THE FOUR SEASONS
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Monday March 13, 2023
I’ve heard this program before. Well, perhaps not the exact thing but something close to it. When the penny dropped during Spring, the preliminary program booklet statement from ACO Managing Director Richard Evans suddenly struck a nerve: ‘We are thrilled to bring back this spectacular concert . . . ‘ If the energy had been there, I might have tracked down when the ACO and the Tawadros brothers launched their first shared national tour, but I know they committed their Four Seasons collaboration in Melbourne (and everywhere else) during 2015 when the Vivaldi concerti were also surrounded by, amongst other things, compositions from oud expert Joseph Tawadros.
The organization knew that it was on to a good thing with this partnership; hence a re-presentation to packed houses across the country. Brisbane proved no exception: as far as I could see, apart from a few empty seats in the organ gallery, the Concert Hall was packed. With enthusiasm as well, for everything from the individual Vivaldi compositions to Tawadros‘ flashy works that seemed to be divided into two sections: rhapsodic slow, pacey fast. These latter seem to follow a pattern that turns up in musical settings from India’s alap/taan to the lassan/friska of Hungary – uncomplicated, an easy juxtaposition/ capable of revisitings and recapitulations to taste. Tawadros proposes that some of his work has its roots in personal experiences. Good for him, although it has to be said that such inspirational roots are hardly uncommon. You might almost say that the fertile Venetian seasonal depictions come from living through plenty of Veneto campagna weather variants: it’s true, but just what you’d expect.
As well as the four concerti, we were also promised other Baroque music. Well, we got a scrap: the 22-bar long Grave from Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto RV 208, nicknamed Grosso Mogul and therefore relevant to this program. Maybe: did the composer know about this distinctive title? Most organists know the work in a Bach transcription, BWV 594 where whatever Oriental flavour is dissipated. In any case, ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti took the solo line and turned it into an improvisational exercise, packed with bazaar-style flourishes and whines, alongside abrupt curvets in and out of focus, dynamic hurtling and soft rustlings in turn; all very creative, but it couldn’t disguise an inbuilt taut structure of (almost) predictable sequences.
Apart from the six Tawadros numbers – Kindred Spirits, Permission to Evaporate, Eye of the Beholder, Give or Take, Point of Departure, Constantinople – the only other extraneous pieces were a prelude or taksim, named Nihavend, by Mehmed VI Vahideddin, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire; and Makam-i-Rehavi Cember-i-Koca, an Ottoman march by Tanburi Angeli which was played – like the four other Angeli(s) pieces I know – as a single line taken on by all instruments. Both pieces were among the briefest on the program: 3 minutes and 2 minutes respectively.
A continuing performance peculiarity was Joseph Tawadros’ penchant for following Tognetti’s line (or somebody else’s) in the Vivaldi concertos, as well as brother James‘ support, particularly in thumping bucolic movements, on his riq or bendir. To me, the percussion reinforcement sounded superfluous for most of the time: the originals are bouncy enough, like the first movement of Mozart’s 40th; a percussive underpinning, no matter how subtle in dynamic, seems like gilding an already glittering lily. Still, you got a perverse pleasure from hearing the lute attempting to match Tognetti’s flickering, fast output.
Not that all of the artistic director’s work was audible. In the later Seasons especially, his production moved into inaudible territory and I was sitting in a fairly close stalls position. Virtuosic scale passages often disappeared in their downward trajectories, casualties from the effort to make this firmly-based concerto sequence take on the character of an improvisation. Maybe it might have worked with a set of scores not so well known but this demonstration wound up by irritating; notes you know should have been audible failed to come across, although a famous passage like the three-violin bird exchange at the start of Spring was crystal-clear. Then – the oddest moment of all – between Movements One and Two of Winter, the orchestra inserted what I suspect was another Tawadros composition. Rather than cementing a pathway between East and West, the disjunction proved incomprehensible.
Which brings us to the most difficult aspect of this entertainment: the projected musical connection between Venice and the Orient. As light entertainment, the program contained an essay by Robert Dessaix which, before it reached its didactic core, described a Good Friday concert in the Scuola Grande of the Four Seasons; it sounds glorious until you reckon with the standard of Vivaldi performances in pretty much all reaches of the lagoon. Dessaix writes further of the mercantile achievement of the city and its artistic magnificence – the paintings, the buildings (some of them), the occasional solid fantasias – but there is precious little about the music.
I probably carped about this when covering the previous Four Seasons appearances of the ACO and Tawadros brothers, but you scratch hard and painfully to find a relationship between Vivaldi and a non-European music. The modes and scales are different; the harmonic languages don’t touch; when Tawadros goes in for metrical complexity or simple syncopations, you’re a world away from continuo homophony. Even the fusing of textures serves as aural confrontation; you could say it was Vivaldi’s fault for not experimenting with the oud’s texture, contenting himself with an archlute (Simon Martyn-Ellis theorboing and Baroque guitaring behind Joseph Tawadros all night), and not using any member of the Arabian percussion panoply. But he didn’t.
At the end of the printed program, after the rousing flurries of fabric and driving rhythmic freneticism, a standing ovation from a house packed with patrons who have learned their reaction techniques from State of the Union broadcasts or (more credibly) Australia’s Got Talent. So you can argue that, even if the cross-over is not persuasive, it makes for popular success. For me, as with the first time I came on a Tawadros/Grigoryan mixture, the original experience was indubitably interesting for its level of accomplishment and the willing endeavour from all concerned; this time around, the output was expert if unsurprising. Next time? I don’t know. Where do you go after the Four Seasons? Going back to the Gabrieli family is impossible; and there’s not much that is well-known after the so-called Venetian Golden Age. Furthermore, what about Tawadros’ contribution? By the time he began his last number on this night, I felt as though we were spinning on the spot, that nothing new was happening.
A palpable hit, this whole affair, punctuated by some splendid music-making. And there’ll always be fans who appreciate and love these artists working together: God knows that the world of popular music demonstrates daily how long you can get along by repeating yourself. Further, you will always have couples like the pair in front of me who got carried away into ecstatic applause with the Near-Eastern excerpts and relaxed with knowing smiles every time Tognetti launched into a tune familiar from TV ads. Makes a fellow proud to be Australian.