Chatting to John Painter, cellist, former director of the then Canberra School of Music, and founder, in 1975, of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I asked, “I guess you must be pretty happy with the way the ACO has turned out?” Without hesitation he was emphatic in his reply, “Yes I am!”

Branford Marsalis with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Julian Kingma

And well might he be, for no more proof was needed than in this concert; their playing was flawless. The striking things about this performance were the ACO’s absolute precision in terms of playing together and in expression. Not one single player was ahead or behind the rest and not one single player was softer or louder than the rest. The result was a performance of meticulous cohesion in every detail.

On this occasion the orchestra had a special guest artist, the great jazz and classical saxophonist, Branford Marsalis. He collaborated with principal violin, Satu Vänskä, who brilliantly directed the orchestra from her instrument with outstanding energy and flair.

Marsalis, whose trumpeter brother, Wynton, is equally lauded in both the jazz and classical genres, began the concert, playing solo soprano saxophone, with the third of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet. It’s a very short piece, marked “f from beginning to end”. Its up-tempo tango and ragtime rhythms were perfect as a prelude to much of the rest of the program.  In just one minute Marsalis’ silky-smooth playing, his effortless expression, and exquisite phrasing had taken the audience captive.

Marsalis stayed on stage for Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra, arranged for soprano sax and strings. Steven Mauk, in an essay intended to aid in performance preparation, remarked that the Fantasia, written in 1948, “stands as the cornerstone of the rather limited repertoire for soprano [saxophone].” In this three-movement work – almost in concerto form – the Latin rhythms came to the fore.

Satu Vänskä. Photo © Julian Kingma

Jazz and tango styles in the first movement complement the unhurried nocturne textures in the second (beautifully introduced by guest principal viola, Carol Cook) only to step into the dancing shoes again in the last, marked très animé. Marsalis’ smooth playing style, mixed with virtuosic chromatics, trills and sentimentality, sat comfortably with the orchestra’s voluptuous tones, drawing applause from the audience between movements.

Argentine Astor Piazzolla was the composer who re-invented his country’s national dance, the tango. And in no small measure is the tango an integral part of his four-movement suite, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas), notwithstanding quotes from Vivaldi’s namesake composition, and the occasional rich, warm Mancini-style string ensemble sounds. But, throughout, there is the suggestion of a bandoneon, Piazzolla’s instrument. Such was the orchestra’s playing, I could hear it clearly, and was looking for it, along with a long-stemmed red rose to put between my teeth!

The tango rhythms, in a range of tempi, relentlessly drive this work through its entire length. The ACO was nothing short of brilliant in an exciting performance of abundant energy, expression and fabulous cadences from Vänskä, punctuated by some modern bowing techniques producing an explosion of harmonics. The orchestra was so at one with the music that every member was dancing to the rhythms.

It was back to Villa-Lobos for the opening of the second half with his Bachianas Brasileiras No 5.  The first movement, Aria, is mournful, while the second, Dansa, certainly lives up to his subtitle, Martelo (hammer). The ACO’s energy gave life to its characteristic Brazilian rhythms.

Branford Marsalis and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Julian Kingma

The energy continued in the first movement from Golijov’s Last Round, marked Urgente – Macho, Cool and Dangerous, and dips its lid to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango. And that is pretty much how the ACO played it. At it progressed through its five minutes, the intensity and freneticism grew to a climax, concluding in a big drawn and then held breath and, finally, a relieved sigh.

A contrast came when Marsalis returned to the stage for the Australian premiere of British composer Sally Beamish’s Saxophone Concerto No 2, Under the Wing of the Rock. It was reminiscent of a coastal winter sunrise, slowly resolving into the day’s busyness, but the program notes say it’s a lament for the 17th century Glencoe massacre in her later love, Scotland, albeit also evoking the Scottish countryside. Beamish wrote it for her own instrument, the viola, but then arranged it specially for Branford’s alto saxophone.

With brilliant accompaniment support from the orchestra, Marsalis’ alto, in his trademark unblemished smoothness, began soft and slow in the low registers, slowly building to reveal the work’s free, but written, improvisations, drawing on Celtic, classical and jazz stylings.

For this amazing concert’s final two offerings, it was a return to Argentina and Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings, Op 33, and one of Piazzolla’s signature pieces, Libertango. The first featured wonderful solos across the orchestra, with special mention going to double bassist Maxime Bibeau, who ventured into the rarely explored territory of the instrument’s extreme upper registers. And of course, Libertango had the audience demanding more, which was not forthcoming, and understandably so, thus drawing this incredible concert to a thrilling close.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Branford Marsalis tours to Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne until May 22