One of the few upsides to the global pandemic has been the way artists and ensembles have embraced digital technology, initially as a way of connecting with audiences instructed to stay at home and also as a means to maintain contact with other musicians at a time when coming together in any physical sense was deemed verboten. Now that music-making – in Australia, at least – has returned to a degree of normality, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ongoing digital offering. Dubbed ACO StudioCasts, this smart series of film-cum-concerts should appeal to anyone unable to attend concerts in person, and that of course includes a vast global audience.

Richard Tognetti in Bach and the BeyondRichard Tognetti in Bach and the Beyond. Image courtesy of the Australian Chamber Orchestra

“Finding hope and acceptance in a troubled world” is the subheading of Bach and the Beyond, the orchestra’s stylish second release now playing on the ACO’s digital platform and available on-demand to ACO StudioCasts subscribers. Accordingly, the film takes the music of JS Bach as its starting point with three of Richard Tognetti’s well-received arrangements of chamber works – I caught some of them in New York a couple of years back where they went down a storm – followed by a sublime version of “Erbarme dich” from the St Matthew Passion which has been translated from an alto aria to a mediation for that most vocal of instruments, the cello.

Opening with dramatic chords slashing across the full ensemble, Tognetti strides to the podium, back towards us, before the camera begins to pan and cut around and among the assembled musicians. Shot in evocative black and white, with atmospheric use of spotlights, lamps and fluorescent tubes, the mood captures the music well. Director Matisse Ruby and her cinematography team of Tyson Perkins and Drew English has done an excellent job of judging just how busy to make the editing, when to glimpse a player, and when and where to linger.

The gear shift towards more sweeping camera gestures to accompany the joyous, string-boosted pizzicato of Prelude to the Third Partita for Solo Violin is subtly effective. When your themes are acceptance and redemption, fluidity is key and its adroitly managed here. The seamless integration of guest flautist Emmanuel Pahud, filmed during his time in lockdown in Berlin, as part of the moody six-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering is a perfect example of what can be achieved here. Later on, skilful editing enhances the lilt of Tognetti’s poignant duet with cellist Timo-Veikko Valve as they finesse the consoling strains of “Erbarme dich”.

The second half of the concert moves into less charted territory. Deep shadows and flickering fluorescents maintain the feeling of Scandi-noir for a series of four Tognetti compositions previously deployed in The Reef, the ACO’s documentary celebration of music and surfing filmed at Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef in 2012. The ambiance shifts from the woozy harmonies of Bathymetry, a work connected with the measurement of oceanic depth, to the upbeat poppy pulse of Beyond and the grungy drive of Heston, the latter inspired by the excesses of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.

Satu Vänskä and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Bach and the Beyond. Photo courtesy of the Australian Chamber OrchestraSatu Vänskä and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Bach and the Beyond. Photo courtesy of the Australian Chamber Orchestra

The processed sound here creates quite a different vibe – a little less live concert, a little more pop video – especially with the addition of haunting vocals care of violinist Satu Vänskä. The connection to the Bach of “Erbarme dich” is suggested by Beyond, a piece inspired by images of underwater swimmers who Tognetti imagined being caught in the “troubled peace” between life and death. The camerawork does as good a job as any of joining the films two halves, and if the relationship feels a little tenuous given the musical change of tone, the uplifting arrangement of Nick Drake’s transcendent River Man joins the dots nicely with its thoughts of the transmigration of souls. Vänskä is on terrific form again, joined here by Jim Moginie on guitar.

The final 15 minutes is given over to a high-octane performance of Deviance, Tognetti’s spikily playful re-imagining of Paganini’s famous Caprice No 24. Flashes of demonic lighting give it a whiff of visual brimstone and a Mephistophelean Tognetti is on fire, relishing the diabolical harmonies and deliciously sneaky musical missteps.

With Tognetti and his players embracing change, Bach and the Beyond certainly feels like a taste of things to come. If you’ve been missing your regular dose of ACO, look no further.

Bach and the Beyond is available to view as part of a full 2021 ACO StudioCasts subscription and on-demand until 31 December 2021. It can also be purchased as a standalone film to view for 7-days. Explore options here.

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