Archive for February, 2013

Wednesday 13th February (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

What is it about Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra? How do they seem to break every rule in the book and yet get it so right, with the audience cheering and whistling in appreciation?

This concert saw the unlikely pairing of Australian composer Brett Dean’s new work Electric Preludes with a Mozart violin concerto and two Classical symphonies. On the program, it rather felt like it wouldn’t work, surely the Dean – scored for ‘violectra’ and amplified string orchestra – would come as too much of a shock. Surely there should be something to bridge the musical gap of 200 years between it and the other works. Add in that new compositions don’t always seem to be Richard Tognetti’s kettle of fish, and it is a decidedly odd combination. Yet the whole thing worked. The mirror image of symphony and concerto on either side of the interval balanced beautifully, and Electric Preludes nestled comfortably in between Haydn and Mozart.

I’m not the greatest fan of Brett Dean’s works, finding his Viola Concerto in particular rather grating. However, this concerto for electric violin was clever, with an incredibly well thought-out dialogue between soloist and ensemble. The six-stringed violectra, which could very easily have become merely a vehicle for showing off a whole lot of effects, was handled thoughtfully. At times, it was allowed to take on the sound of a rock guitar, but at others it was soulful and enchanting, almost devoid of its electrical effects and drawing closer to its acoustical cousins. To start the second movement, Tognetti gently blew across the strings, creating what can only be described as an audible shiver. While Tognetti posture and gesture suggested he still wasn’t quite at home with this music as he is with Mozart (understandably so), the ACO as a whole we superb in both their intimate phrasing and spectacular energy.

Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 in G major, the ‘Strassburg’, was equally impressive in artistic flair and downright energy. I was a little unclear as to why Tognetti chose to play his solo part hunched over the music and yet the tutti passages from memory striding round the stage, but aurally both were stunning. Cadenzas in this concerto – Tognetti’s own – seemed perhaps a little out of character ‘Mozartly’ speaking, but were played with such love for the violin and the melodic line that it didn’t seem to matter. The cadenza to the second movement, in particular, drifted away into the upper reaches of the violin with wonderful ease.

The two symphonies – Haydn’s No. 49 in F minor ‘La passione’ and Mozart’s No. 25 in G minor – framed the two concertos beautifully, showing that the ACO is just as stunning when front and centre. It is hard to know what is more enjoyable, the energy of fast movements (where they are always prepared to sit on the quicker side of tempos) or the moments in slow movements where they sigh and breathe as one. This group seems to have such a consistently innate sense of phrasing because it is intrinsically linked to physical movement, and while I’m sure that some of it is for show, they have also created a highly individual sound in the process. It occasionally felt that the winds (oboes, bassoons and horns in the Classical works)  weren’t quite as clear on the beat as the strings, but this was of little consequence in the overall adrenaline rush that the ACO and their music bring.

Radio National interview with Tognetti, Dean and sound designer Bob Scott


Friday 8th February

Vladimir Ashkenazy certainly knows how to choose ambitious and epic programs. The 2013 season opening, this concert focused almost exclusively on the orchestra, with only a small appearance by soprano Jacqueline Porter in Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite rather than a full concerto. With the three works all hailing from the turn of the twentieth century, and all in some way programmatic, the focus of this performance was without a doubt the colour and variety of a modern orchestra.

The Lemminkäinen Suite, an early set of four tone poems by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is not often heard in full, with the lyrical Swan of Tuonela more often appearing alone. Here, the Swan poem was played second in the suite, though some conductors choose to start with it, as the musical material was originally drawn from the overture of an abandoned opera The Building of the Boat. This was very much a dramatic focus point of the performance, both for musical intention and execution. Cor anglais player Alexandre Oguey was lyrical and pensive, giving a feel of effortlessness and yet ever so slight yearning to the musical line. The other three poems – Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela and Lemminkäinen Returns – are trickier to digest thematically. Ashkenazy’s conducting showed that he had a clear direction for the music, but it didn’t always sound that way, and I’m inclined to feel that it is rather the musical material that feels somewhat disjointed. To be sure, there are moments of thrilling splendor; the rustic dance towards the end of the Maidens of Saari and the climax of Lemminkäinen Returns among them. But there were other points where musical cohesion was somewhat lacking and the whole thing felt rather muddy. Despite this, the orchestra played with energy and conviction. It was only a pity that the woodwinds (especially flute and piccolos) were for the most part lost in the texture, even at points of melodic importance. While the low strings’ start to Lemminkäinen in Tuonela was perhaps somewhat under-articulated, it nevertheless encapsulated the poem’s brooding atmosphere.

Gabriel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, by contrast, is strongly thematic without having to shout about it. Written in 1898 for the English production of Maurice Materlinck’s play, the five-movement suite calls for a soprano (Jacqueline Porter) for the penultimate movement Mélisande’s Song. Though the woodwinds remained on the quiet side, Ashkenazy’s exploration of colour here was stunning. The outer movements – somewhat weightier in scale – were well crafted, with sensitive interweaving of string lines. By far the most well known movement – the Sicilienne – was thoughtful and not too heavy, though principal flute Janet Webb could perhaps have varied her dark tone a little to explore the more playful side of the music. Jacqueline Porter’s singing was rich and expressive, capturing the folk-legend feel of this movement despite its brevity.

The choice to place Debussy’s La Mer at the end of this program (the Lemminkäinen Suite was originally destined for the ‘symphonic’ spot) was certainly a good one. Ashkenazy is totally at home in this music and the patchwork of colour it presents. Here, the three sketches made a wonderfully cohesive whole, with the orchestra tossing themes back and forth with seeming ease. This piece is very much about the idea of the sea rather than portraying any specific program, and it is clear that Ashkenazy felt the same way, striving for melody in its purest sense. The middle movement, Jeux de vagues (Play of Waves) was particularly impressive, with the interlocking rhythms coming together to give the performance a sense of gay abandon bordering with just the slightest touch of frivolity.