18 July 2011

Australian Chamber Orchestra review

For my birthday my wife thought up a brilliant gift for me; two tickets to each of two concerts the Australian Chamber Orchestra was holding in Wollongong, so for each concert I would bring one of my two daughters so they could experience both the brilliance of ACO and that of going to a concert with a bit of pizzazz!

The first concert was called 'Baroque Virtuoso' and is, I think, one of the first times the ACO's newly aquired Stradivarius violin (price: just short of 2 million dollars) would be on display and played by the beautiful Satu Vänskä. The program for the concert promised a few Greensleeves baroque pieces but interspersed by a few contemporary pieces I knew nothing about.

First, here's Satu introducing the concert;

I brought Grace (11 turning 12) who's been playing violin for two years now, and she was excited, but did remark that the ratio of people to age was something bizarrely far above even my own age. Together we spotted about less than 10 people that looked anything less than 30 years old (or so, not counting me), and the concert was sold out (which means 515 seats, according to the Merringong website) with lots of older folks about. Not a bad thing in itself, but does perhaps say something about the state of classical music in this region.

I won't say too much about all the pieces in the concert, but I'd like to make a few general remarks and point out the highlights.

First the bad, and let me make it clear straight away that I'm a huge baroque fanatic; I study it, love it, live it, I have so many baroque recordings and have been to so many baroque concerts that it makes people worry about my sanity, but I love it from the sheep gut strings to the various baroque tunings, and unless you try to be as HIP as you possibly can be, I won't be pleased. And as such, I wasn't pleased. The baroque pieces in question - Handel's 'Concerto Grosso in B minor', Vivaldi's 'Concerto in B minor' RV580, Teleman's 'Viola Concerto in G major' (!!), Tartini's 'Devils Trill' G minor violin concerto and Corelli's 'Concerto Grosso in F major, op.6 No. 2' - all had the same tokens of baroque pieces played for modern chamber orchestra in modern tuning on modern instruments.

However, within that framework there was lots to love, so don't get me wrong, the playing was at times quite sublime, with the highlight for me perhaps Corelli's because I love it so (but they could have put a bit more gusto into it). Satu's solo work on Tartini's concerto was of course brilliant; she's very, very good, and has a lovely playing style and touch, not to mention that remarkable timbre in the Stradivarius (first time I've heard one live, I believe). But for me, the music lose their soul in the sharpness of the modern instruments, and cry a little in modern tuning. But that's just me.

The best part of this baroque concert was the music that wasn't baroque, starting with probably the highlight of the evening for both me and Grace;

Stuart Greenbaum's "Moments of falling" is a gorgeous Aeolian fantasy that falls off a cliff, dragging other motif's with it on the way down, rumbling lyrically until its timely death. Lots of people around us, too, were stunned at this one, and the applause, I think, captured our surprise and delight quite well, an applause that wouldn't be repeated again until the big solo pieces and the bug finish. It was a wonderful piece, and one that the ACO just nailed; this is their true domain! This is what they do best, there's no doubt about it.

Colin Brumby's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" was up next, of which I found the first movement just as wonderful as the Greenbaum piece, coming and going in and out of similar motifs, circular developments and sharp constraints that really don't constrain much. Absolutely lovely stuff, and really well played. Second movement was somewhat different from the first, and didn't quite capture me, but still good.

James Ledger's "Johann has left the building" was Grace's favourite, a delightful romp through Bachesque brilliant motions without the genius. I wasn't quite into it as I was the others, but perhaps the promise of Bach had me looking for something it wasn't trying to be. Probably. My bad.

Peter Sculthorpe was the only contemporary composer I had actually heard of (from my years at the National Library of Australia and the Music Australia project, I think), and they played his "Port Essington", a remarkable piece and perhaps the most abstract at times as well as being the most complex composition, going from ensemble, to trio, to abstract, to trio, and back to ensemble, all interspersed with various degrees of overtones (six movements in all). The bush and the life around Port Essington came alive on stage, and it was quite remarkable. I could tell some of the audience didn't quite know what to do with this music, but I loved it! The playing was simply astounding, from the syncopated abstracts to the trio cadences (on which Mr. Cello, Timo Valve, did some fine fiddlin' indeed) to some people-giving-eachother-looks discords. I sucked it all up and was enthralled in it all, and was definitely the second highlight of the evening for me.

I can't say enough how wonderful it was to hear these Australian contemporary pieces, an area I'm completely ignorant of. However, this crash introduction have me wanting more (lots more!), and that is a testament to the brilliant playing of the ACO and the pieces they chose for this concert. Every player bounced off the next, and the timing was impeccable. I'd however advice them to stay clear of the baroque period (especially when you mix it like this, because you're forced into modern tuning and playing which doesn't suit baroque music, in my snobbish and faulty opinion), and do what they otherwise do so brilliantly.

I can't wait for my next concert next month with their take on Schubert.