The Australian Chamber Orchestra continues to push the boundaries in a majority of its programs, from surfing documentaries to collaborations with a wild assortment of the latest provocateurs. High-class performances paired with clever programming and an enviable marketing budget keep this ensemble in our collective consciousness.
Perhaps coming as a relief to the fairly conservative audience on Monday night at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the ACO presented a traditional program by their normal standards, with not one arrangement or alt rock star in sight. A first half of works by CPE Bach and Joseph Haydn, and a second half of Vasks and Tchaikovsky – the concert being so named for the favoured Serenade for Strings in C major.
Only one of these works, a revelatory Vox Amoris (2009) from Peteris Vasks was quite new for the ensemble, with the other works being lovingly recycled after decades of Tognetti at the helm. On the whole there seemed to be no weariness as the evening unfolded, as energy and precision built to one of those great Melbourne applauses. The encore, Britten’s Variations on Frank Bridge / Aria Italiana delighted us in one final adrenaline rush for all.
With activity centred on the charismatic ringleader Richard Tognetti, soloist in two of the works, this listener was struck by two things – how vital the group remains and how much fun it is be a string player. His feet together/bended knee stance seems to encourage kinetic individualism from the standing players, many of whom have their own quirks, as well as a raised eyebrow here and there and easy to spot in-jokes.
CPE Bach’s String Symphony was a jovial pick-me-up, marred at times by some shaky ensemble in the faster thrown-bow violin passages. I wondered if the first movement’s Allegro di molto marking was taken a step too far in this space. All of the acoustic baffles were down on Monday night, the marvellous wooden embrace of the Melbourne Recital Centre providing ample resonance for this interpretation. Pared back vibrato spoke of the style of the time, plus there were a few antipodean flourishes.
In Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C major, Tognetti’s natural affinity with the spotlight seemed to lift the corps who followed him with grace. The first movement, whilst not the best example of Haydn’s musical wit, captured the vitality of the time within skipping dotted rhythms. The singing Adagio movement which is often played as an encore in its own right (as done by Bill Hennessy earlier this year in the same hall) was wholly enjoyable, the plucked accompaniment threatening at times towards edgy. Sometimes less is more.
Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ music often speaks of the human condition, as he seeks to connect man and nature within the greater context of man’s own nature. In Vox Amoris Vasks hopes to redress the loss of a spiritual dimension to our modern lives. “My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works.” A transfixed audience provided a quieter form of silence in this work than for others, no squirming or coughs (how rare!). Tognetti is a master of timbre and line with a gift for colour and squeezing the essence as he sees it from a piece of music. On/off vibrato and turn-on-a-dime bow technique was fabulously suited to the music and its message of love.
Goethe wrote, “A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together”. The same could be said of Tognetti in Tchaikovsky’s glorious Serenade for Strings. The cello/bass section, led inclusively by Timo-Veikko “Tipi” Valve understood how to project with a poetic display of bow articulation (and thankfully for this listener, without a too-common lagging boominess). The violas provided many merry moments, this 3-in-1 group sharing one stand in a show of togetherness. With its requisite whirl, the second movement Moderato, tempo di Valse was a highlight, a welcome salve to the incredibly quick Allegro moderato first movement and a fun and dramatic Finale.
The picture is of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks.
Josephine Vains reviewed this concert on October 26. She is now busy preparing to perform with Firebird Trio in their concert, American Horizons.