Bit of this, bit of that


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday May 7, 2017

Satu Vanska

You may be from an old school, so you tend to look for themes, thematic links, but sometimes the search is futile.  Take this latest program from the country’s premier chamber orchestra.  The ensemble opened with a scrap of semi-modern Americana and ended with yet another string quartet arrangement, this time of Mendelssohn No. 2 in A minor .  At the core of the afternoon came two Baroque violin concertos – Vivaldi for two violins and cello, RV 578; and Locatelli in D Major, the Harmonic Labyrinth which is really nothing of the kind – an arrangement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata which became a new piece in the process, and a fresh work by Perth-based composer James Ledger, The Natural Order of Things.

A mixed bag, then, but not unpalatably so.  Under temporary director Satu Vanska, the ACO gave an airing to Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s Andante for Strings, an arrangement by the composer of the slow movement from her own String Quartet of 1931.   In the concert program, an appreciation of this movement came from critic Peter Dickinson, who described Crawford Seeger’s work as that of ‘a kind of American Webern’.   The assessment seems to have been based on the composer’s practice in this movement of quick crescendi so that the melodic element moves between the parts.  Cute but, even given the composer’s somewhat acerbic language, it falls a fair way short of the Viennese master’s Klangfarbenmelodie, which is what Dickinson is attempting to persuade us that the American innovator was attempting.

The Andante is pretty brief, but you wouldn’t want it more prolix, chiefly because the surges and recessions can’t hope to capture as much interest as that constant flickering of textures and gruppetti in Webern’s setting of the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering, or, to be fairer, his master Schoenberg’s famous Farben movement in the Five Pieces for Orchestra.   The American work is quaint, a moderately interesting experiment but – and there’s nothing macho-sexist about this – the piece is bland in character when juxtaposed with Ives’ scores dating from previous decades.

More contemporary still, Ledger’s work was being given its second performance on Sunday, after an out-of-town reading in Wollongong.   The work celebrates the life of Simon Libling, an escapee from the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Poland (associated in my mind with the efforts of Oskar Schindler) who eventually migrated to Melbourne in 1960.   Ledger was commissioned by Libling’s son and daughter-in-law and has produced a five-movement work that offers a kind of odyssey; pictures marking certain stages in Libling’s life.   Ledger employs an accessible vocabulary, reaching its most aggressive reaches in the central Threatening and agitated section.   But he doesn’t overtax his audience in any of the movements, each segment having its own discernible character and dynamic impetus.   If anything, Ledger is determined to construct his five life-chapters without frills and sustains the atmosphere for just long enough.   Above all, it’s a music without self-consciousness, the composer’s voice present but channeled into the work’s narrative, not drawing attention to itself with sound-production tricks.

Satu Vanska and ACO regular Glenn Christensen worked pretty well as top lines in the Vivaldi concerto, principal Timo-Veikko Valve the sublimated cello.  You were hard pressed to find flaws in the soloists’ attack, although I would have preferred the violinists to work alongside each other, rather than facing from opposite sides of the stage.  The opening spiccato sounded less fierce and abrupt than when Richard Tognetti is at the first desk but, even for a L’estro armonico stalwart, this piece is forgettable.

Vanska took the solo Locatelli part and negotiated its endless stream of semiquavers with very few misses.   Most of the score’s interest comes in the solo capriccios/cadenzas of the outer movements, and Vanska gave bracing accounts of both.   But the work is over-hyped: it’s not complicated in any sense – it’s just busy.   For instance, the solo that interrupts the first Allegro is little more than a series of arpeggios in D Major and its close associates; playing them rapidly generates excitement but it strikes me as being little more than an eighteenth century precursor of Czerny.   Vanska gave considerable personality to the middle movement’s substantial melodic lines but raised the audience’s temperature with the long capriccio in the finale, packed with double-stops and flights across the instrument’s compass, including Locatelli’s favourite trick of asking for notes above the fingerboard.   In the end, the player displayed a formidable technique; pity about the repetitive content, but that’s the period.

At this work’s start, a baroque guitar crept in behind cellists Valve and Melissa Barnard; it took me a fair while to realize that this was the third of the ACO’s regular players – Julian Thompson – revealing an unheralded talent.   Speaking of personnel, the scheduled viola Alexandru-Mihai Bota didn’t seem to be present behind guest principal Jasmine Beams and Nicole Divall, unless he has altered radically in height and complexion.

It was hard to warm to the Debussy Cello Sonata, although Valve made an excellent solo voice surrounded by a small group of piano-substituting strings.   You missed the keyboard’s bite and percussive force, of course; even stranger was the lack of contrast in this version, the cello merging into a bland cocoon of fellow strings.   The pay-off was that the string instrument remained prominent, unchallenged in that regard by its accompaniment.   Every pizzicato from Valve told and the calculated immersion of the string instrument’s activity in the piano’s occasionally vehement attack didn’t occur.   In this form, the piece is a radically different entity and you find that you’re pulling yourself up short when an anticipated harmonic clash is muted almost into non-existence.

The ACO is renowned for its adaptation of string quartets from the mainstream repertoire as expansions of its programs.   Alongside understandable fleshings-out of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the ensemble has recorded and/or performed quartets (and the occasional quintet) by Grieg, Janacek, Schubert, Beethoven, Szymanowski and Haas.   Now Mendelssohn’s most accessible work in the form has enjoyed the string orchestra treatment (whose arrangement it is, I don’t know).   The work is big-statement-rich in its outer movements and so stands up well to dynamic and timbral aggrandisement in its bookends; added to which, the musicians are responsive to Mendelssohn’s shapely counterpoint, each line melding into its peers with the group’s inimitable mix of urging power and elegant finish.

As with other similar arrangements that the organization has presented, you experience the odd moment of dislocation, when the forces reduce themselves and the texture thins to regular quartet individuality, as in the Andante con lento, or at Vanska’s solo towards the final Adagio‘s conclusion; so that, when the full complement of players comes back on board, reinforced by Maxime Bibeau‘s bass, you have to make a jump back to accepting the larger sound as the norm.   They’re not as impressive in construction as this Beethoven homage, but I’d be more interested in hearing some of the composer’s early symphonies for strings than these re-writes.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s patrons were quite happy with the ACO’s work, even if one lady behind me commented unfavourably about Ledger’s piece.   You can’t please everyone all the time – which is the best rationale for a bitzer of a program like this one.