In the Sydney season-opener from the Australian Chamber Orchestra there were several fresh faces to be seen among the seasoned performers, but the quality of the ensemble playing remained stellar. All the hallmarks of the ACO – excellent visual and gestural interaction between the players, a wide sonic palette, and their trademark brand of contagious enthusiasm – were on display in this strings-only concert. Although the program shuttled back and forth between the 21st and 19th centuries, underlying continuity was assured by the retention of a (fairly) traditional language in the new works. The opening item, Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds, started out in a clear A-minor as glassy transparency gave way to rich chords. Such textures recurred throughout the piece, repeatedly paired with/interrupted by sudden, short bursts of extreme dissonance. A vigorous hoe-down provided further contrast later on. The two soloists (violinists Ike See and Glenn Christensen) exchanged ideas fluently, with the passages of ethereal 2-part counterpoint between particularly pleasing.

Richard Tognetti © Paul Henderson
Richard Tognetti
© Paul Henderson

Tchaikovsky may have acknowledged his indebtedness to Mozart in his Serenade, but the opening of the work harkens back more to the stateliness of the Baroque. The red-blooded lushness with which this was performed (all lengthy legato bows and vibrato) recalled Stokowski’s now unfashionably romantic treatments of Bach. The first movement may have been sonatina-like in structure, but there was nothing miniature to the performance, which was characteristically committed, with beautiful dynamic gradations. The Waltz, a staple of light-music concerts of the past, avoided the saccharine by means of subtle play with tempo. The recurrent pause before the main material is resumed was each time slightly elongated, teasing the expectant audience, and there was a charming nostalgia conveyed by the slight pulling back in the coda.

The third movement Élégie was simply gorgeous, especially at the duet-like interchanges between violins and cellos. Perhaps the music didn’t afford it, but I didn’t get the sense of much profundity beneath the overt emotionalism; at least, not until the pianissimo reprise of the opening, where a new intensity could be discerned, the more potent for the intimacy of the sound-world at this point. With barely a breath after it finished, the finale was launched, and it was as thrilling and as physically exuberant as one could have hoped for.

The second half replicated the layout of the first, opening with a 15-minute contemporary work, followed by a more substantial nineteenth-century standard. Having deliberately refrained from reading the program note on Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright beforehand, I came away with an impression of diffuse textures (lots of string crossings, broken chords and glissandi), some of which rendered the solo bass difficult to hear in this concerto. Among the more satisfying moments was the duet between soloist Maxime Bibeau and his orchestral counterpart, which seemed much more effective than those passages shared by soloist and concert-master, Richard Tognetti. The duty of beating time fell to Tognetti’s front-desk partner, Ilya Isakovich. The work finished with an attractive halo of sound.

“Chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff”. So wrote Tchaikovsky after playing through one of Brahms’s symphonies at the piano; ironically, Tchaikovsky has been paired with the man he called a “giftless bastard” in countless programs ever since. Rather than reducing a symphony to chamber-like dimensions, the ACO did the reverse, performing an (uncredited) arrangement of Brahms’s second String Sextet for full string orchestra. The forces were considerably augmented for this final item by a host of players from the elite Australian National Academy of Music, each sharing a desk with a seasoned professional. Well though these young performers acquitted themselves, it is questionable whether their presence was inherently warranted for this piece. Even in its original guise, Brahms’s sextet is densely textured in places, and despite careful dynamic control it risked sounding leaden. The opening of the Scherzo second movement is a case in point: it didn’t sparkle as it might have with fewer players. As if to counterbalance the increase in weight of sound, the tempi were on the fast side throughout. Some things worked really well: the G major trio was delivered with thrilling bravura, and the first movement had greater impetuosity than is the norm. Keeping the last movement buoyant and light was a real achievement: somehow they managed to give it an almost Mendelssohnian touch. A good ending to what was a good start to the season.