“Let’s get Bach over and done with,” quipped Satu Vänskä from the stage of The Factory Theatre in Marrickville, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Violin serving as frontwoman for the genre-defying ACO Underground.
She led a starry line-up of ACO regulars and special guests: ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti on violin, Elizabeth Woolnough on viola, Julian Thompson on cello, Maxime Bibeau on double bass, along with Joseph Nizeti on synthesizer and electronics, Evan Mannell on kit, Brian Ritchie (of Violent Femmes renown) on acoustic bass guitar, and Slava Grigoryan on guitar.
This is not the first ACO Underground gig, with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood notoriously joining the ensemble in 2012 at The Standard in Darlinghurst, for a concert spanning Vivaldi to Nirvana. In the spirit of that first event, Vänskä and her musicians this time mingled Bach, Stravinsky, Phil Spector and Nine Inch Nails – along with plenty of Richard Tognetti originals.
It was Grigoryan who kicked off the Bach, his intimate solo and a handful of upbeat Goldberg variations from the band bookending a rendition of Nick Drake’s River Man in Vänskä’s clear, affecting vocals. While this fusion was perhaps one of the most effective of the evening, there were plenty of great moments – from the rhythmic drive of the opening Stravinsky and Bryce Dessner (a change of gear after the opening act, DJ duo Stereogamus) to the quiet encore of Nick Drake’s They’re Leaving Me Behind.
The slide from eerie Schnittke into Nine Inch Nails’ Something I Can Never Have worked well – Vänskä commenting on the affinity between Soviet music and 90s grunge – while Anthony Pateras’ An Island Off An Island Off An Island for two violins saw Vänskä and Tognetti inject the concert with a healthy dose of avant-garde dissonance.
Vänskä entertained with wry stage-banter, and her vocals ranged from sweet to something more guttural in the Nine Inch Nails, bringing plenty of humour to numbers like Phil Spector’s Spanish Harlem and Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song.
The first ACO Underground concert focussed on the exchange between classical or art music and contemporary or popular music (the inadequacy of such labels to effectively define the music involved being part of the point) but this iteration was also a vehicle for Tognetti’s own compositions. They wove throughout the show, from the atmospheric Hypnosis (from The Reef) and Flying (from Mountain) to a screaming critique of celebrity chefism called Heston and, ringing with the brutal distortion of Grigoryan’s electric guitar, Metho Drinker, a nod to Nirvana’s Something in the Way. Metho Drinker was followed by a “balm for the wounds”, as Vänskä put it, in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel: V, Woolnough’s viola sound rich and, indeed, soothing. Tognetti’s virtuosic Madness Bites – with its lyrics evoking deals with the devil – led appropriately into an arrangement of Paganini’s Fifth Caprice.
This was a fun, high-energy gig, and while part of the appeal of this kind of concert is as ‘bonus content’ – a chance to see favourite musicians letting their hair down in a less formal setting – it nonetheless made for a musically satisfying evening. And age was no barrier for the die-hard fans squeezing into the mosh-pit – imbued with the smell of sweat, beer and vodka Redbulls – with youngsters and long-time subscribers alike pushing right to the front of the stage.
The ACO Underground is at Melbourne’s MEMO Music Hall on March 11 and Launceston’s Earl Arts Centre on March 12. Both shows are now sold out.