On the first Saturday of September, amid (often violent) protestations around Australia against the ongoing restrictions of the Australian government in response to COVID-19, the Australian Chamber Orchestra held its own (peaceful) demonstration in Sydney, against pandemic-caused lethargy, the suffocation of the arts, and COVID-19 itself. It inspired some 400 music lovers to get neatly dressed and bravely visit the all but deserted downtown area of Sydney to hear the first professionally organised concert with a live audience since March.

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Richard Tognetti and the ACO
© Daniel Boud

There was a palpable sense of expectation not entirely free from simmering anxiety in the City Recital Hall. The masked ushers asked patrons (also encouraged to wear masks) to take their drinks to the auditorium to avoid crowding in front of the bar. Sensibly, couples were asked to sit together, but on both their sides three seats remained empty. The Minister for the Arts showed his support by being there.

A standing ovation greeted the orchestra as they entered the stage. The ACO has stayed consistently in touch with its audiences throughout the last six dark months with regularly updated online content, including smart video clips in the “ACO HomeCasts” series, interviews, new recordings, live streamed performances, access to archival and never-released footage and more. In return, more than half of its subscribers donated their already purchased tickets to the survival of the orchestra.

Cultural events in Australia are often preceded by an announcement acknowledging the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land on which the event takes place. It was thus a suitable musical gesture to begin the concert with Didge Fusion by William Barton, a well-known Aboriginal didgeridoo player. He performed the solo part of his own composition on guitar and didgeridoo with subtle accompaniment by the orchestra.

Two major compositions followed in the one-hour long concert (performed without an interval), both of them conceived originally as chamber music. It is not the first time, that Richard Tognetti, Director and Concert Master, has arranged a string quartet for the ACO and this transcription, the String Quartet in D major, Op.44, no.1 by Felix Mendelssohn, with its regularly occurring tremolando in the accompanying parts works well. The double bass (not part of a string quartet) was used sparingly and added weight to many dramatically important sections. At times, four principal players acted as soloists (reminiscent of the original quartet format), as for example at the beginning of the two middle movements, providing variety in volume and sonority.

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The Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Daniel Boud

The gentle lilt of the Minuet and the intimate storytelling of the Andante espressivo ma con moto movements were fully convincing. It was in the outer movements where I missed some of the exuberant energy, such a strong characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music. Tognetti and his ensemble seemed to be uncharacteristically shy to give in to the temptations of the rambunctious first movement, and – notwithstanding the orchestra’s truly virtuosic playing – to soak up the Mediterranean sunshine oozing from every bar of the boisterous Finale.

Matters changed dramatically in Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. The richly chromatic harmonic language of this masterpiece (originally written for string sextet) can cause an almost suffocatingly dense network of complex melody lines in a lesser performance. Not here though, where the unfailingly maintained balance between the multilayered phrases created a crystal-clear narrative. Seldom are the melodies, weighty or lithe, as transparently elaborated on as in this performance, where no one bar passed without a clear musical direction. Vibrato did not decorate every note (otherwise obligatory in performances of Romantic works) but was applied as an optional ornament, adding special colour to notes. The dynamic range of the players spread from whisper-quiet pianissimos to pained outbursts of shame, grief or forgiveness, as indicated in Richard Dehmel’s brilliant fin de siècle poem, on which the composition is based.

Balsam to the heart, it was the most heartfelt, honest and dramatic performance of this work I heard for a long time in live performance.