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The Australian Chamber Orchestra has launched its 2018 season. Highlights include an arrangement of Brahms’ Sextet No 2 in G for string orchestra, which won the ACO a rave review in The Guardian when they played it in London earlier this year; a bold orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by French Canadian Bernard Labadie; the world premiere of four commissioned pieces of music by Missy Mazzoli, Samuel Adams, Elena Kats-Chernin and Cyrus Meurant; a concert tour with Australian soprano Nicole Car; the return of Steven Isserlis to play Shostakovich and a closing concert featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and his Violin Concerto in D.
Between November 2016 and March 2017, Richard Tognetti spent time in London as the Barbican Centre’s first Artist-in-Residence at Milton Court Concert Hall where he played in recital and with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. At the culmination of the residency, the ACO gave a concert which included a version of Brahms’ Second Sextet for string orchestra for which they were joined by young players from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
Richard Tognetti. Photograph © Anthony Browell
In a five-star review of the concert, The Guardian described the ACO as “one of the wonders of the musical world today” and said that the Brahms arrangement “almost seemed like a string symphony at times, every part radiantly expansive and lovingly shaped. The sheer joy of performing that the ACO projects so vividly had clearly been transmitted to the students privileged to be working with them.”
“When we do our transcriptions of string quartets, sometimes they are more arranged than others. Sometimes we really are just playing the quartet parts and putting in the bass. Others include a judicious rearrangement, but this is on steroids,” says Tognetti of the Sextet, adding that the arrangement is so rich, melodic and emotionally powerful “you could be listening to Brahms’ Fifth Symphony.”
The ACO’s 2018 season will open in February with a concert featuring that same arrangement performed with the young guns from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). Discussing the involvement of ANAM students, some of whom recently performed with Simone Young and the Australian World Orchestra in the Turangalîla-Symphonie, Tognetti cites the attempt of the Labor government to close the institution in 2008 when the then arts minister Peter Garrett announced that it would not receive funding in 2009. However, support from Victorian politicains and the Greens ensured its survival.
“I had the firm belief that this was an extraordinary educational institution and because they had to go through that tough, stressful time, they have come out of it emboldened and strengthened and I don’t think anyone in government, none of the funding bodies, would dare to close it,” says Tognetti. “They finish the education of so many fantastic students. They go into all the symphony orchestras and we have an extraordinary relationship with them so I thought, [there’s] no better way than to celebrate their achievement than include them in a mainstage programme and give them that opportunity.”
The opening concert also includes Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and new music by American composers Missy Mazzoli and Anna Clyne – “so two white male stalwarts bookending two women,” says Tognetti.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra. PHotograph supplied
The work by Mazzoli is a world premiere. Mazzoli is a Manhattan-based composer and pianist whose music has been performed by the Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird among others. Together with the Aurora Orchestra, the ACO commssioned a Concerto for Double Bass and Strings from her to celebrate Principal Double Bass Maxime Bibeau’s 20 years with the ACO.
Clyne’s Grammy Award-nominated double violin concerto with string orchestra Prince of Clouds, described by The New York Times as “ravishing”, will be an Australian premiere. In 2011, the ACO played Clyne’s Within Her Arms as part of a programme curated by Alex Ross, The New Yorker music critic and author of The Rest is Noise and Listen to This. Other world premieres during the season include a work by Samuel Adams, son of composer John Adams; a work by Elena Kats-Chernin commissioned by Mirke Generowicz to tell the dramatic story of his family’s journey to Australia; and a new work for the ACO Collective by the ACO’s assistant librarian Cyrus Meurant.
In August, the ACO will present another major Australian premiere – a bold orchestral arrangement for string ensemble of Bach’s masterly Goldberg Variations. Written in 1997 by French Canadian composer Bernard Labadie, the arrangement retains the character of Bach’s original, which was composed for harpsichord, but goes further than a pure transcription, and has been described as resembling “a gigantic concerto grosso unlike anything actually produced by a Baroque composer.”
The concert will also feature Tognetti’s arrangement, Canons on a Goldberg Ground, along with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and Thomas Adès Nightfalls from The Four Quarters arranged for strings. The ACO is planning a wider celebration of the Goldberg Variations, full details of which will be announced early next year, but the mini festival will include Erin Helyard playing the original solo keyboard version of the work among other events.
“A few years ago, I unpacked the Goldberg Canons. It's an extraordinary work. There were 14 cannon which are kind of like mini fugues on the bass – because the whole of the Goldberg is actually based on the bass and not on the melody. They are typically Bachian works of theoretical genius, but it is left up to the musician or arranger to turn them into something that’s really listenable,” says Tognetti. “Bach is like no other composer otherwise we wouldn’t have The Swingle Sisters or Jacques Loussier [whose piano trio was known for its jazz interpretations of classical music including Bach].”
Describing Labadie’s arrangement as “terrific” and something familiar yet distinctly its own, Tognetti says: “Bach lends himself to arrangements and transfiguration. He deserves exploration like this. The biggest con job of the early music movement, [is that it] has tried and to an extent succeeded [in saying] ‘this is what the composer intended.’ Prove it, is my response.”
Guest artists in the 2018 season include Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova who will play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Steven Isserlis who plays Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, and Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts who makes his ACO debut in September playing Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 1 in D with the ACO as guest director.
In April, Australian soprano Nicole Car joins the ACO to sing concert arias by Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello and Hildegard von Bingen’s Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite. The concert also includes Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F featuring Satu Vänskä.
The 2018 season finishes with an all-Beethoven programme featuring Tognetti performing the mighty Violin Concerto (part of which he is currently playing in Mountain) and the Fifth Symphony performed by an expanded ACO.