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Way Down Under To Way Downtown

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
08/15/2010 -  
Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Tognetti, Sir Edward Elgar, Gavin Bryars: The Glide. Imagery by Jon Frank
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (“The Jupiter”), K. 551

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (Concertmaster, Artistic Director)

Australian Chamber Orchestra (© ACO)

Barely a few hours after landing on the other side of the world, the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) plunked themselves atop the stage of Le Poisson Rouge, played a 35-minute totally unfamiliar collage, 30 minutes more of Mozart and somehow captured the full house of this downtown club.

For almost thirty years, the ACO has captured Aussie audiences as well. True, Sidney has a great-looking opera house, a few orchestras and “Our Joan” (Ms. Sutherland) as well. But chamber music wouldn’t seem to fit the Barry Humphries mold of Australian appreciation.

Nonetheless, the reputation of their solo violinist/founder/concertmaster/Artistic Director/composer Richard Tognetti had made his fame around the country, which has helped them not only domestically but on a few international tours as well.

They had been to America several times, but this was my first hearing. Not in a concert hall, not in Tanglewood (where they play this Wednesday) but on the stage of this one-time downtown jazz lodestone.

Even more unlikely was their choice of opening work, an original mélange of music, played in front of two screens with sometimes blurry video. Yet Glide, by the end of 35-odd minutes somehow was transformed from an ugly duckling to an overwhelming aquatic mammal.

The theme was surfing (Mr.Tognetti is apparently a champion), and while the foggy videos initially looked like outtakes of a poorly shot road trip, the road led to the beach and to waves which by any standards had to have been created by Mephistopheles and thousands of fiendish helpmates.

Were surfers actually riding the surges from hell? No wonder God placed Australia on the edge of the world! Even in these faint colors, they had a terrorizing effect.

The choice of music was hardly orthodox. The strings first played from Shostakovich's doleful 15th Quartet,with some bars from Elgar

R. Tognetti (© Paul Henderson)

Most of the other music, atmospheric, original, not quite in sync with the videos, was composed by Mr. Tognetti. Later I learned the intriguing titles: The Dream, Derek and the Far Field Theory and The Seal Song, an Aboriginal song with Aboriginal singing, along with the string arrangement. In The Dream, Finnish violinist Satu Vänskä added her few lines in Suomi.

The end of Glide was part of Gavin Bryars’ most famous piece, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a song heard by the minimalist British composer sung by “a tramp” and later made into an unending loop (in some versions finished with Tom Waits). The song has to be the most haunting, even obsessional work ever put in Poisson Rouge. The live string accompaniment here was as haunting as the melody... and the Promethean waves of the video.

One hates to call Mozart an “aftermath”, but, with the addition of winds, timpani and brass, the ACO finished with the “Jupiter” Symphony. It was bumptious, lightweight, played faultlessly with Mr. Tognetti leading, fiddling and making it seem like Ye Most Merrie Diversion.

The ACO is known for playing while standing (cellists excepted), and their stance did give it oomph and velocity. It must also be challenging in Australia to stand while playing, since Aussies spend much of their lives fearing they may fall off the bottom of the globe. But, like their technical prowess, the ACO has managed to balance themselves physically, as well as artistically, for a concert both rewarding and strange.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra

Harry Rolnick



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