Concert with ACO in Orange County

2005-08-12 / Los Angeles Times / Mark Swed

From Australian chamber comes a mighty sound

The chamber orchestra might be seen as a civilizing restraint on the deafening march of the decibels that’s been going on in music for at least a millennium. Instruments get ever louder. And, in the Electronic Age, amplifiers have an unquenchable thirst for more and more power. Only economics, it seems, keeps the orchestra’s size in check.

Chamber orchestras, on the other hand, can serve as reminders to be polite, reminders that Mozart wrote for a couple dozen players and Bach for fewer than that. But not the Australian Chamber Orchestra — and especially not the Australian Chamber Orchestra as heard in the intimate, acoustically vivid Founders Hall of the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night.

These antipodeans, led by the feisty violinist Richard Tognetti, are not musically polite, or at least not modest. They are modern. They are loud. They don’t scale back, but just the opposite. They take smaller works and make them bigger, louder, more aggressive, much more in your face.

That’s what they did to Ravel’s sweet string quartet Wednesday. It’s what they also did to Bach, Brahms and even a contemporary Australian composer, Carl Vine. Nothing heard was as the composers had quite intended. Everything was tempered toward the intemperate through Tognetti’s daring expressivity.

This came through most markedly in his Ravel arrangement. There is a languid pleasantness to this much-loved string quartet. For all its sensual lyricism, its warm glow, it keeps its head. It might evoke visions of a languid summer’s day in the south of France, a nice chilled white wine, perhaps even a lingering but not too intense kiss.

But when these 17 Australian string players got their hands and bows on it, the score sounded as though it had all along been waiting for the barbarians. The wine turned red and intoxicating. The kiss got steamy. The heat was turned on high.

The delicately melodic opening bars were played by four solo players, but as soon as Ravel added some tremolo and fast fiddling in the inner voices, Tognetti brought in his troops, and suddenly sensitive French Impressionism started to sound a lot like German Expressionism. It was as if Ravel had exploded.

The command of high energy is at the heart of Tognetti’s transfixing ensemble, but he also knows how to use such power wisely as an invigorating life force. The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt joined the ensemble for two keyboard concertos by Bach. She has become a very popular Bach player who makes the notes seem to take flight. Her manner is Romantic, and her flighty, swooning mannerisms wouldn’t have been out of place in a Bloomsbury salon.

In both the D-major and G-minor concertos, she made everything bounce with enthusiastic delight. Bach skips up a D-major triad at the beginning of the first concerto, and she leapfrogs up the keyboard like a child at play. She just as readily loses herself (while holding a listener spellbound) in the exquisite long melody of the slow movement of the G-minor.

Tognetti, of course, wanted his strings to do everything Hewitt could on the modern piano, so this became up-to-the-minute Bach, exuberant, competitive and highly addictive. So addictive that two concertos were not enough. Happily, Hewitt and Tognetti have just recorded all the Bach keyboard concertos on two Hyperion CDs.

Tognetti had Vine make his own arrangement of the last movement of the composer’s Smith’s Alchemy,” which was originally a string quartet. This is high-energy music pure and simple, Bartók as filtered through a mild Minimalist sensibility. The impressiveness was in the performance, which was all slash and burn.

In complete contrast, Tognetti opened with an arrangement of one of Brahms’ chorale preludes for organ and closed it with an encore of another. This is music from Brahms’ deathbed, somber and oppressively so on organ. The strings, however, lingered glowingly on the life still left in the composer.

You’ve got to love Tognetti for this, for his drive to make everything his players’ bows touch come astoundingly alive, however loudly and messily. What could be more civilizing than that?”