The Dutch master's paintings come to life in this live music event directed by John Bell
This highly enjoyable experiment in fusing high culture artforms is the closest you’re ever likely to get to time travel tourism, at least to the Netherlands of the 17th century. You can compare the Dutch then with us now, feeling enriched by some of the pinnacles of Western art accompanied by period music.
Directed by John Bell and with music from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Rembrandt Live transforms the Art Gallery of NSW’s Rembrandt exhibition into a combined theatre, concert and dance hall.
The hour-long tour’s great sights are masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age, a period of affluence and independence when international maritime trade made Amsterdam boom faster than Sydney ever has. New money was lavished on homes, clothing, portraiture, etchings and parties, all documented in huge volume and detail by commercially focused artists. Various specialists produced the equivalent of Instagram food porn, work and family group selfies, real estate promotions, news documentaries and drunken candids. Look past the period charm and you can imagine yourself revelling in recently earned prosperity and collective capabilities.
Coordinating theatrical costumes with the paintings, this live event makes you believe that these artists’ subjects were as real as the performers standing next to you; the scenes depicted in the paintings are given new immediacy and plausibility.
You can sit comfortably on a folding chair and contemplate a Vermeer hung behind a beautifully decorated Australian-made harpsichord, reminiscent of the virginals he painted elsewhere. Or just stand enjoying the music elegantly played by Joanna Tondys, while admiring the incredibly fine brushwork of Gerard Dou’s sumptuous 1631 portrait of a rich old woman reading biblical instruction on charity. You are surrounded by treasures, delights, and impressions of the period.
When the performers start moving into the next room, rush for a place to the left of a pinnacle of Western art, the late Rembrandt self-portrait as St Paul. Even for a saint, there’s a scary amount of humanity in his eyes and face. Can you turn away from the elderly master’s slightly glazed regard, as dancers make a boisterous spectacle posturing on the benches before him? Of course the breakdancing (vibrantly choreographed by Kelley Abbey) is anachronistic, but what the three dancers bring is the energy of the street and domestic life, most famously documented in oils by Jan Steen and his cast of sloppy, ordinary people in carefree moments of carelessness. Other painters moralise and reproach, flatter and pander, enthuse and delight, but Rembrandt in his last decade showed himself to us as past all that, yet still able to paint with supreme honesty and facility. His complexion is un-Photoshopped: not the slightest mark of age is glossed over. And something like his life is flashing before his eyes.
Many of Rembrandt’s marvellous and highly innovative engravings are in display cases to the right, including a terrific porno sometimes called The French Bed. This central gallery, bookended by Rembrandt’s only biblical self-portrait and Vermeer’s 1663 Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, is the most extraordinarily decorated chamber for a chamber music concert.
The Golden Age produced no composer to compare with its best painters, who are now universally celebrated. The most influential in the early years was Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621); although a great pioneer of the keyboard and a prolific writer for the human voice, his legacy was eventually eclipsed by Bach. Today his work can easily sound boring, but the piece delivered here on chamber organ (‘Puer nobis nascitur’) is simply lovely. Music director Paul Dyer studied historically informed performance in the Netherlands and made his career in Australia founding the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Since 1989 the orchestra has delivered consistently enjoyable performances of often neglected Baroque repertoire on period instruments. Hearing just a few of these up close is a rare delight, and the intimacy is underlined when the baroque violin is played barefoot, or the recorder soloist is framed in a domestic-sized room. The singers looked a picture and sounded like the real thing; soprano Josie Ryan ranged from sweet soaring French to a low, speech-like guttural Dutch. As a Baroque concert alone, this is a top-notch programme beautifully delivered.
Real life during the Dutch Golden Age probably wasn’t all as splendid as some of the paintings suggest, but then our Facebook pages aren’t totally representative either. This entrancing collaboration gives us the opportunity to luxuriate and meditate on the gaps between past and present, real and ideal, and to enjoy it all the more.