East is East and . . .


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

December 9, 2015

Caricature of Vivaldi Il prete rosso by Pier Leone Ghezzi                                       (1723)

In virtually identical fashion, the ACO began and ended its Melbourne year with this program built around Vivaldi’s well-worn quartet of violin concertos.  Richard Tognetti roused audience approbation for his vital interpretations of these familiar pages at both last Wednesday’s packed concert and back in the last week of February.  With characteristic mastery, he found refreshing novelties in both tutti passages and solos – heaving the line into faster or slower pace to unsettle expectations, lingering suggestively over chromatic ascents, then abruptly hurtling through whole segments in the Autumn and Winter scores with remarkable rapidity, and always finding a ready response from his associates – a string nonet of ACO regulars, Neal Peres Da Costa oscillating between harpsichord and chamber organ in performing continuo offices, Tommie Andersson also doing dual service on theorbo and guitar.

So far, so fair.  These concerts have a well-earned reputation for rattling cupboards, raising dust, turning on unfiltered lights.  Along with a re-viewing of the season-celebrating evergreens, with two isolated Vivaldi movements from other concertos and a Gabrieli sonata for extra Venetian heft, Tognetti arranged a juxtaposition of European Baroque and contemporary Egyptian through a collaboration with the Tawadros brothers, Joseph playing oud and James on the tambourine-like riq and occasionally the bendir hand-drum.  Not that this musical association is new; both Tawadros musicians have been performing with the ACO for almost 15 years.

But this program proposed a more serious aim than a mirror reflecting culturally differing musical elements.  Tognetti has been looking for a common ground between the worlds of Islam and the Venetian Republic with specific reference to music, given that the inter-relationship certainly existed in artefacts, goods and solid artistic objects, not to mention that trite descriptor of cross-cultural  pollination – cuisine.

But when it comes to music, the influences, one-sided or mutual, prove difficult to track down.  In the end, what this program offered seemed unconvincing, even more so after a second experience.  Joseph’s lute-like instrument served competently in giving an edge to the orchestra’s output, reinforcing Andersson’s timbre if with a more brusque sound-quality, less happy doubling the solo line in several concerto movements.  Joseph’s percussion underpinning, especially in the more bouncy third movements, sounded like an unnecessary adjunct, sadly reminiscent of that inane version of the first Allegro in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 which was supplied with a drum-kit undertow.  What did the insertion of that percussive supplement add to the Mozartian experience?  Precious little, if anything.   I fear, the same applied to this Vivaldi fusion experience.

Interleaved between the Vivaldi concertos and single movements, Joseph presented seven of his own compositions, episodic constructs with occasional spotlights on ACO players – Tognetti, of course, and bass Maxime Bibeau – but the focus centred consistently on the oud, apart from one extended riq solo to begin Give or Take.   Modal melodies, sprightly metrical set-ups, plenty of unison work for the ACO strings, cadenza-type breaks all helped to create a specific sound-world although I found it hard to differentiate between most of these pieces and what I’ve heard from Turkey and Iran.  Complicating the mix, an Indian influence is inescapable, the riq’s rapidity and ability to produce rapid-fire bursts and semi-complex patterns resembling the tabla in everything but the use of the palm, while the decorative ripples from Joseph’s lute occasionally came very close to a sitar’s enunciation of a raga.

Yet, while both the orchestra and its guests entered into each other’s worlds with that confidence gained through a long-time aesthetic conversation and built on the performing security invested in the last night of a national tour taking in four state capitals,  their respective worlds, their basic languages remained discrete.  In the opening Gabrieli sonata for three violins, it seemed that an attempt was made to give lines an Eastern curve – hesitant, languorous, dynamically restrained – but when all parts were well under way, the Orient disappeared and the instrumental fabric reverted to type.   In the Tawadros pieces, the ACO players sounded as if added on, providing a sound quality that all too often sounded suggestive of an old-fashioned the dansant straight out of Death on the Nile.  When Tognetti took a prominent part, the spectre of Stephane Grappelli and his Hot Club Quintet loomed unnervingly close.   Added to this odd non-Venetian shadow of reminiscence, the works  sometimes began promisingly – the oud solo at the beginning of Point of Departure with suggestions of intriguing irregularities,  a similarly expectation-lifting start to Permission to Evaporate  – but settled for rapid-fire rushes of activity, negotiated with a palette of colours in which eventually you laboured to find points of differentiation, let alone any timbral, melodic, harmonic or rhythmic congruence with the European scores.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Further exposure to Tawadros’ music may reveal connections with music of the European Mediterranean that are definitely discernible in several parameters.  At present, the links continue to elude. Not that this concerned the rest of the MRC audience, who were fortunate to hear these players in the clear acoustic of the Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch space rather than at the ACO’s usual theatre of operations in Hamer Hall, as was the case in February.  A well-applied amplification system helped even more in heightening accessibility, particularly during the central movement to Vivaldi’s Autumn where Da Costa filled in its 45 bars with a deftly executed  solo over the semi-static string chords.  More importantly, it put us up-close with the Tawadros brothers’ determined attack and sharp delivery right from their opening Kindred Spirits – one of the concert’s most effective demonstrations of their craft.