Ensemble Galante: Memento Mori
The Jade Monkey, Adelaide, 6-8 March 2015

Ensemble Galante is a very classy outfit specialising in the music of the high baroque, galante, and early classical periods. Their Fringe Festival concert Memento Mori featured selections from Leclair, CPE Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and JS Bach, and it was perfect respite from the freneticism of Adelaide’s Mad March.

The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ roughly translates as ‘remember death’ and relates to the activity of reflecting on one’s own mortality in order to remind one that earthly life, with all its paraphernalia and pursuits, occupies but a brief moment in time and is transient, unlike our souls (if you choose to believe that).

Tim Nott, flautist and founder of Ensemble Galante, informed the near-capacity audience that the phrase is believed to have originated from the ancient Roman tradition where a victorious general parading in front of adoring crowds would be flanked by a servant who would whisper into the general’s ear “Remember that you are but a man. Remember that you will die!”

In art, ‘memento mori’ are figurative reminders of mortality: think of paintings which feature human skulls juxtaposed with the trappings of human existence (including musical instruments!).

So, what’s this got to do with Ensemble Galante’s concert? Apart from naming the concert as such, carefully placing the musicians around an ‘alter’ to humanity and death and projecting a backdrop of lush memento mori art, not much. The selection of music certainly had nothing obvious to do with our transience in this world – at least as far as I could tell.

But who cares? Certainly the very appreciative audience did not. The momento mori ‘hook’ simply caused us to listen to the music with a new purpose – not to think about it but rather to reflect on who and what we are. The music took us individually to different places in our minds to do just that, and it was a sublime experience.

All barefoot and dressed in black, replete with make-up that gave them a close-to-death appearance, the ensemble looked imposing on the small stage of the intimate and tasteful Jade Monkey.

Leclair’s Deuxieme Recreation de Musique bookended the programme, and the first two sections were an ideal composition to commence the concert. The composition’s austerity engendered reflection. Trio Sonata in C by CPE Bach featured a crisp and perfectly executed dialogue between violin and flute.

Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in A Minor featured the artistry of Brendan O’Donnell on recorder. A master of the instrument, his precise tonguing and fingering allowed him to negotiate difficult trilling with total authority and musicality.

Haydn’s Divertimento in G for Flute, Violin and Cello is a delicate flower and forever at risk of bruising if held in the wrong hands. Tim Nott on flute sustained a delicate tonal purity void of distracting vibrato that sustained the performance, and even the pianissimo moments were vital. This was even more evident in JS Bach’s Sarabande for solo flute.

The programme rounded out with the third and fourth sections of the Leclair. The flute and recorder playfully complemented each other, while Emily Dollman (violin), Kat Stevens (violin), Bronwen Whyatt (cello) and Glenys March (harpsichord) superbly provided the musical backbone to a finale that amounted to essentially Ensemble Galante inviting us all to thumb our collective noses at mortality and get on with living!

Kym Clayton, The Barefoot Review, 9 March 2015