Neverland. It’s that imaginary island where you never grow up, perhaps where you can play car racing video games, or where you might reconcile with an estranged friend and take walks in the local woods. The Australian Chamber Orchestra gave life to these imaginations in a brilliant and wide-ranging concert in front of a full house at Llewellyn Hall.
Richard Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Julian Kingma
With the hall in darkness, guest principal trumpet, Visa Haarala, from Finland’s Kymi Sinfonietta, stood in the balcony, his bright and happy trumpet true to every note of Australian composer, Andrew Ford’s Fanfare for Neverland Solo Trumpet, written in 2016 and being given its world premiere now. At times the short piece was reminiscent of the famous Last Post in its melancholy, but mostly it did as fanfares do, making an announcement, calling on double/triple tonguing and rapid note sequences, exploring the trumpet’s full range. Haarala produced extraordinary clarity in his playing, delivering a crisp sound that filled the expansive room effortlessly.
As Haarala neared the end of the piece, eight violin players on the stage stood, the lights creating a soft wash around their semi-circle. Fanfare gave way seamlessly to American composer, Andrew Norman’s 2004 piece, Gran Turismo, named after a car racing video game. Norman says of his piece, “the disparate facets of my life fall into an unexpected resonance with one another”, ultimately heading “along only one emphatic trajectory: HIGHER! LOUDER! FASTER!”
Gran Turismo requires truly exceptional virtuosic playing from the ensemble. Those disparate facets would come and go, seemingly randomly, around the players. Several motifs would play at once, all with different rhythms and volume, but all in strict time. Even direction of the group, done with subtle gestures, would pass back and forth. It was as though one motif would try to push itself through to prominence, only to be interrupted, held back, and overtaken by all the others, with no motif ever making it to the front of the pack. That “emphatic trajectory” brings the “unexpected resonance” together superbly and these eight players, obviously in a deep state of concentration, were equal to the task, in very fine measure.
Then the ACO, now enlarged to the size of a full symphony orchestra, took its audience back a century-and-a-bit to Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102, Double Concerto, from 1897. The cellist, Robert Hausmann, had commissioned the work, but it also reignited the friendship between Brahms and violinist, Joseph Joachim. Clara Schumann observed that it is “in a sense, a gesture of reconciliation – Joachim and Brahms have spoken to each other again for the first time in years.”
Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Julian Kingma
Out the front as soloists were the ACO’s artistic director, Richard Tognetti and the ACO’s principal cello, Timo-Veikko Valve. While Tognetti also took the primary conducting role, it was the ACO’s principal violin, Helena Rathbone, who filled in when Tognetti was busy. This is wonderful teamwork between these two, with one picking up from the other in perfect time, the orchestra never wavering.
The only thing that marred this performance was that, through quite a lot of the concerto, it was difficult to hear the soloists. The cello came through more strongly, but occasionally still got swallowed up in the orchestral sound, and there were times when the audience missed out on hearing some of Tognetti’s most delicate playing.
Concluding this concert was a stunning performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No 8 in G major, Op. 88. This time, Tognetti left his 1743 Guaneri in its case, in favour of a baton to conduct the ACO, still in full symphony orchestra configuration.
Dvořák’s work has been likened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Indeed, there are some similarities between the two with bird calls and village dancing and even a storm (well, it’s not as good as Beethoven’s, but it’s there), so, in some senses, it’s quite programmatic in structure. Indeed, the mind’s eye is in 20:20 focus as the work takes us on a walk through the woods around Dvořák’s home town.
Tognetti’s conducting style is interesting; it seems less focussed on section entries and exits as it is on energy, tempi and expression, his hands and arms themselves being very expressive. That is not to say there were any sloppy entries or bedraggled exits – there were none. What was evident was that Tognetti’s energy was reflected in his players, helped along by the fact they were standing.
Dvořák’s piece, from beginning to end was exciting as it was charming. The beginning of the second movement, Adagio, was beauty personified in its expression and the breadth and depth of the sound from the strings.
The third movement, a beautifully paced waltz, suggested a village fair perhaps with young people in traditional costume dancing on the manicured lawn in the village green. And the fourth movement was lively and spirited, especially at the end, which Tognetti took at a cracking pace, bringing the work to a thrilling climax. The orchestra responded magnificently to all of Tognetti’s gestures.
Several curtain calls for Tognetti and his band followed, during which he went around shaking hands and congratulating each player for their brilliant performance. It was nice, too, to see orchestra and conductor bow as one in grateful response to their audience’s enthusiastic applause.
The ACO plays Brahms & Dvořák on tour until November 22