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Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Milton Court review - from Beethoven to didgeridoo | reviews, news & interviews

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Milton Court review - from Beethoven to didgeridoo

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Milton Court review - from Beethoven to didgeridoo

Combining indigenous Australian music with reimagined European classics

William Barton and the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton CourtNic Walker/Milton Court

I’ve not heard a didgeridoo in concert before so was grateful to the Australian Chamber Orchestra for giving me the opportunity, as part of a busy programme at Milton Court last night.

Didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton was put alongside Beethoven, Janáček and others as the touring string orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti, settled into a three-day Barbican residency.

The ACO has a reputation for innovative programming and last night’s was a good example. The eclectic range of music on offer had several strands – perhaps too many for complete coherence? – but the playing was excellent and the evening raced by. Given the programme clearly reflected the individual passions of the artistic director, I would have welcomed Tognetti speaking about the pieces he chose – I am increasingly of the view that performers speaking to their audience is a Good Thing and should happen more.

Barton and his didgeridoo came first, in two of his own compositions, Didge Fusion and Hypersonic. The first saw him playing the guitar and singing, gradually joined by the ensemble, before switching to didgeridoo for the second section of the piece. He moved to a bigger instrument for the second piece, which grabbed me rather more, Barton and his instrument acting as a kind of giant beatbox, adding both percussion and resonance to the active string music. It felt a shame that a mere ten minutes into the concert we had had all we were going to get of him.Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber OrchestraThere was plenty else to come. Tom Adès’s Shanty – Over the Sea was, like the other recent Adès I have heard, cut from simpler cloth than the bells and whistles of his early music. It eschewed his customary metrical fun-and-games, having a pulse virtually throughout, on bass and cello (perhaps a nod to the ACO not having a conductor). It followed an Adés archetype by starting out in the most straightforward terms, before expanding to a teeming climax that reminded me of Tippett. I enjoyed it – but wasn’t quite sure how it fitted into the programme.

The theme elsewhere was music reimagined for string ensemble. Perhaps the highlight of the whole concert was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante, an arrangement of a movement from her string quartet of 1930. Its pulsing, swelling chords, opening out from clusters to a broader harmony through the music’s five minute span sounded essentially modern despite being nearly a century old. Astringent, but deliciously so. Alongside that George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, similarly expanded from a quartet, with its obvious nods to the Barber Adagio, lacked that piece’s depth. Tognetti wisely kept it moving, no wallowing allowed.

The two centrepieces were also adaptions. Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata quartet, in string orchestra garb, was overflowing with drama, but the arrangement, although making the big moments bigger, lost the individuated angst of the quartet original. I loved Tognetti’s beseeching solo in the fourth movement, questioning phrases to which the ensemble never quite give an answer.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no.9, traditionally known as the Kreutzer, was here renamed by Tognetti as the Bridgetower, in honour of its originally intended dedicatee, the black British violinist George Bridgetower. He gave the first performance and only had his name removed from the title page after falling out with Beethoven over a woman. Tognetti’s arrangement played up the violin concerto aspect of the music, and the reimagining of the piano part for strings was stylishly done. It also made it sound less Beethoveny – maybe because Beethoven just didn’t write for string orchestra. Tognetti was by turns heroic and pensive, charmingly mercurial, leading the way as the very fast, ferocious finale raced to an irresistible ending.


Barton and his instrument acted as a kind of giant beatbox, adding both percussion and resonance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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