It takes artistic courage to devote almost a whole concert to music associated with cinema, but then Richard Tognetti, the artistic director and concert master of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, never lacked creative thinking or musical audacity. The ACO’s latest concert explored film music, which can be created in two rather different ways. While many films include music specifically written for them, on occasion film directors also turn to pre-existing music by famous composers. This concert exampled both possibilities, with the ACO teaming up with Synergy Percussion, the foremost percussion ensemble on the Australian music scene.

Apparently Alfred Hitchcock was dissatisfied with an early version of his masterwork, Psycho, and became convinced about the film’s qualities only when he was shown the film with the music of Bernard Herrmann. Indeed, the famous shower scene is even more terrifying with the accompanying music of high, aggressively loud glissandi (sliding notes) on the violins. Herrmann’s well written score of Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra has a lot more to offer though, than just the ‘stabbing music’. Right after the shower scene, trills are passed from instrument to instrument interspersed with sudden accents creating an eerie effect; here autumnal colours are painted by brushed pizzicati (plucked notes) and high harmonics, there the horror of the story comes suddenly alive. Not surprisingly, without watching the film, the sonic fear can credibly be associated with other horrors of the mid-20th century, for example those of Hiroshima or Vietnam and gain a new meaning altogether. This is not just illustrative music that could not survive without the film, but one with its own meaning.

The same could not be said about a selection from Thomas Newman’s music to the film American Beauty (1999), also on the programme. Sam Mendes’ brilliantly farcical moral fable is splendidly supported by its music but that is where its role finishes. The pleasant, if rather repetitive score is perfectly appropriate for film music but that does not make it worthy for a concert performance. This music needs the film, otherwise it is sadly unremarkable.

These two genuine items of film music were bookended in the first half of the concert by compositions of the Greek composer, Iannis Xenakis. His Voile, the short concert opener for string orchestra, stunned the audience with its uncompromisingly brutal clusters of string chords and as such, did not fit in with the rest of the concert, particularly, as it was followed attacca (without any break) by Newman’s film music – a curious decision for which I could find no explanation.

The real challenge to audience and performers alike came at the end of the first half. Learning and performing Psappha, a formidable composition by Xenakis, would be a highlight in the career of any percussion player. The score of this work is notated in a graphic grid and its instrumentation is not precisely determined by the composer. Tone colours on the chosen instruments and extreme rhythmic precision can make a performance outstanding. On this occasion precision was made difficult by virtue of this solo work being performed – highly unusually – by three musicians. To hear Psappha is a rare treat and this was a solid, if not meticulous, performance, due to slight ensemble problems (particularly in the first half of the work) which, ironically, would not be present with one performer.

Timothy Constable, the artistic director of Synergy, contributed in a double role, as a player as well as a composer: his work, Cinemusica, was premiered in this concert. The composition seemed to explore common links between the other works on the programme, which is perhaps the reason why its own individual musical language was unclear. Similar to Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, it is scored for double string orchestra with percussion, with Constable seated in front and his Synergy colleagues, Joshua Hill and Bree van Reyk, behind the string players.

Bartók’s iconic work maximises the stereophonic effect offered by the two string orchestras facing each other on the sides of the stage. Cunningly, the composer included a harp as a string instrument and a piano as a percussion instrument – as they both are. This work sounds as fresh as it did eighty years ago when Paul Sacher and the Basel Chamber Orchestra commissioned it and it is almost always conducted. Only a highly focussed and extremely well-prepared ensemble is able to perform Bartók’s Music without a conductor, and yet this is what happened under Richard Tognetti’s expert leadership. In order to keep the tempi prescribed by the composer, some of the idiomatic characters became slightly breathless, but then Bartók himself regularly played different tempi on his recordings from what he wrote in the score, so a certain leniency is possible. A few minor balance problems aside, it was a memorable, beautifully executed performance.