That’s entertainment


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday July 3 and Monday July 4, 2016

Giovanni Sollima - Copy

                                                                                  Giovanni Sollima

In the absence of their resident guru, Richard Tognetti, the ACO players hosted Italian cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima as soloist and, in some cases, director.  As the afternoon rushed past, you weren’t quite sure how much direction was involved; three of the four works in the program’s first half didn’t involve Sollima, although he made up for that in a dominant display after interval.  In all, he played a Leo concerto, an arrangement by his father of one of Rossini’s Old Age Sins, and wound up with his own concerto, Fecit Neap 17..  And there is no doubt that these three comprised Sunday afternoon’s most remarkable playing.

He’s an attention-grabbing cellist, although at the first instance this was due to his remarkable virtuosity in the Leo Concerto No. 3 in D minor, that composer one of the masters of the Neapolitan Baroque.  The four-movement work, patterned roughly on the church-sonata form, can be treated with too much care,  but not this time.  Sollima vaulted into its wide melodic arches with no fear and a powerful right-hand urging on zealously the opening Andante grazioso with its melodic minor peculiarities.   As the concerto moved past, the tenor-clef solo line took on an added fascination thanks to Sollima’s chameleonic handling of texture and dynamic; for all the surprises (limited as they were) in the development of the Con spirito and Allegro movements, what really captured attention was the volatile cellist.

Of course, the ACO loves a showman and they got one in spades with Sollima.  While the Leo concerto walked a fine line between extraversion and control, the second part of the program spilled over into unbridled display, first through Rossini’s Une larme Theme and Variations with the ACO strings playing straight-man to the soloist’s wise-cracking hero, the languid and frenetic variants revealing a fully-realized catalogue of devices and effects,  negotiated with both legerdemain and humour.   Sollima’s own composition refers in its title to an inscription abbreviation that features on 18th century manuscripts from Naples; in its content, the concerto moves between a stringent cantabile mood and hurtling dance rhythms that suggest 20th century dance music, simplified Bartok, and Stravinsky without an editor.   The soloist plays games – walking on after the piece has begun and wandering round the ACO, finding a hole in the floor to put his instrument’s end pin, twirling his cello like a dance partner, racing his accompaniment in stretto passages – and gives himself a breath-stopping series of production hurdles to handle.

It all made for fun times, with the benefit of seeing and hearing a charismatic musician at work.  Sollima makes a fine jewel in this ensemble’s setting; he is all fire and passion, bounding through his work with animal spirits and sensuality, while the ACO keeps its cool, giving strait-laced support for the most part and, while appreciating the skills of their guest, seemingly content to surrender the limelight, even in the hyped-up irregular rhythms of the wilder stretches in the cellist’s own composition.

All the program’s music made up a sort of Italian sequence, beginning with an arrangement for strings (with harpsichord and theorbo providing continuo) of Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa madrigal; pleasant enough as a throat-clearer but quite vapid in effect because the (eventual) movement of the four vocal lines over a four-note cantus firmus loses most of its dramatic punch unless the piece is sung.

Then came some a massive temporal leap and a realization of the program’s title: Berio’s Sequenza VIII for violin and Sequenza XIVb for double bass (originally for cello but produced with the composer’s authorization after his death).   Well, when I say ‘real’, that’s not really true .  What ACO leader Satu Vanska and bass Maxime Bibeau did was play about half of their respective sequenze in alternation, so that the pieces interwove, thereby offering two nodes of concentration at either end of the stage.   Both performers made a fair fist of their semi-pieces, Bibeau more comfortable in negotiating an adventurous gamut of sound-manufacturing techniques although his instrument was over-amplified.  You can see why this fusion was attempted – each work on its own lasts over 13 minutes and that level of concentration on challenging aleatoric music would have been a powerful demand for even the most charitably-minded ACO enthusiast.   But was there really a need to perform both?

Vanska later offered some Paganini: the Introduction and Variations by Paganini on the prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio from Rossini’s opera Moses in Egypt.  One of the great tests on a violinist’s ability to transcend improbable limitations, the work asks the soloist to perform only on the G string.  Vanska gave a good account of this trial, which is much more interesting to watch than to hear, the theme itself enunciated with throbbing strength.   Most of the upper-register filigree came off, apart from a couple of very exposed harmonics; like the Rossini piece, the whole point here is exhibitionism – brilliant technique displayed in throwaway frivolity.

Bibeau also enjoyed another solo spot in Giacinto Scelsi‘s C’est bien la nuit from the 1972 diptych Nuits.  Here was an engrossing reading, music of concentrated vigour and informational intensity that established a cogent voice using limited materials and sustained attention throughout a tantalisingly brief time-span.   This composer’s work is rarely played here; indeed, the few times I’ve heard any Scelsi products occurred many years ago when the ELISION contemporary music ensemble under the benevolent artistic direction of Daryl Buckley was operating in Melbourne.   This brief remembrance of things past came as a standout, an enjoyable surprise in this often-sparkling, sometimes brilliant concert.