In the golden-lighted balcony far above the darkened stage, a solo trumpet rang out. Andrew Ford’s Fanfare for Neverland was the concert opener, a late replacement for the same composer’s Jouissance. Visa Haarala (guesting from the Tapiola Sinfonietta) displayed focussed tone and pitch control in an ever-higher tessitura. As if his sounds were replicating the primal act of creation, the lights very gradually came up on the stage.

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery

No sooner had the final note sounded than the eight string players beneath launched into a blitz of activity with Andrew Norman’s Gran Tourismo, a work receiving its Australian premiere on this Australian Chamber Orchestra tour. The frenzied runs swelled into local peaks, renewing themselves inexhaustibly. Such was the energy that the conducting duties had to be distributed, taken over by whichever instrumentalist was momentarily resting. The piece wasn’t without its contrasts: swoony sixths and glissandos leavened the excitement, and late on the music suddenly cut away to a microtonally inflected oasis of relative stillness, which threw the busyness into greater relief.

Joining violinist-director Richard Tognetti as soloist in Brahms’s Double Concerto was another stalwart of the orchestra, principal cellist Timo Veikko-Valve. There were striking contrasts between the two opening cadenza passages: Veikko-Valve played with a rich, romantic sound, full of imaginative touches, while Tognetti sounded somewhat strained and wilful to begin with. He soon settled, and the finale saw Tognetti coming properly into his own, with a perky rendition of the opening idea, and wholehearted commitment to the lyrical moments later on.

However, for all the neat dovetailing of the soloists, the glory of this performance was the fulsome sound from the tutti. The personnel on stage was augmented radically beyond the core ACO membership, with dozens of high-calibre players filling out the string sections as well as providing the wind and percussion needed. The very first tutti after the cadenzas was simply electric, the additional numbers filling the City Recital Hall with sound. Needless to say, there was subtlety as well as strength in this performance, so that the soloists never sounded at all overpowered.

Tognetti often directs from the concertmaster position, and there were even moments in the Brahms when he seemingly forgot that Helena Rathbone had been given this role as both beat time with their bows. For the second half, he set aside the violin entirely to conduct Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Starting out from the melancholy bardic opening, the first movement grew until the first G major theme was bursting with energy, which was carried forwarded into the galloping B minor theme that follows. Each section of the orchestra took advantage of its moments of prominence, their very distinctness making me wonder as to whether the optimal blend across the orchestra as a whole had been reached, but these were usually short-lived doubts.

The woodwind playing was particularly outstanding in the slow second movement, especially the gently suasive tempo rubato in the flute-led passages, and the exquisite paired clarinet writing. There were pleasures at the other end of the dynamic spectrum as well, with the climactic C major passage sounding rich and rousing. The irresistible first theme in the Scherzo was given a very bright colouring at the start, with the lilting strings countermelody allowed to dominate over the woodwind when the theme was repeated (a touch of swagger which was wholly enjoyable). There was lovely rhythmic play in the trio section, while the quicker coda had one little cheeky pull-back, a nice touch amid all the excitement.

The trumpets showed their quality at the start of the finale, a movement whose robust earthiness was very much brought to the fore in this performance. Again the playing of Sally Walker impressed in the well-known passage for solo flute. The ACO has long mastered the ability to send punters away with a smile on their faces, and the combination of Bohemian cheeriness and a performance full of verve was the perfect recipe for this happy achievement.

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