Dawn Upshaw tours with the ACO after their triple grammy whammy.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall

February 9, 2014

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, led by Principal Violinist Helena Rathbone, with guest artist soprano Dawn Upshaw, devised a well-structured, interesting program.

It opened with five pieces from John's Book of Alleged Dances, a 1994 work by John Adams, originally written for the Kronos String Quartet but, of course, expanded here for the ACO strings. Three of the Dances also have a taped component of percussive rhythms played on a prepared piano. While something of Adams' early minimalist influence is evident, this music is varied, Stravinskian, and exuberant. The ACO managed the syncopated rhythmic accents with real authority, and the music pulsed with energy. Principle cellist Timo Veikko-Valve was particularly impressive in his playing at the instrument's topmost register. Grieg's delightful Holberg Suite closed the first half of the concert, again dispatched with vigour and virtuosity. In between, Ms Upshaw displayed the clarity and purity of tone for which she is famous in Solveig's Song from Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt, and in a tender song by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, "Liebes-lied" (Love Song).

Two substantial works made up the second half of the concert. The first was a song cycle, especially commissioned for Upshaw and the ACO: Maria Schneider's Winter Morning Walks. These same artists recorded it in New York in 2012––a recording which won a Grammy––but this was our chance to hear the work live. The poems are by Ted Kooser (America's Poet Laureate from 2004-2006), and are comprised of his thoughts and impressions on early morning walks, as he was battling cancer. Schneider is a bandleader as well as a composer and incorporates three jazz musicians in the score: piano (Frank Kimbrough), Bass (Jay Anderson) and clarinets (Scott Robinson). These instruments are fully integrated into the string textures, rather than forming a contrasting sub-group of their own. The orchestral writing is almost physically evocative, mapping the emotional terrain of the poetry, while the vocal line is specifically tailored to Upshaw's remarkable ability to maintain a legato through all the registers of her voice. As ever, her secure singing technique served merely a starting point for a thorough and detailed interpretation of the text. Kimborough's subtle contributions on the piano––some of them improvised––proved another high point.

Finally came one of Elgar's masterpieces, and one of the greatest pieces of writing for strings, the Introduction and Allegro. What a magnificent piece! It veers unexpectedly from grandeur to lyricism to a bustling fugato and back again. Under Rathbone's taut direction the orchestra hit every mood instantly, producing a bracingly big sound when necessary.

In sum, this terrific concert was much more than a star vehicle. Everybody shone.