“Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” The words of that doyen of music critics, George Bernard Shaw, may have been used by the Australian Chamber Orchestra to encourage bequests, but, reading them in the program for the opening concert of their 2016 season, their application to this particular concert was striking.
ACO Collective (formerly AcO2) is an amalgam of a handful of ACO’s experienced virtuoso string players and nearly a dozen string players whom Melbourne audiences have more often heard in concerts at the Australian National Academy of Music over the last few years. The torch of musical inspiration and excellence was being passed on and it was burning bright indeed. As Artistic Director, dynamic violinist, conductor and composer Pekka Kuusisto blended youthful enthusiasm with skill and imagination, curating a program of old and new works.
With Beethoven’s late string quartets as the foundation of ACO’s 2016 season, the final programmed work for this concert was his “Quartetto Serioso”, opus 95, in an arrangement by Richard Tognetti. Arrangements of string quartets for chamber orchestra have been a feature of many ACO concerts, with varying numbers of instruments playing at different points. In this case, all of the instruments played most of the time, the exceptions being the absence of the double bass in much of the second movement and a sharing of an intricate repeated solo passage between the first violins in the “Allegro assai vivace ma serioso” third movement – all deftly accomplished. Inevitably, certain elements are lost or smoothed out in such an arrangement, but others are gained. The greater range of dynamics and colour afforded by greater numbers produced new insights and emotional force. Contrasts such as the final shift from the anguish of much of the fourth movement to the concluding passage of whirling “Allegro” appeared even more startling and exhilarating. The fact that the players were able to interact in such a disciplined, organic way was a major contributor to the success of this arrangement as well as the concert as a whole.
As a welcome to the concert, Pekka introduced himself as just that: Pekka, establishing a friendly intimacy with the audience. His Finnish origins and championing of new music were reflected in much of the program. Contemporary works by living composers, all of whom have a background in popular music, were set against mainstream classical works by Beethoven, Tippett and, of course, Sibelius.
The first half was a continuous stream of works by four different composers with some unexpected musical interconnections. Beginning with a tuneful hummed drone that moved to Pekka’s delicate solo violin, American composer Nico Muhly’s three minute Drones & Violin: Part 1 introduced an intriguing world of harmonic explorations.
This morphed into Action – Passion – Illusion: II Passion, the first of three sections of a work by the Estonian composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür. Action and Illusion were interpolated between Michael Tippett’s Variations on an Elizabethan Theme: II. A Lament and Tenebre by Bryce Dessner.
Erkki-Sven Tüür calls his pieces “abstract dramas in sound” exploring combinations of opposites: “tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatricality”. His description pretty well sums up the nature of the three movements and gives an indication of the virtuosity demanded of the players, especially in terms of musical collaboration. Even in the elegiac opening of Passion, it was a high tensile feat of sustained concentration and emotional power.
Tippett’s work was in stark contrast to the building intensity of Passion. A gentler voice echoed from Purcell’s time with musical references to Dido’s aria “Ah, Belinda” from Dido and Aeneas. Pekka’s account of the part for solo violin was notable for sensitive yearning and delicacy of touch.
Tenebre, by Bryce Dessner, (another American composer and frequent collaborator with Nico Muhly) brought a further dimension to the program. Inspired by vocal settings of the Tenebre service by Tallis, Palestrina, Gesualdo and Couperin, this substantial fifteen-minute work concluded with an electronic track of an octet of voices. Although the balance between taped and live performance may not have been ideal, and the light versus dark visual references to the Tenebre service and the Kronos Quartet’s lighting designer were not given their intended due, it emerged as a work of considerable complexity and interest.
The Sibelius work that opened the second half of the program was performed with sympathetic insight and attention to detail. Rakastava also incorporates elements of vocal music, the original choral version drawing upon Finnish national songs. It is difficult to fathom why major publishers should have initially rejected this appealing three movement work, so full grace and sentiment. Perhaps they needed to hear it played by Pekko and the ACO Collective.
This work and the program as a whole are bound to find favour with audiences as Pekka and ACO Collective carry their blazing torch into cities and towns around Australia.
Heather Leviston reviewed the concert BEETHOVEN & THE 21ST CENTURY, featuring Pekka Kuusisto and ACO Collective at Hamer Hall, February 7.
Editor’s note: Classic Melbourne is fortunate to have four volumes of the music criticism of Corno di Bassetto (aka George Bernard Shaw) which we intend to share on this page in coming months.