Black Lives Matter. Democracy. COVID. If nothing else, 2020 gave us much to think about. The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO)’s latest program, Beethoven & Bridgetower, is a thoughtful and provocative outcome, which seeks to break the silence on the overwhelming whiteness of classical music.

Richard Tognetti

Beethoven & Bridgetower is an evening built around Beethoven’s so-called ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and its artistic offspring, including Leo Tolstoy’s creepy novella of the same name and Janáček’s ‘Kreutzer’ Quartet. Pianist and writer Anna Goldsworthy has worked with poet Rita Dove, author of Sonata Mulattica, to create a script. Richard Tognetti, Artistic Director of the ACO, has arranged Janáček’s quartet and Beethoven’s piano and violin sonata for string orchestra. And Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack has fashioned the material into a compelling stage piece.

There is so much to unpack in this elegant assemblage of words and music. As Goldsworthy says, it is an archeological dig of a program, making connections, following threads, interlacing stories. The result makes a cogent argument for re-writing history. It is also startlingly beautiful.

The three movements of Janáček’s String Quartet No 1 provide the framework for three short stories in the first half. First we meet black virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, for whom Beethoven wrote his Piano and Violin Sonata in A major. Second, we meet the husband in Tolstoy’s novella, Pozdnyshev, who murders his wife in an ugly fit of jealousy. And third, we are introduced to Katya Stösslová, the young woman to whom Janáček wrote hundreds of love letters.

Many voices tell the stories: narrator Angela Nica Sullen, members of the orchestra taking solo lines in the music, members of the orchestra taking spoken roles, and surtitles projected above the stage. The words and music dovetail together with an uncanny aptness, conjuring up pictures a feverish Janáček scribbling down his outpourings of emotion, and an innocent but sublime moment of connection between two musicians. Tognetti’s arrangement is spot on: he choreographs intimate solos alongside great gushy climaxes. Meanwhile, the performers, whether speaking through their instruments or using words, find a mesmerising eloquence.

The second half matches Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica with Tognetti’s Beethoven to make an impassioned case for the Kreutzer to become the Bridgetower Sonata. In arranging it for string orchestra Tognetti makes a duo – Beethoven writes equally challenging parts for piano and violin – into a duel between violin soloist and ensemble. Translating the intricate and very pianistic passages into an orchestral accompaniment results in many, many notes to be distributed across the ensemble, which the ACO, of course, eats up with enthusiasm. He also shares the cadenzas, giving principal violins, viola, cello and bass a moment in the spotlight. In the end, however, this is a violin concerto, and Tognetti is the soloist, taking on the role of, in Beethoven’s words, ‘gran pazzo e compositore mulattico’ (that crazy black composer). It is a magnificent performance.

It is a nice coincidence that on the same day that the ACO presents its Beethoven & Bridgetower, Sydney Lyric Theatre plays host to the opening night of Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s spectacular musical has, according to The New York Times, “transformed theatre and the way we think about history”. Beethoven & Bridgetower might not transform classical music on such a scale but, for this bunch of predominantly white musicians trained in the Western classical tradition, it does represent a statement of intent, a step on the road to cultural revolution. Music belongs to us all.

Beethoven & Bridgetower will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 2 May at 1pm. Music from the program will feature in an ACO StudioCast, available from 3 November – 31 December  


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