Fourteen years ago, the Australian Chamber Orchestra took to the stage at the Sydney Opera House in the shadows of a giant screen showing selected images by photographer Bill Henson. Not all felt that these powerful, complex and controversial images amplified the music chosen jointly by Artistic Director Richard Tognetti and Henson. Rather, they distracted from it. Three years later, some of those images of vulnerable teenagers, often naked and seen in chiaroscuro, nocturnal outdoor settings were described as “disgusting” by Australia's Prime Minister, no less; though the police could find nothing to prosecute. Nevertheless, the ACO is now “three-peating” this collaboration, clearly convinced of its value. Full houses would seem to confirm their view.

<i>Luminous</i> © Julian Kingma
Luminous
© Julian Kingma

But there is no doubt that the music has to suffer in the face of works that deny obvious meaning, throw up references to Turner, Caravaggio, Casper David Friedrich, Chinese ink wash drawings and Rembrandt and rarely attempt to illustrate compositions by Schnittke, Purcell, Pēteris Vasks and Janáček. Only sound artist Paul Healy claimed to be trying to match Henson's urban grunge or industrial imagery in three Sound Sculptures – though I spotted only one shot of blasted trees and chimneys that might have suited.

More likely, musical titles played a role: Janáček's On an Overgrown Path was certainly matched by a video taking us down just such an uncertain route; and Vasks' Violin Concerto “Distant Light” was more than matched by Henson's capacity to find a mysterious light source that picked out symphonies of hair, several sculptured ears, a pixellated pimple or the self-contained gaze of teenagers who are never looking at the camera. Indeed, my favourite mystery offered tiny dots on the inkiness – stars, sparks or leaves, one wondered. Then a pull-back revealed highlights in a girl's hair.

Mostly the images, evoking stillness, won out – especially as they were concentrated on the most delicate sections of the music such as Gabriel Yared's Lullaby for Cain and REM's I've Been High, sung with the sweetest of tones by Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter, Lior. But sense took over when volume or drama replaced the delicacy. Lior's staccato take on Purcell's Frost Aria from King Arthur, for example, with its premonitions of Vivaldi's Winter, whetted the appetite at news that Tognetti's 30th anniversary year as AD in 2020 will include The Four Seasons plus electronics from Anna Meredith.

<i>Luminous</i> © Julian Kingma
Luminous
© Julian Kingma

More importantly, Schnittke's Trio Sonata and Vasks' Violin Concerto got full value for their scores. As ever, the ACO breathed with Tognetti, even as they sat in the dark and it was often a mystery as to who was soloing. No solos, though as the Schnittke climaxed in a torrent of dark serialism followed by wild Viennese waltzing to commemorate the centenary of Berg's birth by the composer.

It was the Vasks that took the cake, though. Many a blank screen as Tognetti adopted a bullfighting stance for the more contestable sections of the concerto – especially the three fiendish, triple-stopping cadenzas. I have never heard him create such a solid sound in 30 years of music-making – and relish the chance to hear the work with no pictures at all. Mysteriously, Henson's beautiful ability to find dotted light-sources to add enigma to the background of his images was barely deployed – despite Vasks being quoted in the program, explaining the "distant light" of his work's title: “Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars, millions of light years away”.

After that, the Janáček fragment seemed an anticlimax, justified in its programming more by the match for the image in Henson's opening and closing video. But did the photographer's mysterious lead-on work as well at this end as it had in the beginning? For it was now asked to parallel the composer's sub-text of farewelling his beloved daughter who'd died of typhoid fever? The ACO did catch that mood.

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