For many reasons, the ACO’s most recent show The Reef was an artistic experience like no other in all my years of concert-going. It is difficult even categorising the event: an orchestral concert with accompanying video footage? A film with live soundtrack? Neither does full justice to the nature of the project. The musical program was beyond eclectic, ranging from Bach’s Fugue for Solo Violin (BWV1001), delectably arranged for soloist and string trio, to songs from 1990s heavy metal album Dirt by Alice in Chains, taking in didgeridoo music, folk songs and contemporary art music compositions en route. It was the perfect riposte to the accusation that classical music events are moribund. Of course, that raises uncomfortable questions: does classical music need to be combined with something else (other arts, other types of music) to escape the weight of its past history? Is this the best, or even the only way forward?

ACO's The Reef
ACO's The Reef

The film is the work of Jon Frank and Mick Sowry, and is “an account more representative of a painter than a storyteller” according to co-creator and director of the orchestra Richard Tognetti. It certainly felt more like a free montage rather than a temporally ordered narrative. Notionally it documents a single day on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, bounded by the journey to and from there under star-filled night skies. In between there was footage of surfers and swimmers, the awe-inspiring movements of the waters, and the local landscape and human settlements.

In his program note, Tognetti wrote of “the possibility of hearing more in images and seeing further into music.” The finished film is a genuine collaboration between the two arts, in which each inflects and informs the other. There are places where one can see the visuals have been matched to the music, rather than the other way round: for instance, shots of a wind vane were cut in time with the rhythms of Orawa, a repetitive work by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. The choice of music was particularly inspired at times: the first sight of the virtuosic surfers in full flow was given extra emotional lift by a driving entr’acte from Rameau’s Suite des Vents. The high-pitch frenzies of George Crumb’s Night of the Electric Insects were appropriately, if predictably, mapped onto accelerated shots of scurrying ants. (The other number used from Crumb’s Black Angels, God-Music, written for electric cello accompanied by bowed wine-glasses, was one of the most effective vignettes of the evening.)

However, as a musico-visual Gesamtkunstwerk, The Reef wasn’t entirely successful, if by success we mean a completely convincing fusion of the two. For this viewer/listener, there were plenty of moments when the images dominated, and others where the music took precedence. I have absolutely no memory of what was happening sonically during some spellbinding underwater footage of the breakers’ cylindrical gyres, although the images will remain with me for many a day. Conversely, I cannot call to mind what was showing during the Bach Fugue. This might have been intended: in his note, Director of Photography Jon Frank asks “How could anyone with a conscience project pictures of surfing to the music of Bach?” This might explain why the forgotten images were interspersed with periods where there was nothing on the screen at all.

Other moments of dislocation from the screen occurred whenever performers came and stood at the front of the stage. This was especially the case in one Alice in Chains song: the volume ramped to the edge of discomfort, and the three principals became the cynosure of all eyes. Moreover, while my knowledge of audience etiquette at rock concerts is non-existent, it didn’t feel right merely to sit there while the performers swayed and gyrated (not that I was going to be the one to start the head-banging).

The orchestral musicians were outstanding as ever, even when they stepped outside their usual roles (the acting principal cellist, Julian Thompson, set aside his Guarnerius for percussion at one point, and Satu Vänskä, principal violin, sang raucously in the heavy metal numbers and rather sweetly in Pete Seeger’s protest song “Where have all the flowers gone”). Of the guest musicians, the pick for me was Mark Atkins on the didgeridoo.

Overall, the film/concert had a lot to offer, in spite of being perhaps overly ambitious in its scope, and without a doubt overly long in its duration. Compressed into 60–70 minutes, it would have been more enjoyable. There were visual longeurs, especially in the sequence where the camera slowly panned across grainy landscape footage. The umpteen slow-motion scenes of the free fin surfers accompanied by lyrical works such as Rachmaninov’s Vocalise could also have been cut back a bit. Nonetheless, the ACO and Tognetti deserve all the plaudits they get for sheer inventiveness in programming, as well as the accomplished way in which it was realised.