BY CHRISTOPHER WAINWRIGHT
Australian Chamber Orchestra, Satu Vänskä
Adelaide Town Hall, 9 May
The Australian Chamber Orchestra – a group of our nation’s 16 finest string musicians – brought to Adelaide an eclectic and engaging program of works. For an audience member who likes a concert to be strictly associated with a country or period, there was no satisfaction here – as what the ACO delivered was a program of diverse and rich musical gems. These ranged from Ruth Crawford Seeger to James Ledger, and then into the world of big-name composers including Locatelli, Vivaldi, Debussy and Mendelssohn.
For many years, the ACO has been celebrating the talents of its musicians as soloists. On each occasion, whether it’s been Richard Tognetti playing Bach or Mozart – or other concerti with other orchestral musicians – I’ve been consistently impressed by the talent and artistic command they bring to their performance. At no time has it ever felt like we as listeners are being short-changed without a big-name guest soloist.
On this Australian Tour, the ACO showcases three of its finest musicians: violinists Satu Vänskä and Glenn Christensen, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. When not in the limelight, they were still earning their keep with the orchestra as a member of their section.
Whether intended or not, this concert had numerous occasions that transported the listener to the world of the eerie and unexpected, particularly in the opening work: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings, a work which felt meterless, filled with moments of calm and jarring disharmony. The ACO’s renowned precision for detail was on show in terms of phrasing, articulation and the ability to keep body movement to a minimum.
From the world of disharmony the ACO moved to the world of virtuosic Italian Baroque, where the ACO perfectly married Historically Informed Performance practice with modern pitch, modern bows and a mixture of gut and metal strings. It takes a special ensemble such as the ACO to combine HIP and making music sing with a new voice.
In the Vivaldi and Locatelli concerti, one marvelled in the precision of detail which the ACO brings to its music-making – achieved through listening, watching, and being deeply connected with the music. Whether it be a beautiful soft sound, to the start or end of a phrase, it is given loving care, and it shows.
The Vivaldi showed off ACO’s ability to be spirited and precise, particularly in the opening movement where, in less capable hands, things may have come unstuck.
The Locatelli Harmonic Labyrinth concerto is a pure piece of virtuosity, which allowed Satu Vänskä to shine. The complex concerto requires the ability to create sound from the full range of the instrument and to master incredibly fast phrases. What Vänskä brought out of this concerto was impressive: she made one appreciate how far virtuosic violin technique had come, and revelled in the rich and diverse harmonies and characters of this concerto. The work is as demanding, if perhaps not more demanding than a virtuosic Paganini concerto. Throughout, precision was king. In the middle movement, the ACO created a sound colour that was like an early morning sun – full of warmth, curiosity for what the day is going to bring. The players captured the music’s lyricism, respected the melodic line, and chose strong dynamic variations.
Between the two concerti, the ACO made a detour, with the welcomed inclusion of an impressive new 21st Century work by the talented Western Australian composer James Ledger. The world premiere was titled, The Natural Order of Things – a work commissioned by David and Sandy Libling for the ACO in memory of their dad Simon, who lived in Poland and survived the horrors of the Second World War, including spending time in Plaszow Concentration Camp.
The five-sectioned work impressively captures the mood and character of the stages of Simon’s life. Whether intended or not, the work had a strong 20th Century European feel – as though the work could have been written by a composer of the Second Viennese School. Throughout the work James – through tempi, dynamics, and rhythms – created a huge palette of characteristics ranging from eerie coldness to agitation and calmness. This is a work which deserves further performances as it’s a unique and important contribution to Australia’s musical landscape.
For about 20 years, I have known and loved Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata. Being a pianist who appreciates the unique percussive characters, I was curious to see how I would respond to hear different instruments taking on the various parts of the accompaniment. While on occasion missing some of the piano’s unique resonant character, it was an arrangement that worked well, but also brought to life some interesting and welcomed new colours and responses. Performing the cello part was ACO’s principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, who is fortunate to be able to bring so many shades of sound and colour out of his Guarneri cello. The resonance, warmth and clarity he brought to his part was delightful. As with the Vivaldi and Locatelli, the ACO demonstrated its tireless capacity for precision, which particularly shone in this sonata’s second movement.
Mendelssohn and the ACO have been an item for longer than one can remember; made in part by the popularity of the group’s lyrical and energetic performances of Mendelssohn’s delightful Octet. On this occasion, the ACO performed an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13. What this performance showed off was an ensemble which relishes in performing great music – and will do whatever it takes to give it a high quality and fresh air. Lyricism, light, and joy came through, as did sheer virtuosic talent to make a fiendish Allegro di molto section seem as easy as pie!
In all, the ACO under Vänskä’s leadership was of equally high standard as if Richard Tognetti was there.