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30.9.09

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Part 1

Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury
The Australian Chamber Orchestra came to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night, as the season opener of the Fortas Chamber Music Series. The visit was made possible in part with the help of the Australian Embassy, which also brought along a large representation to fill the audience and mingle before the concert and at a subsequent reception. Those who are familiar with the ACO from their recordings or from their 2007 concert at the Clarice Smith Center know that one can count on the group to provide unusual programming, uncanny unity of ensemble, clear attack, and cogent musical ideas. None of those things was lacking in this daringly played and musically incisive concert.

The program opened with Baroque music, which has been to my ears where the ACO has enjoyed the greatest success in recording. They gave a little-heard Handel concerto grosso (op. 6, no. 7, B-flat major -- p. 95 in this online score) a stylish, precise, carefully considered performance. After a plush Largo introduction, the group rendered the repeated-note opening theme of the Allegro -- so simple that it could be a Suzuki exercise -- in such a crisp, unified way that it helped point and articulate the entire movement. Harpsichordist Erin Helyard (on the tour only to play this piece) and the group's director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, provided (presumably) improvised cadenzas to smooth some of the harmonic transitions between movements. The ACO sound is nice in that the first violins are not always (and not even often) the most dominant sound in the texture, which allows more of the inner voices and bass to be heard. The continuo realization, here provided by harpsichord alone, was adequate and stylishly done, but a little subdued in volume. There were moments where other groups would have allowed the harpsichord figuration a little more presence.


ACO:
available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 1, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concerti 2, A. Hewitt


available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Flute Concerti, E. Pahud
The rest of the program was composed (or arranged) in the 20th century, but the rhythmic verve of the Handel work percolated through much of it. Australian composer Carl Vine, whose piano sonata Joyce Yang has championed, arranged his own third string quartet, Smith's Alchemy from 1994, for the ACO at Richard Tognetti's request. After a shaky start fraught with some (ultimately minor) rhythmic uncertainty, the piece rocked and rolled its way through outer movements bubbling with a neo-Baroque love of figuration, repetition, and rhythmic action. Vine's work is a model of the best way to incorporate popular music influences into a classical composition, not merely quoting and imitating but transforming them into something original, as brutal rock-bass ostinati formed the foundation of the work's driving rhythmic pulse. An elegiac slow central section featured solos by cello, viola, and Tognetti's violin over glassy, Bernstein-esque chords. The jarring multimetric style of the closing section was rock solid.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A Rough-and-Ready Ensemble (Washington Post, October 1)
Two large works written specifically for chamber orchestra balanced the two halves. Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, op. 47, had a huge broad opening, more lush sound than seemed possible for seventeen strings (5-5-3-3-1). Bartók's Divertimento for Strings was the more substantial of the two, sweeter in terms of consonance than one might expect, with a moody middle movement of suspenseful night music filled with oscillating stepwise motifs. In the third movement, many closely aligned solo entrances, one after the other, briefly recalled the layering of string instruments in Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto. Tognetti's arrangement of Ravel's Deux mélodies hébraïques provided a moment of lyrical repose, with Tognetti's throaty, guttural solo backed by the three violas in harmonics to open Kaddisch (a fitting, if unintentional, tribute to the late William Safire). Tognetti adapted, more than arranged, Paganini's fifth caprice as a little amuse-gueule that probably would served better as an encore. What did serve that purpose was an arrangement of the gorgeous lullaby Good Night, from Janáček's On the Overgrown Path, with its soporific ostinato figure and gentle melody, played delicately and con sordini.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra returns to the Terrace Theater this evening for a second, completely different program (September 30, 7:30 pm), with oud player Joseph Tawadros and percussionist James Tawadros. An arrangement of Shostakovich's seventh string quartet is matched with arrangements of Sephardic and Egyptian music.

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