Erasmus and Geoff Sirmai at the Runnymede Pop Festival. Pic by Andrew Goodman-Jones
Erasmus and Geoff Sirmai at the Runnymede Pop Festival. Pic by Andrew Goodman-Jones

Outdoor music festivals in Sydney have enjoyed, on average,  a history of eight to ten years. The Renaissance Players presented, by impressive contrast, its staggering 36th ‘Runnymede Pop Festival’ recently. Their tradition of reviving and celebrating early music continued formidably, combining several elements of festival entertainment.

These features included an engagingly bright stage set and an informative, attractively designed program guide for festival goers. The Renaissance Players made a hauntingly effective entrance from the rear of the venue. They were summoned to the stage by ancient woodwind and led by Jessica O’Donoghue’s focussed ‘Sa Sibilla’ chant concerning the Day of Judgement.

Festival musicians bounced off each other throughout, acknowledging the innovations and versions created. Witty words, movement, comedy and crowd participation also added to the environment for this annual event. Dance mixes drawing on several styles were a major festival feature. The group’s body of recorded music was available from the merchandise area for new and loyal fans alike.

A typically large variety of string, wind, percussion and keyboard instruments allowed music and texts to be reborn or introduced in an ensemble format of shifting interest. Vocalists Mitchell Riley and Jessica O’Donoghue presented all vocal items with great purity of tone and security of line. Text and characterizations moved above an exquisite tapestry of accompaniment tone colour. Riley’s “De moi doloreux” was an especially poignant portrait of unhappiness.

Organ music descended from Sydney University’s Great Hall gallery. This gave the feel of a ‘guest artist’ entering. Jessica Lim exposed the crowd to diverse and rare keyboard styles. The music of minnesinger Neidhardt von Ruenthal also emerged in cover versions as a star at this festival.

As with any Renaissance Players concert, risqué rimes were colourfully delivered with expert timing, tone and even quick costume variation by Geoff Sirmai. The juxtaposition of these with religious items was amusing and powerful, such as the raunchy tale “The Doublet” (Anon) moving straight into the purity of the ‘Angelus ad virginem’.

The fool, Erasmus, with painted face, used excellent mime and audience participation routines in several interludes. Perhaps at times these were a little long, when added to the overall substantial programme of music. Erasmus and Sirmai’s set of “Scurrilous Monkish Riddles” was a true winner in visual and audience energy terms.

Fine structure and enhanced entertainments made the 36th Runnymede Pop Festival a success. The group’s players shone through the arrangements and contrasts with great energy, as did the music they brought to us. The festival crowd enjoyed musical experiences from both religious to secular from a group with a stellar skill set. The success of this event will ensure this festival and group endures.

For more about The Renaissance Players, visit http://www.renaissanceplayers.com