A boutique crowd of half capacity greeted the Australian Chamber Orchestra and American soprano Dawn Upshaw this past Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall. Those fortunate enough to attend were rewarded with a series of impeccable performances with repertoire spanning two centuries.
The members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra are a young, vibrant group brimming with seemingly boundless energy and truly remarkable precision. On many occasions during the concert I was stunned by the absolute unison between the members of each section. Exhibiting a trend so prevalent in chamber orchestras today, the group performs standing with only the cellos seated, and eschews a traditional conductor in favor of a Lead Violinist—Richard Tognetti, who is also the group’s Artistic Director. As a result, each player is deeply invested in the process of listening and responding to each other, leaning and swaying in sonic conversation. Drawn in by the lively activity on stage, the appreciative audience offered euphoric applause and standing ovations in response.
Opening with Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings, op. 5 and excerpts from George Crumb’s Black Angels (his musical commentary on the Vietnam War and “our troubled contemporary world) was an arresting method of kicking off the concert. The decision to alternate movements from each, stacking them like two different flavors of cake in every-other layers (rather than perform one in totality followed by the other) struck me as a bit arbitrary. In the accompanying program annotation the decision was explained as a way to bring out the specific qualities of each work by forcing them up against each other in immediate comparison. I can appreciate and understand the intent, but phenomenally, in the moment, I felt it was almost more distracting than helpful. A standout during the Crumb was principle cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. His tone was so stunningly beautiful that a single note emitting from his instrument communicated more than others can express in a lifetime.
Dawn Upshaw joined the group (along with guest musicians Scott Robinson, Frank Kimbrough, and Jay Anderson on clarinet, piano, and bass, respectively) to perform Winter Morning Walks, a song series set to selected poems of Ted Kooser, former United States Poet Laureate, by Minnesota composer Maria Schneider. Structured to be “a creative collaboration,” elements of improvisation defined the flow of the piece. Some of the sections were truly moving and achingly beautiful. It was disappointing that, with so much apparent potential brimming under the surface, so many of the movements sounded so identical to each other. I don’t believe that to be due to the improvisations between the soloists. Rather, the overall textures and gestures in the string writing almost never changed, so halfway through the piece I felt dangerously close to being awash in smooth jazz schemes. That said, monotony aside, it was a beautiful collection.
The second half after intermission was standard concert fare performed gorgeously. Upshaw remained with the ensemble to perform songs (in arrangements for string accompaniment) by Robert Schumann (Mondnacht) and Franz Schubert (Geheimes and Der Tod und das Mädchen). Whilst Upshaw is one of the most versatile vocal artists performing today, her pure tone is beautifully matched to the genre of art song. To hear her sparkle in these settings was a gift.
Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, op. 27 arranged for string orchestra by Lead Violinist Richard Tognetti was a smashing conclusion to a terrific day of music making. Usually pigeonholed as the composer of Peer Gynt or the Piano Concerto in A minor, it was a treat to know the audience could discover Grieg was also the composer of this tremendous quartet, full of passion and drama, yet bound together by sophisticated simplicity. Here, as in the opening Webern/Crumb performances, the outstanding musicianship of this group was breathtaking. What a pleasurable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.