By Nicholas M Tolhurst
Last Tuesday, 24 February, I attended a concert given by the Australian Concert Orchestra (ACO) at the Melbourne Synagogue. The Synagogue is now 84 years old and is a major piece of Melbourne architecture, prominently sited on St Kilda Road. The opportunity for a non-member of the congregation to visit was not to be missed.
Having notched up 40 years, the ACO is also a Melbourne institution as is Richard Tognetti, the director for the past 25 years. Tognetti is a darling of Australian classical music, an energetic champion of the ACO and an outstanding violinist who plays 1743 Guarneri del Gèsu violin lent by an anonymous benefactor. Who needs a Strad? The Assistant Leader of the ACO Sata Vänskä certainly deserves one and plays a 1728/9 Stradivarius owned by the ACO Instrument Fund.
So you get the picture the ACO has positive form. This is the second time the ACO has performed in the Synagogue of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation and for this performance, young students from the Sholem Aleichem College were invited to open the concert playing with some of the ACO members. Some of them little tackers indeed, the experience would have been quite literally awesome, to reclaim a lost word. And they played accurately and very nicely. It was like attending a high-quality school concert.
It was like attending a high-quality school concert for the rest of the night too. Tognetti programmed the Bach Double violin concerto (D minor BWV 1043). He and Vänskä took the solo parts, eyes glued to their music, their bows rarely straying off the fingerboard, so the impression was they were reading it as if for the first time. There was no consideration given to the music itself, just an ongoing surges of moderately louds and very softs, which sounded like something was happening, but it wasn’t particularly Bach. You just couldn’t hear the solo violins engage in the vigorous call and response and challenge that Bach has written. Only the two violas seemed to know what was coming up in the music and they played deliciously, bopping around like a pair of Disney sidekicks. Otherwise, as they say in Hollywood, this was a performance phoned in.
The band then played the Haydn Symphony No 83, known as ‘La Poule’ or ‘The Chicken’. The symphony was arranged for a small string band by Bernard Rofe and was a great success. The ACO players are incredibly cohesive, taking almost imperceptible cues from Tognetti. They all watched like hawks and played like chickens as they should and it was a great success, lots of sturm und drang and chicken scratchings. Which made me think back to the Bach and wonder how they could have contrived to make him sound dull.
Instead of presenting the advertised Tognetti-arranged, final movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, Tognetti decided to give us the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor. Tognetti decided that he should provide some music by a Jewish composer as we were in a synagogue. Some might dispute that Mendelssohn was Jewish (his father converted to Christianity). The best I can say is Tognetti turned and excellent student performance — back to the school concert feel. Tognetti has the talent and the instrument to turn in a powerful performance of this warhorse, but nothing like that eventuated.
Having never heard him play live, I was wondering what the Tognetti hype was all about. Then he gave us an encore of the Kaddish, the celebrated mourner’s hymn from the Jewish prayer service. By digging around I believe this was an arrangement by Tognetti of Ravel’s Kaddish. It was a revelation. Tognetti played without music over a single-note, held drone from the rest of the band. He played with passion and colour. When he finished the audience remained absolutely silent as the ACO then moved onto Barber’s Adagio, again a powerful performance.
Ultimately the real stars of the night were the brands who are the major sponsors of the ACO. I felt a little insulted that too much of the music had a thrown-together feel, a ‘this’ll do them’ attitude. Except for the two viola players who put their musicianship on display and sounded fabulous.
A very different experience of string playing was given by the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble the previous Saturday night at the Church of All Nations in Carlton. Director Timothy Phillips continues to present performances of Australian composers, especially works of the past 50 or so years that have only been given one hearing. I must disclose I am an active supporter of Arcko and for good reason, as I hope to demonstrate.
The concert on 21 February was entirely devoted to the works of Melbourne-based composer Brendan Colbert. A composer with decades of commissions behind him, Colbert spoke briefly to the audience and admitted his music has been described as ‘difficult, demanding’ and ‘uncompromising’. His music is certainly a tough call for players and, surprisingly, not too hard on audiences (sometimes ‘uncompromising’ is code for ‘hostile to audiences’).
The opening work was Proxima for string quartet, played by the Silo Quartet, whose members are regulars in the Arcko string line up. The sound was relentless with a solid sense of conversation between each of the four players while they yet maintained determined, individual lines. For me, fine chamber music always has me feeling like I’m eavesdropping on a marvelous conversation between the players. To experience chamber music played live is to add a dimension of physical engagement as you observe the players work together, The Silo Quartet worked hard, delivering a flawless, unified sound over the complex inner lines.
The same intense and dedicated musicianship was given to us by all the succeeding players on the night. Phoebe Green gave a remarkably poised performance of Colbert’s Torque for solo viola. Torque means twist and the piece was a tour de force of quite contrapuntal measures of virtuosic playing around a cantus firmus diminished chord, slowly relayed in and out of the piece.
The hero work of the night was a new work, commissioned by Arcko from Coblert Like a Maelstrom. And like a maelstrom it was. Inspired by the poet Emily Dickinson Colbert wrought an extraordinarily difficult concerto for trumpet (Bruno Siketa) and piano (Peter Dumsday) swirling amid fierce playing from 15 string players and two percussionists. ‘Difficult, demanding and uncompromising’ was the order of the day. There were moments when I watched Dumsday sweating over the waves of giant clusters he had to manage on the keyboard and I wondered if Colbert was just getting noisy (a not infrequent charge against younger contemporary composers) but then, out of the almost inchoate sounds, a direction always emerged, leading the piano and trumpet in and out of the body of sound. It was a hot night, the players could not have given more and the audience was clear at the end that no more needed to be demanded of them. This was a concert of international standard and I wish I didn’t have to sound so parochial in saying that, but then Arcko always delivers.