ACO Collective: MOZART, HAYDN and MORE

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Published: 8th March, 2019
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Tuesday’s ACO Collective concert at the Recital Centre, whimsically subtitled “A palindromic adventure”, was the third in a set of five workshops and concerts the Collective is giving in Victoria and South Australia. Led and directed by the ever-energetic Pekka Kuusisto, the ensemble consisted of a core of eight players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Emerging Artist Program, supplemented by some ACO regulars and five wind players from the Australian National Academy of Music.

The palindromic theme of the program was taken from the major work, Haydn’s Symphony No. 47 in G Major, which is nicknamed “Palindrome” after the third movement Menuetto al Roverso e Trio al Roverso in which the melodies in the two parts of each section are inversions of each other. We are used to quirky ACO program structures, with movements of works being spread around the performance, but this program took that to a new level with the works effectively split in two, and the second half being in reverse order to the first. More a mirror image than a palindrome, but we got the message.

The program consisted of three modern, or relatively modern, works by Paul Hindemith, Pauline Oliveros and Heather Shannon, contrasted with Mozart’s K.462 Six Contredances and the Haydn Symphony. The Hindemith was the opening and closing Praeludium and Postludium from his major 1942 piano work Ludis Tonalis, in string arrangements by the ACO’s Bernard Rofe. I had only heard this in the original piano version, and I found the string version in this performance deeply satisfying and moving. The two movements book-ended the interval break; I felt it was a pity they didn’t open and close the concert itself.

The late Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 work The Tuning Meditation is one of her many excursions into combining her trademark “deep listening” with improvisation and meditation. Originally conceived for orchestra, it has morphed in recent years into a mass choral work, and on Tuesday we audience members were turned loose on it. Oliveros’ instructions to the performers, relayed to us by Pekka Kuusisto, were: “Inhale deeply; exhale on the note of your choice; listen to the sounds around you, and match your next note to one of them; on your next breath make a note no one else is making; repeat. Call it listening out loud.” So for two minutes at the start and end of the concert we inhaled, exhaled and hummed. Did it work? I confess it left me rather unmoved. I think it is more a work for willing performers in a gallery or chapel than for a totally unprepared Recital Centre audience.

Heather Shannon is best known for her role in the indie rock band The Jezebels, and I really wondered what her ACO Collective commissioned pair of works Ricochet and Ricochet from a Distance, receiving their world premieres in this series, would be like. In fact I found them far less challenging than I expected. The first is for winds alone, and came across to me as an extended and rather virtuoso fantasia, which seemed to owe more to composers like Bartok and Szymanowski than to the world of the avant garde. The post-interval portion lived up to its title as the strings took on a more muted and discursive reworking of the material with the winds very much in the background. In all a very interesting and, dare I say it, enjoyable work. I hope we can hear more of her in the future.

It is ironic that Mozart, certainly the most significant composer in the program, was represented by one of his most lightweight works. His 40-odd Contredances were churned out to keep the customers happy, and while K. 462 is quite free of deep emotional content, it also reminds us that he was quite incapable of writing dull music. The six dances, three in each half of the program, were deftly dispatched by the Collective, and one was left wishing there was more.

Haydn’s Symphony No 47 from mid-1770s is not one of his stand-out works from that period; his aficionados prefer the Farewell and the Trauer which preceded it, and if it were not for the innovative structure of the third movement it would probably be overlooked today (Haydn liked this movement so much he reused it shortly afterwards in a piano sonata). That said, it has considerable depth and substance, particularly in the first and fourth movements, and never stops reminding us why he was probably the leading composer of that period. The finale could easily fit into one of his major late symphonies.

I have gone on too long about the works – what of the performances? Well leaving aside the audience exhalations, they were excellent. If this is the quality of the emerging talent, the future of serious music-making in Australia will be very well provided with performers. It is up to us as a society to make sure they are supported, funded and encouraged. The playing was not without the odd imperfection – those high-tessitura horn parts were fiendish – but in vigor, polish and style there was little, if anything, lacking. All praise to the ACO for this part of their activities.

And the concert structure? Well … interesting. For the most part it probably worked well, and most of the works survived their dissection and separation without more than a flesh wound or two. I do, however, really wish the Haydn had been left intact as it was not easy to re-engage with the later movements after a long gap.

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Jim Breen attended the ACO Collective’s MOZART, HAYDN & MORE, A Palindromic adventure, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on March 5, 2019.