The Australian Chamber Orchestra and its guest artists commanded pin-drop attention for two hours on Monday night, followed by an understandable post-concert flurry of phone checking and Chinese whispers to see who was the Prime Minister of Australia. I’ve heard political tragics complain that more people were watching X Factor than the news that night but, to my mind, the ACO audience made the best call of all.
Sans Richard Tognetti, the ACO was led by a trio of Scandinavian guest artists; Finnish pianist/composer/conductor Olli Mustonen (pictured), Finnish cello soloist Timo-Veikko Valve and Norwegian lead violin Arvid Engegard. They presented a program of German, Finnish and Russian works including a world premiere performance of a composition by Mustonen.
A warm, almost cherubic presence on-stage, Mustonen began the concert with a highly physical performance of Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard in D Major, BWV1054. Mustonen was placed with his back partly to the audience, in order to conduct the orchestra, but he brings his whole body into play in a very engaging way that communicates his attack without ever seeming mannered. It works very well with the murmurative effect the ACO achieve by playing standing up, in which their unified physical movement gives a compelling visual representation of the music they are playing.
In a vigorous performance of a work Mustonen has a long history with – he recorded it back in 1996 – he at times descended on the keyboard with such momentum you expected mighty thuds and yet, swooping like a magpie, his touch was surprisingly deft. Between him and the orchestra, there were a couple of bum notes in the opening movement’s unstoppable cascade, and occasional balance issues when the piano got lost in the orchestral sound, but soloist and orchestra quickly settled into a captivatingly energetic, on-point performance that was to set the standard for the rest of the evening.
Mustonen’s long history with the work showed: he seemed less preoccupied with precise showcasing of the work’s various dance rhythms than is evident on his early recording. He has described Bach as like a giant mountain peak and, indeed, he seemed to approach the concerto with the gusto of someone setting out for a hike on a familiar, strenuous but much-loved mountain trail, taking its every treacherous challenge in his stride.
Composed in 1940, Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments proved a good follow-up to the Bach, matching its alternations of febrile energy and meditation point for point. Indeed, it seemed the perfect transition between Bach and Shostakovich with its at times cartoonish cavalcades of pizzicato strings and scampering piano lines. Mustonen again conducted from the piano and the work offered some particularly ravishing interplay between him and lead violin Arvid Engegard.
The item came with a wry disclaimer in the program that, although Hindemith it wasn’t dull. Essentially a set of variations extrapolated from Hippocratic bodily temperaments – melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric – it was very far from dull, evoking suggestions of Szymanowski one moment and almost Schubertian lyricism the next. The orchestra was in magnificent form, producing gorgeous soft waves of melting strings and Mustonen met every challenge of this demanding work. By the end of the Choleric variation he looked ready to drop.
His playing duties concluded, the second half of the program began with what was essentially a world-premiere of Mustonen’s Sonata for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, adapted from his earlier Sonata for Cello and Piano. Again, it fitted seamlessly into the program, providing another unique world of ravishing lyrical invention, drama, repose, darkness and light.
The work required a larger orchestra including winds, harp and a significant role for percussion, with chimes, drums and the triangle, with folkloric connections that brought Orff to mind. It is a beautiful work, with strenuous challenges for the soloist, which cellist Timo-Veikko Valve dispatched brilliantly. It is also very much an ensemble piece and soloist and the orchestra were magnificently of one mind producing this sound-world of shimmering, star-filled skies, dark forests and deep waters. In a moment emblematic of the musician’s collective concentration, one of the violinists noticed that frenetic playing had blown over a page of Valve’s music and he raced up and restored it, to the soloist’s visible relief. I don’t think the violinist saw it but Valve mouthed a silent thank you, perhaps to the old Finnish gods with which the work seemed imbued.
The program concluded with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No9 in E-flat major, arranged by Valve. He joined two other cellists as part of the 16-strong orchestra, which produced a gorgeous clarity of sound and played with perfectly judged impetus through the ebbs and flows of Shostakovich’s characteristic, sarcasm-hued marches, pungent folk melodies and psychological squalls that pushed the players’ bows to the limits of the bridge. It was, in short, a magnificent performance.
Having recently praised the warmth and intimacy offered by Melbourne’s older, smaller theatres, I am in thrall at the communion the ACO can create in the relatively cavernous Hamer Hall, through the mesmerising unity and clarity of their playing. Full credit too for such engaging, well-constructed programming.