Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Monday February 14, 2022
Back in Brisbane after two years’ absence, the ACO opened its break-out live-again lease of life here with one of the organization’s more popular guests. Accordionist Crabb has enjoyed a 20-year-long association with the Sydney players, given vivid life by a 2003 Chandos CD which contains all four Piazzolla works in this concert’s concluding melange, as well as the evening’s unexpected encore: Oblivion.
While the Argentinian composer’s music framed the program, the interstices proved more intriguing for this listener. At the centre of each half came a sample of orthodoxy: first, Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso, penultimate in the Op. 6 set and a reworking of one of the composer’s own organ concertos in the same key; later, the Bachiana Brasileira No. 9 by Villa-Lobos, obviously in the string orchestra version. Frippering around these scores came one-time Piazzolla collaborator Antonio Agri‘s Desde adentro arranged by Crabb (as was the opening Libertango); Elena Kats Chernin‘s 20-year-old Torque, an automobile engine celebration, which Crabb premiered with the ACO who commissioned the score. Additions to the night’s second half were Gardel‘s Por una cabeza in an arrangement by John Williams for Itzhak Perlman, the whole transcribed by Crabb and bringing back memories of Pacino in the Scent of a Woman film from 1992; the fourth movement, Coqueteos, from Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout which raised no eyebrows or much interest, I’m afraid; and the Piazzolla concluding tetralogy in yet another Crabb transcription: Milonga del Angel, Vayamos al Diablo, Romance del Diablo, and La Muerte del Angel.
Crabb sat front and centre for the night, contributing to everything in the first half, including a tenor-bass support in the concerto grosso, but was silent for the Frank and Villa-Lobos. Pianist for the program, Stefan Cassomenos, relished his role in the tangos and the Kats-Chernin escapade, but seemed to be silent for the Gardel – or else he was being super-subtle and merging selflessly into the ensemble. Most of the ACO personnel remained familiar apart from violinist Lily Higson-Spence and violist Meagan Turner. Despite the program’s information, Maxime Bibeau was not at the double bass stool; his place was taken by David Campbell from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
I’ve been to few enough concerts in recent times and the trend has been to present a program as a unit, without interval. However, the ACO took us back to pre-COVID practice – which has its good points (mainly, physical relaxation) and drawbacks (principally, the facility to find room for programmatic flab). This occasion’s particular sequence of works depended for its appeal largely on the South American components which – the Handel apart – were all-pervasive, even in Kats-Chenin’s Torque.
The ensemble’s account of Libertango took its time getting to the main melody; indeed, artistic director/ concertmaster/soloist Richard Tognetti‘s articulation of this tune seemed overdue after a lengthy span of scene-setting flourishes. Crabb’s solo contributions had that welcome character of sounding improvised, framed for the performance itself. My only problem came with the tuning of both first and second violins playing unison phrases; a touch off-point in some stretches – which surprised as this was the tail-end of the ensemble’s eleven-night national tour. Tognetti also starred in Desde adentro with a substantial solo; but then, he has an ideal fluency with this genre where it’s rare to have a player sensitive to the inbuilt style of production who also has an unshakeable technique.
Not much to say about the Handel concerto. Tognetti enjoyed dominating exposure; that’s the nature of this particular Handelian beast. The whole work was treated with an abundance of dynamic flexibility, some contrasts verging on bizarre. Still, the uniformity of attack reminded us of how much we have missed the expertise of this body, its sheer precision when the musicians are operating at their best. As well, certain moments startled both for the composer’s sense of theatre and the performance immediacy, like the bass entry in bar 8 of the first Allegro, the reassuring repeated notes in the prime melody to the appealing Andante, a splendid dovetailing of soloists and ripieno in this same movement and Tognetti’s semiquaver flights after bar 127, followed by a whip-cracking finale with just the right amount of ornamentation to distract from the movement’s bouree-like heftiness.
While she began with some tango-suggestive rhythmic movement in the first third of Torque, Kats-Chernin’s piece appealed most in its central slow section, in particular a chain of 2nds between Crabb and Cassomenos that spiced up a long melodic chain. But when the composer entered into a musical description or simulation of hurtling down the highway in the score’s last segment, it struck me that the journey could have been cut by half, if not more: the motoric only takes you so far – in music, not on the road where your wallet sets the limit.
Beginning the program’s second part, Tognetti set the mind-set for Gardel’s clever curvetting and ardent swoops. This is music that invites you to dance, thanks to its infectiousness, rather than asking you to leave the floor to professionals: my response to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango which is – thanks to its adoption by too many should-know-better musicians – in great danger of becoming viejo because of over-exposure and the mistaken belief that any combination will do . . . rather like the federal government’s mix-and-match approach to vaccines.
Frank attempts to meld classical traditional format with Andean folk music, although I feel that the former wins out over the latter in this movement from her Leyendas. The composer’s language is accessible enough and her scoring for strings shows a keen awareness of textural potential, but it was difficult to find the folkloric element. Probably my fault as, like so many Australians of my generation, west coast South American music has remained unexplored territory. For all that, the ACO presented the score with apparent mastery of its none-too-troubling mysteries. After, the Villa-Lobos prelude-and-fugue construct came across with a firm unanimity from all concerned, although I believe a compromise was worked out with the composer’s double bass line which requires three performers at the Preludio‘s beginning; one of the cellos was deputed to engage in lowest-level support duties for both segments. While the 37-bar first movement has a restrained ardour in its wide-spaced layers, the fugue shows the Bach strain more obviously in play. Most attractive is the central action where the fugue subject almost disappears in a chromatic ferment, threatens to come back in full force with the violas at bar 109 but dissipates its semiquaver energy, only for a real recapitulation 20 bars later in a score that is not too clever-clever but errs on the side of Brazilian jubilation rather than exercising Bach’s deceptive formal control.
Probably nothing new came to ACO veterans with the last Piazzolla bracket; if you know the Song of the Angel CD, the only major change for this night was that Benjamin Martin wasn’t on piano. A deft alternation between fast and slow, the pieces formed an amiable suite, albeit one where the harmonic shifts made for comfortable listening. Cassomenos achieved some penetration but the main memory I have is of Crabb dominating the mix, demonstrating his instrument’s capacity for explosive bursts of vehemence and piercing single-note melodic contours. Further, Vayamos al Diablo presents listeners with an unexpected rhythmic shape: 4/8 + 3/8 – enough to test even the most musically woke tango dancers.
But I’m operating at a disadvantage because of a lack of sympathy with Piazzolla and the tango. Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of varied exposure to the composer’s music; from a catalogue of about 3,000 pieces, I’d know a maximum of 10 (well,13 if you individualize the Estaciones Portenas) and repeated hearings of those few is the only way I can distinguish nearly all of them. As for the dance as choreography, it’s difficult to find an attraction because of its self-consciousness. Even the dedicated advocacy of Clive James wasn’t persuasive, though the spectacle of that great writer performing with characteristic understatement showed how the steps need not become ridiculously stilted.
That’s the way the cards fall; not every program is going to bring complete satisfaction and, if you are fated to encounter a musical genre that leaves you cold, it’s best to face the experience in the company of a distinguished, always distinctive body such as the ACO. Yet again, we have to be grateful that these musicians are at liberty to visit, raising both standards and spirits in a time that is still beset with uncertainty.