Australian Chamber Orchestra returns to Perth Concert Hall with Mozart, Britten and heroes’ welcome
Australian Chamber Orchestra returned to the Perth Concert Hall stage and a heroes’ welcome on Wednesday, breaking a COVID-imposed absence of more than two years.
“We’re back in the world’s greatest concert hall,” artistic director Richard Tognetti proclaimed, launching abruptly into Benjamin Britten’s grandiose Elegy, an Australian premiere of a near-century-old work to salute the reunion.
Rich and redolent, the music instantly animated and engaged the ensemble as if a switch had been thrown; a long drought broken in a flurry of sound.
Typically, Tognetti led from the front, shaping and directing, as did Stefanie Farrands, the newly minted principal viola – the “bridge” within the ensemble, as she calls it – modelling the minor key modulations of the Elegy; the pair united at the end in a lingering two-note cadence.
The same duo combined for Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, their duet evolving out of tutti passages into plaintive tones from the violin echoed sonorously by viola; Farrands matching Tognetti first for expression, and then for brilliance.
It was a fascinating display, equals in dance and counterparts in drama, the past master with his 18th century Guarneri instrument and the new leader with her 2016 German model; each matching precision in bow and fingerboard with sweeping emotional force that drove whole-souled harmony, especially in the long cadenza of the opening Allegro maestoso.
If that was courtship, the Andante was seduction; sinuous whispering in violin answered with candour and ardour in the viola, embracing then rejoining the chase with swirls and whirls of notes, passionate yet poised like a stately classical tango.
Two minds met again in the cadenza, cooling the mood towards a momentary pause before exploding back to dance for the Presto.
The soloists emerged from the majestic ensemble and blended back just as surely; the unified voice of strings the more complete in the absence of woodwind for this setting – partly a concession to pandemic curbs, but also necessity the mother of invention.
Finally, just as the unlimited, open-ended nature of Tognetti’s lead stretched the sinews of the tempi, energy and excitement lit up the house in a dashing conclusion.
How to match that after the break?
Mozart’s Divertimento in D major was, like the Britten Elegy, an early career piece reflecting the world as he found it; a purer classical air, without the pyrotechnics and flair.
Here, more than in the Sinfonia, brass and wind might have helped swell the Allegro maestoso.
Barely missing a beat into the Andante second movement, the homogeneous whole came into its own, sweet and light to the last honeyed note.
A rhythmic attack of the Presto fugue-like finale morphed from boisterous bowing to playful pizzicato and back, building to a feisty cadence.
Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was by contrast starkly dramatic: the same ensemble yet hardly the same sound palette; the same composer as the Elegy but transformed by a Modernism imparted by his teacher, Bridge.
Darkness in the lower register and drama in violins gave way to 10 marked mood swings, as if deconstructing the chamber orchestra’s signature sound.
ACO managed the changes with agility, from highlights of humour, bombast and parody, to a touch of the sublime in the haunting Chant before a rollicking ride through Fugue to a grandiloquent Finale; lachrymose longing giving way to infinitesimal fluttering over deep bass and harmonics, to a warm and generous close.
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