Spot the odd one out: a symphony by Haydn, another by Mozart, a violin concerto by Mozart, and Electric Preludes by Brett Dean (2012). The bill of fare offered by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on Sunday cannot be called typical for them, since their programs evade any easy categorisation, but the gesture of mixing old and new is certainly a familiar gambit. The apparent “randomness” of including a new commission in a concert of 18th-century music was mitigated by the palindromic program order, with the two minor-key symphonies flanking two items featuring the group’s director, violinist Richard Tognetti, as soloist. However, even here there were surprises, once we saw the instrument he was playing in one of the pieces...

Brett Dean © Mark Coulsen
Brett Dean
© Mark Coulsen

When in Sydney, the ACO most often performs in the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, an ideal venue for them in terms of size and acoustic. Sunday’s show was in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, a much bigger and sonically more problematic location. In the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony no. 49, “La passione”, which opened the concert, the quiet resolutions at the ends of phrases were at times more felt than heard. The orchestra made use of a broad dynamic palette, although I felt it was mostly polarised between very soft and quite loud, and rather avoided the middle ground. Granted, sudden changes in loudness for dramatic effect are key features of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) style in which both symphonies were written, but it was perhaps a touch overdone. Nonetheless there were plenty of lovely tonal shadings throughout, from the opening melancholic suspensions to the imaginative reduction of the strings to one-to-a-part at the beginning of the trio. The final movement had just the right hectic character.

Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes had their Australian première earlier in this tour. Composed in response to visual stimuli, including the work of Aboriginal artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, this set of six pieces uses both standard titles (“Berceuse”) and more bespoke names (“Topography – Papunya”). This was the only item in the concert which had a conductor proper, with the composer taking the baton. However, Tognetti, normally the cynosure of the players’ eyes, didn’t entirely relinquish the directorial role, gesturing at one point to the off-stage sound engineer to raise the sound level. The man with the laptop was not the only reason for the word “electric” in the title: the soloist, too, was performing on an electric violin. At least, that was what it was called: is something which has six strings (the standard four, and two lower), only a skeletal frame, and no scroll or pegbox really a violin?

To be fair, Tognetti played it in the traditional manner, and frequently the tone emitted conformed to normal expectations of a violin. For instance, no. 1 (“Abandoned playground”) used sul ponticello effects (playing near the bridge, which gives a glassy sound) and harmonics, both standard techniques, over the course of a large-scale structural crescendo and decrescendo. At other times, the soloist’s tone was artificially manipulated: in no. 4 (“The beyonds of mirrors”), he produced an eerie sci-fi whistling sound, against a series of descending slides from the orchestra. At the beginning of no. 2 (“Topography – Papunya”), Tognetti seemed to blow on the instrument, creating disembodied electronic voices. No. 5 (“Perpetuum mobile”) had something of the energy of Prokofiev or Bartók, but (despite the name) the momentum changed during the cadenza, where at one point the fluttering echoes sounded Middle-Eastern to my ears. The short melodic tags of no. 6 (“Berceuse”) were set against an intensely lyrical sustained string background. Tognetti was seemingly at ease on his stunted instrument with the paradoxically larger range, and the performance as a whole was intense and gripping.

This name given to this concert, “Tognetti’s Mozart”, became relevant in the second half. Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G was performed with aplomb, with cadenzas by the soloist. As befits a performer-director, Tognetti also joined in with the tutti passages, turning to face now one section of the orchestra, now another. In the final piece, Mozart’s “Little” G minor Symphony (so-called to avoid confusion with the better-known Symphony no. 40 in the same key), the orchestra’s greatest virtues were on full display: their lively communication with each other (constant visual contact with either Tognetti or other sections of the orchestra, little smiles of appreciation for each other), precision in articulation and phrasing, and a pleasing freedom of gesture and movement (enabled by the fact that most of the instrumentalists stand throughout). Given that the boundaries between creating and performance are unusually permeable in Tognetti’s ACO, it was nice to see Dean in the viola section for this piece. A quick glance at his CV, where it mentioned his having been a member of the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1980s, confirmed that he had the playing chops to mingle with this talented band. Highlights for me were the emergence of the meditative oboe tune after the full throttle opening of the first movement, and the wind trio in the third movement. The audience was unreservedly enthusiastic at the close. Based on the reviews excerpted on their website, the ACO have wowed the critics in places such as London and New York: let’s continue to enjoy the fact that “probably the finest string ensemble on the planet” can be found on our doorstep.