Chamber champions worth the wait

20 May 2022

Our reviewer Claire Coleman joins an ecstatic crowd lapping up the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s return to the West.

‘Mozart and Britten’, Australian Chamber Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 18 May 2022 ·

It’s hard to say who is happiest at the return of Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) to Perth Concert Hall. “Mozart and Britten” is the ensemble’s first west coast performance in two and a half COVID-full years.

The audience appears, by any objective measure, over the moon. The applause as the ACO players ascend the stage is effusive and protracted – uncharacteristically boisterous from a usually demure classical audience.

“Thank you for waiting,” says ACO’s esteemed Artistic Director Richard Tognetti upon noticing this jubilance, reminiscing with fondness on WA’s natural beauty, and making it clear that the ensemble is just as delighted to be back as Perth is to have them.

There is no risk that the ACO will disappoint. Principal violist Stefanie Farrands, who solos alongside Tognetti in the Mozart Sinfonia, calls the ensemble “the best chamber orchestra in the world”. While there is some marketing hyperbole in such a claim, there is no denying the ACO are very, very good.

We open with the Australian premiere of Britten’s Elegy for Strings. The work eschews funereal tempos and stately chords until the very end, expressing instead the flamboyant emotionality and hustling disquiet of acute grief. The ACO foreground their instruments’ dark tonal qualities, with the depth of Tognetti’s string contact bordering on scraping wood against string. The violas show tight musical synchronicity, reflected physically in an unintentional melancholic dance of swaying and dipping exactly together. 

Principal violist Stefanie Farrands delivered soaring solos on Mozart’s ‘Sinfonia’. Photo: Nic Walker

The headline work follows, an exciting strings-only arrangement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in Eb major, featuring dual violin and viola solos by Tognetti and Farrands.

Positioned in the middle of the ensemble with Farrands, Tognetti is relaxed almost to the point of lackadaisy. At one point he gazes vacantly towards the back of the hall, his violin held so lightly it could almost slide down his shoulder into a fiddle-style grip. 

But his body language shifts to mirror the work’s character; in more energetic moments posed like a sprinter preparing to spring, and in tutti sections turning his back on Farrands to commune with the other violins.

Farrands’ soaring solos match Tognetti’s beat-for-beat, gliding sumptuously over the accompanying ensemble or frothing with a primly contained vigour as required. The two soloists perform the unison at the octave passages with flawless tonal unity, as if the sound is produced by one instrument.

The ACO themselves are an unacknowledged third soloist throughout, giving the first movement its dignified maestoso, providing the Andante’s steadiness, and bringing a light energy to the closing Presto. With the artistic director and principal viola redirected into solo roles, accomplished ensemble leadership comes from Principal violin Satu Vänskä in a reminder that the ACO is rife with superstars.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra made a triumphant return to the Perth Concert Hall. Photo: Nic Walker

Mozart’s Divertimento in D major (K.136) comes after interval, its three movements matching the Sinfonia’s tempo and expressive markings and making for a well programmed pairing.

However, the shining centrepiece of the second half is Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The dissonant harmonies of its initial thematic statement are dramatically powerful, and a juicy awakening for ears lulled into diatonic hibernation by the evening’s other works.

Written in tribute to his composition teacher, Britten used the series of variations to highlight wide-ranging personal qualities he admired in his mentor Bridge. 

In performance, the capriciously varied work exhibits the ACO’s unparalleled mastery of range in character, atmosphere, poise and technique. 

ACO, we have missed your particular brand of excellence. Welcome back, friends.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra returns to Perth on 22 June for a performance of JS Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. 

Pictured top: A relaxed Artistic Director Richard Tognetti at the centre of the Australian Chamber Orchestra ensemble. Photo by Nic Walker

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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