Last night’s concert was the third in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s current tour, and their second show in Sydney, but the first in the City Recital Hall, a venue almost ideally suited to an ensemble of this size. The orchestra was without certain key personnel, including their charismatic leader Richard Tognetti, with a raft of extras drafted in to the line-up. Perhaps because it was their first outing this year, or perhaps because of the large number of newbies, the orchestra took some time to settle. The first piece, selections from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams, was uncharacteristically rough in tuning and ensemble. In a typical ACO performance, the players communicate constantly with each other, but in this work eyes were often glued to the music and there was a distinct lack of bodily freedom. The sound was noticeably scratchy as a result, and aside from individual moments such as leader Helena Rathbone’s sinuous melody at the start of the Habanera, it was mostly unconvincing. Perhaps some of tentativeness was occasioned by having to coordinate with the electronic track, but if so this is something they’ve managed to do better on other occasions.

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Australian Chamber Orchestra
There was a huge gulf in quality between this uneasy start and their rendition of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, with which the first half finished. Here, back on more familiar territory, they seemed to have recovered their confidence and communicative skills. The dynamic control in the Sarabande was well judged, and it was nice to see players not normally in the limelight being showcased in the Gavotte. The Air began with minimal vibrato, but worked up to a satisfyingly emotional peak in the first section, and there was a memorable cello statement of the theme from Timo-Veikko Valve. The antiphonal exchanges between the violin and viola in the Rigaudon were well managed, and the whole piece demonstrated the orchestra’s wonted sensitivity in phrasing.

Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, which began the second half, was recently awarded the “Best Classical Contemporary Composition” prize at the Grammys, and the recording by soprano Dawn Upshaw was judged “Best Classical Vocal Solo”. Since the ACO was also part of the prize-winning disc (which also won for sound engineering), this tour is in some ways a lap of honour for the laureates. Upshaw was given two warm-up items in the first half, Liebes-Lied by Finnish composer Rautavaara, and the well-known Solveig’s Song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt music. The first was written 1958–59, but had a strongly fin-de-siècle feel to it, its sinuous lines reminiscent of early Schoenberg. Upshaw had plenty of heft in her voice, which was perhaps at its best when she sang out, and employed portamento (sliding between notes) freely. Her readings of both songs communicated the sentiments well, and she soared easily over the glowing sound from the muted strings in Solveig’s number.

In Winter Morning Walks Dawn Upshaw only occasionally used what might be called a full operatic tone (for instance, at the end of no. 4, “I saw a Dust Devil This Morning”). Elsewhere, she aimed for a simpler delivery, very much in keeping with the spirit of the poetry, a deliberately artless celebration of nature written by American poet Ted Kooser after a battle with cancer. The music, too, was immediately accessible: Schneider’s background is in big-band music, and the jazz influences were immediately apparent in the lush added-note chords and the presence of specialist jazz musicians (on clarinets, bass and piano). There were often long breaks between the vocal portions of the songs, another characteristic jazz trait. To me, individual songs strongly suggested musical theatre: no. 3, “Walking by Flashlight”, had the feel of a big romantic number, while no. 5, “My Wife and I” was a pleasantly sentimental, folkish song. The only slightly challenging fare was in no. 7, “Our Finch Feeder”, where a little more dissonance was used. Given that the composer and the singer for whom she wrote were also cancer survivors, the whole felt like a profound communication in simple guise, a message speaking of the joy in life, of sorrow experienced and yet overcome.

The concert ended on a high with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for solo string quartet and string orchestra accompaniment. From the full-blooded opening to the rousing finish, the interplay between the small group of soloists and the rest of the players (led by the diminutive Aiko Goto) was lively, and there was a rich unanimity to the sound. One hopes that as the tour goes on some of this spirit will be channelled into the Adams: then it truly will be a concert to remember.