My Heart Swims in Blood: This concert by Van Diemen’s Band with mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean warmed the heart in a wintry Tasmania.

Dark Mofo, Hobart Town Hall
Limelight Magazine reviewed by Stephanie Eslake on June 24, 2019

My Heart Swims in Blood was a local offering from this year’s Dark Mofo, except for Lotte Betts-Dean, a young mezzo-soprano in high demand, who here joined the Van Diemen’s Band. If you’ve not experienced a recent Tasmanian winter, this concert may strike you as particularly gloomy – but it was expertly designed to match the red-and-black, sex-and-death ethos of this monster of an arts festival.

This event took place in the Hobart Town Hall. Under the white-lit chandeliers, it felt like a comparatively gentle festival offering. Indeed, the vibrant red glow from the nearby Old Mercury Building threatened to penetrate the hall through drawn venetian blinds. With quite an ordinary stage set-up, there was little attempt to match the “paint the town red” aesthetic of the Dark Mofo-fuelled surrounds. Despite the many thousands of arts tourists visiting the island, this full-house audience also seemed overwhelmingly local. Nevertheless, to me, this provided evidence of the concertgoers’ loyalty to the musicians of Van Diemen’s Band (who also play in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra); they’ll follow the music, regardless of the occasion, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Before the music, we were handed a concert program – a treat rarely gifted at Mona-hosted events. Thus, I was able to read the libretto for the works to come, which were flooded with the inner torment and psychological trauma of the tortured, sinful souls of centuries past. (Think I’m exaggerating? “My heart swims in blood, because the brood of my sins, in God’s holy eyes, makes me into a monster,” reads the translated opening of J.S. Bach’s titular work).

Already anticipating the extraordinary talent that’d take to the stage, I relaxed and allowed myself to feel this moving journey as intended by composers and performers alike. Dietrich Becker’s 17th-century Panduana heralded in the concert, which was now dim-lit and featured a collection of baroque instruments on stage. The acoustic was exceptional for this music – it provided a remarkably full sound, which was unusually strong considering the near-absence of reverberation from decoratively textured wall and ceiling.

The second work was Franz Tunder’s Motet Ach Herr, lass deine lieben Engelein, and Betts-Dean now joined her musical counterparts. She was fittingly dressed in a flowing black robe, with long red earrings and dark lipstick. Her tone was at once pure and thick with power. With expressive gestures flowing from her arms and face, she appeared to place herself entirely and unconditionally into the music. There was no illusion of effortlessness, though, and this was because her sound was somewhat sunken under the weight of other performers; perhaps because she stood in the centre of the group – in front of them and facing outward – it may have been a challenge for them to consider her dynamic with accuracy. But this was only a small struggle during the first piece, and was later rectified.

After this work came Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s contemporary work Clockworking; just three string players bowed long notes, set against a recording and a small video projection. The inclusion of this brought an outstanding programmatic vision to life. It was wholly mesmerising, and offered a refreshing interjection among the baroque works – new music placed in harmony with old. The humble ambient performance had such strength in its gradual build and all-encompassing presence that it rivalled the much larger-scale and similarly genred Riceboy Sleeps (the latter boasting full orchestra and amplification in the bigger Federation Concert Hall). This was a brilliant accomplishment from the few members of Van Diemen’s Band.

J.C. Bach’s short lamento Ach dass ich wassers genug hatte saw the return of Betts-Dean and, entirely unexpectedly, I found myself almost moved to the tears of which she sang: “Oh, that I had water enough in my head and that my eyes were fountains of tears, so that I could lament my sin night and day”. Betts-Dean seemed to embody the subject matter so fully, I couldn’t draw my eyes away from her as she pored through every note.

Another Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsóttir was next – Sleeping Pendulum, featuring Van Diemen’s Band Artistic Director Julia Fredersdorff on solo violin with a recording accompaniment. Her performance brushed perfection; she moved so organically, it sounded as though all sounds came from her own instrument. But bells chiming mid-way through brought a feeling of hope and optimism that was rare among the realms of Dark Mofo.

Fredersdorff then led musicians and Betts-Dean through the work of this concert’s namesake, J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut. The mezzo-soprano startled with a dramatically louder performance; even more startling was the louder-still sneeze from an audience member, so perfectly timed to bring comic relief to the miserable libretto, “My withered heart will in future be moistened by no comfort, and I must conceal myself from him before whom the angels themselves conceal their faces”. This final work was the lengthiest, and did drag a bit for this reason – but I enjoyed following along with the narrative printed in the program.

The musicians of Van Diemen’s Band empowered Betts-Dean to truly shine in this performance, but also notable was the apparent mutual respect among instrumentalists – ahead of entries and passages, they would regularly glance at each other with intense concentration in their eyes. And sometimes, they’d smile. It signalled a level of respect and trust that was aurally translated to the audience – I felt the comfort of these musicians giving us their best, and enjoying themselves in the process. The clapping between recitatives, and the relatively joyous final aria, spoke of the warm nature of this event in an otherwise chill occasion.