The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra invited audiences into its 2019 season with the classics on a sweltering March evening with Beethoven and Mozart, conducted by Richard Tognetti and performed to a Federation Concert Hall that was filled to the brim.
The TSO’s new CEO Caroline Sharpen gave us a warm welcome before the works began, taking to the stage for a short speech in which she reminded us all that the orchestral experience offers “pauses in time of beauty and truth in a [world] that is increasingly challenging”. The first pause of beauty came with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Sharpen’s speech appeared to function as a fanfare of its own, as the orchestra provided an animated response.
Richard Tognetti. Photograph © Mick Bruzzese
It was a fitting season opener; but some trivial distractions emerged from the stage: a few early violin entries; a musician’s wristwatch that reflected light towards my eyes every few phrases; the occasional grunt of excitement emerging most likely from the conductor, in line with some particularly forcible cues. (I actually quite enjoyed that last distraction.) Nevertheless, the performance was undeniably enjoyable – and it cannot be disputed that it captured the dramatic essence Beethoven had set out to convey.
After Beethoven, we heard Mozart. Tognetti presented the Violin Concerto No. 5, Turkish. I’ve seen Tognetti play in Tasmania a number of times in the past to powerful impression. That’s why the beginning of his performance left me unsettled: the soloist stood centre-stage, but faced to the side – revealing only his profile throughout most of the work. With bent knees and rigid posture, he may have positioned himself side-on out of necessity, in order to part-conduct the players. But he didn’t appear to hold eye contact with these musicians, either. This created a sense of disconnect, through which Tognetti didn’t feel entirely at one with the group or the audience. And this conflicted with the quality of his musical performance: he yielded extreme control over a vibrant dynamic range, with pristine timbre on his long notes, where vibrato was used sparingly and tastefully.
Still, the orchestra certainly responded to him; some players’ heads swayed and bopped according to his spirit. After it was over, he shook the hands of some of the players – a kind gesture that led into the interval.
Beyond the interval, it was a different story (and not just because of the complimentary champagne). In Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, Tognetti semi-conducted the orchestra with the bow of his violin, and together they portrayed the Australian composer’s beautiful breath of peace. A strong sense of narrative from Tognetti was juxtaposed with sensitive musicality from the orchestra, and in just under 10 minutes they appeared justifiably happy with their successful performance.
It may seem unusual for music composed within the past century to be sandwiched between the classics of Beethoven and Mozart. But it was a clever programmatic choice, highlighted by Martin Buzacott’s notes that described the following work – Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in C, Op. 21 – as a piece that “must have sounded strange to its first listeners”. Indeed, every work of art was once new. We must learn how to listen.
Tognetti’s approach to the symphony was fresh, too. There was no podium, no baton, and no physical score for this conductor. Instead, he read the evening’s music on a tablet device perched on a music stand. As he conducted, he took great command of the stage – arms wide, full body in motion, unleashing quite a hidden beast. I’d scarcely seen a more vivacious Beethoven, and it didn’t succumb to the risk of presenting as a heavy or plodding symphonic work. Tognetti’s presence – on stage and within the music – was robust. Once the evening came to a close, I realised that I’d been expecting a high-quality performance of the Beethoven. But instead, I’d experienced a riveting one.