he brings his talents to the MSO as harpsichordist and director of its Baroque Festival, a series of events showcasing the music of Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi.

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Erin’s inquisitive mind is what first drew him to early music in his teens: he wanted to know why the music of Bach and Mozart didn’t use all the keys on the piano. This line of inquiry led him to discover the harpsichord and become “obsessed” with scouring the ABC Classic FM programs for harpsichord music that he could record onto his growing cassette tape collection.

“When I first started studying the harpsichord, it felt like I was liberated,” Erin says.

“Before, I felt challenged by Bach and Mozart at the piano, and now suddenly it made sense. It was a natural fit for me, and it was a love affair from there.”

To Erin, recent decades have seen a resurgence of period-instrument orchestras, and a strong interest in the music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.

“It brings me great joy to go through this music and communicate my passion for it because I think the relationship between old instruments and the music that was written for them is so important. Any musician who is knowledgeable and curious and passionate could not ignore those connections.”

There are some hurdles to overcome when playing old music on modern instruments, such as the string players’ modern-styled taut bows: these tend to equalise the up and down strokes more than Baroque bows, which were designed for music that emphasised articulation and a declamatory style.

“Orchestral musicians at the height of their field are easily able to think in an imaginative way about how they can achieve the same sound on newer instruments,” Erin explains.

“It is all about how we bring the music to life. A lot of 18th-Century music is about dance rhythms, so we need that lightness. Once we have achieved that, the experience can be quite transformative.

“The musicians often remark on how refreshing it is to get back to working on this older music. That is what is most rewarding to me – getting these excellent musicians to play music they love.”

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The MSO’s Baroque Festival line-up includes three concerts, the first of which will see Erin direct and perform Bach and Vivaldi concertos. The Vivaldi concertos use solos to show off the orchestra’s horns, oboes, cellos, timpani, and violin. Vivaldi’s Italian-style concertos would go on to the influence Bach’s famous Brandenburg concertos, two of which will also be performed in this program.

Bach wrote the Brandenburg concertos for a disparate collection of instruments, and they have gone on to form “one of the great monuments of Western music”, with the third concerto’s opening theme familiar to many.

The second concert features the crystalline voice of soprano Samantha Clarke (pictured below) in what Erin calls a “grand tour of Baroque favourites”, including a range of famous arias from the likes of Vivaldi and Handel.

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“Sam is a remarkable musician,” Erin begins.

“Her unique sensitivity to the text and her ability to draw out its emotions in a stylish manner makes her one of the greatest Australian sopranos of her generation.”

The third concert will present the epic St John Passion under conductor Stephen Layton, featuring the MSO Chorus with chorus director Warren Trevalyan-Jones, and soloists Ruairi Bowen, Christopher Richardson, David Greco, Sara Macliver, and Ashlyn Tymms. This concert on 6April will be performed one day before the 300th anniversary of the piece’s premiere in Leipzig.


The Baroque Festival will take place from 2-6 April in Hamer Hall. For more information and bookings, visit the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra website.

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We teamed up with the MSO to bring you this interview with Australian harpsichordist and artistic director Erin Helyard. Stay tuned for more stories from our local arts community!


Images supplied. Samantha captured by Benjamin Ealovega.

The post Erin Helyard will perform in this indulgent festival of Baroque classics first appeared on CutCommon.
 
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