The Gallipoli landings are etched indelibly into the Australian psyche. Images of diggers in slouch hats struggling through breaking waves and scrambling up beaches under heavy fire are the stuff of primary school history classes around the country. It is, therefore, hard to miss when you put on a production in praise of ANZAC troops. However, there must be more to any professional concert than khakis and Waltzing Matilda, particularly if it is advertised with the promise of a multimedia spectacular.

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Reflections on Gallipoli is a synthesis of forms: a projector, lighting effects, narrators and a chamber orchestra. As with Tafelmusik’s performance last month, this was intended to be both a concert and an historical journey. However, this performance was, for the most part, far more successful. Musically, the ACO is certainly capable. Its performance was fluid and engaging and the concert was, in parts, excitingly programmed. However, there were problems, particularly in the second half.

The orchestra began with the Allegro molto capriccioso from Bartók’s String Quartet no. 2, written between 1915 and 1917 as a meditation on barbarism. It is aggressive and energetic; a relentless, challenging and exciting opening which fitted well with the narrative of war presented on screen and in narration. It suffered somewhat as a result of the transition from quartet to full string orchestra, as the increased numbers made the trading of complex thematic material between parts a little disjointed, but was still a compelling opening.

Next came Elegy for String Orchestra: “In Memoriam Rupert Brooke”, written on campaign in 1915 by little known Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly. While delicate and poignant, this work is largely unoriginal; elegant, but otherwise unimportant. The dynamics were a little underdone and it would have benefited from the lushness of a larger string group; in short it was technically precise, though somewhat bland.

This was followed by a trio of short pieces – two Turkish tunes, as bookends for Soliloquy, a new work for solo violin from Carl Vine. Taryn Fiebig offered by far the standout performance of the evening in her renditions of Turkish folk songs, scattered among the other numbers. She was captivating, and the pieces themselves proved the most interesting and engaging moments.

Vine describes his Soliloquy as a “direct response” to the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign. While the connection in the music wasn’t obvious to me, the piece is both charismatic and succinct enough that this does not detract from it. Concertmaster Richard Tognetti’s performance lacked the explosive power I have come to expect from violin virtuousi. The first half concluded with Elgar’s Sospiri, or “Sighs”, a pleasant if melancholy number which brought the act to an end with a fitting whimper.

More of the same thoughtful and elegant performance seemed set to follow. The second half opened with a haunting rendition of little known Turkish composer Nevit Kodalli’s Adagio for String Orchestra: a menacing theme builds to a searing climax, ending in an extended rise and fall, as of failing lungs struggling for air.

Sadly, the rest of the evening did not continue so well. The next folk song transitioned rather awkwardly into an upbeat Turkish dance which didn’t seem to make musical or narrative sense. It was particularly jarring as the line of dialogue which immediately followed involved corpses of soldiers littering the battlefield.

This would have been forgivable if it hadn’t been for the next work by Carl Vine. Called Our Sons, the clumsiness and forced sentimentality of the title is reflected in the scoring. It is so crammed with the clichés of modern music of war it is almost a pastiche. More awful was the butchery of Atatürk’s otherwise poignant tribute to the ANZACs, the worst setting of any lyrical material I have heard in years. The orchestra and Ms Fiebig struggled on admirably and managed to salvage something. 

The finale, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, did nothing to help matters. Intended as a touching reflection on the sacrifice of soldiers on both sides, the predictability of the choice significantly diminished its impact. Tognetti’s Lark fluttered desperately but was unable to make it off the ground. Of particular concern were the final phrases, which were out of tune and at the mercy of his vibrato.

The theatre of the first half was generally well judged. The lighting design was excellent, and the direction mercifully minimal. Yalin Ozucelik’s dialogue as liaison officer between Turkish and Australian soldiers was particularly touching and well delivered. There were quibbles: occasionally not enough attention was paid to matching film and music, and throughout the concert there were washed out close-ups of performers laid over period images. However, besides these fairly small issues, it was an excellent, almost seamless act.

The second half was nowhere near as considered. The theatre of the Carl Vine work was particularly bad, with painfully contrived imagery. It turned an otherwise admirable multimedia experience into condescending farce, with the screen literally flashing the word “peace” over and over again in case the audience didn’t grasp the message the first time.

It’s frustrating when an otherwise good concert ends on such a disappointing note. It becomes difficult not to judge the entire programme in the light of its conclusion. It is worth seeing this programme for the first half, for the excitement of the Bartók, the novelty of the Kelly, the singing of Fiebig, and the delivery of Ozucelik.