Founded in 1975 and led by Richard Tognetti since 1989, the Australian Chamber Orchestra remains a stalwart figure of the Australian music scene, relatively small in size but robust in sound and spirit. Since that time the spectrum of ‘traditional’ orchestras, modern music ensembles and historically informed performance groups has expanded enormously, such that many of the ACO’s early innovations – standing to perform, for example – have become not only acceptable to audiences, but even expected in certain contexts. What has arguably kept the orchestra alive and present in an evolving cultural environment is their incredible versatility in collaborating with guest performers of various musical genres, as well as with composers in the commissioning and performing of new music.

Richard Tognetti © Paul Henderson
Richard Tognetti
© Paul Henderson
The concert began with Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor BWV1041, followed by Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Cello in D minor, RV565. As a leader Tognetti is assertive but unassuming, directing the orchestra only sparingly to navigate rhetorical flexes of time and refusing to take centre stage both during the music and during applause. As soloist of the two concerti grossi, his performance tonight was reliable if a little pitchy, but the orchestra provided an ever reliable foundation.

Following these two staples of Baroque repertoire came the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Singing Trees. Kats-Chernin’s eclectic capability in many musical idioms, quite a few of which I openly dislike, had me concerned before the work began, but this soon proved unwarranted. The four movements of Singing Trees each speak in a different language, but progressed from one to another in an organic fashion that never disturbed the ear. Individually and collectively, they were superficially appealing yet also intellectually satisfying.

The title of the work and its movements – ‘Maple’, ‘Ebony’, ‘Willow’ and ‘Spruce’ – refer to the materials employed in the construction of string instruments, and throughout the music there was plenty of self-reflexive commentary on the string ensemble as a genre, with tips of the hat to baroque structural forms and orchestration techniques, folk fiddle tropes and modernist fragmentation, culminating in a motoric and stirring tutti finale. This work is a most thoughtful and loving ode to strings, for which Kats-Chernin is to be thanked and congratulated.

For the performance of the final work, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, the ACO were joined by recorder player Genevieve Lacey. This provided a most welcome addition of woodwind timbre to the orchestral palette, although acoustics and balance occasionally threatened to overpower the new contribution. The blink-and-miss virtuosity of Lacey, particularly in her brilliant execution of the 'Badinerie' on an especially small recorder, was a little offset by mistimings in the 'Double', as well as the orchestra's almost excessive nonchalance in the final movement that left the listener a little empty.

But this was quickly made up for (and maybe that was the plan). As often seems to happen in recitals, a few minutes of encore were ultimately more memorable than the eighty preceding minutes of programmed repertoire. Playing through a movement of an identified Baroque work, Tognetti, Lacey and the orchestra took pause to engage in a riveting quick-fire exchange of two-bar improvisations. Here, the finish was delivered to perfection. Had the concert begun with the same electricity as was generated during that brief but engrossing moment, this would have been a truly unforgettable night of music.

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