★★★★½ ACO’s latest Finnish recruit gets off to a stimulating start.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
February 16, 2016

“Hello. My name is Pekk… a,” said the curious musician in black who popped out to introduce the evening’s concert before going on to acknowledge the competing lure of a TV line up that apparently included a worm eating competition. “Thank you for choosing us,” he added, with a delicious poker-faced sincerity, before inviting us to hum along with the drone notes already playing as part of the programme’s opening item (courtesy of American composer Nico Muhly).

It looks like the Australian Chamber Orchestra has landed on its feet with Pekka Kuusisto. An exciting and sought after international soloist in his own right, the 39-year-old Finnish violinist has committed to direct the ACO Collective, the 17-piece ensemble that helms the ACO’s national touring offering. To judge from last night’s fascinating and inspiring concert, programming is very much Kuustisto’s bag.

The first half was very much a now thing: three 21st-century composers with a bit of a rock and roll background in common, wrapped around a moving central nugget by Michael Tippett. Keen to take us on an aural journey, Kuusisto made the seven pieces bleed seamlessly one into the other, and what an interesting 40-minute composite work came out of it! The whole was satisfyingly greater than the sum of its parts.

Of the moderns, prog-rock star turned classical composer Erkki-Sven Tüür was perhaps the most engaging. His Action – Passion – Illusion, written for the mighty Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in his Estonian homeland is a brilliant work for strings. Beginning with stamping march rhythms in clean, crisp harmonies (Action), continuing with an ecstatic interweaving of string lines rising out of cellos and basses (Passion), and culminating in an infectious energetic Nyman-like whirl (Illusion), it’s an accessible yet complex work that merits attention. Kuusisto imaginatively reordered the movements to help his programme in a move both bold and beautiful.

Bryce Dessner (guitarist with The National) is getting a lot of attention lately and rightly so – he’s an original talent and his string writing (as presented by Kronos Quartet) is masterly. Tenebre is a fine work, full of nocturnal atmospherics building to a pulsing central section and syncopated finale with some glorious glissandi. ACO Collective, supported by some stalwarts from the regular band (Helena Rathbone, Aiko Goto, Liisa Pallandi, Christopher Moore and Timo-Veikko Valve), made a rich meaty sound in the percussive sections yet were able to pull back to a slender thread, all beautifully in tune.

If the first half was about programme, the second was all about performance. Sibelius’ Rakastava (The Lover) is a compelling experimental work (so experimental that it seems contemporary publishers were reluctant to touch it). It’s both a futuristic piece and typically Sibelian with a memorable, dreamy middle movement full of magical pizzicati. The composer’s fellow countryman was in his element, leading an intense reading.

The rest of the programme was taken up by Beethoven’s String Quartet No 11 in an imaginative arrangement by Richard Tognetti. The last of the composer’s middle-period quartets, it was very much an opener to the ACO’s central exploration of the late quartets, which runs across the whole of 2016. From the gruff, maverick opening it was clear that this was also going to be something a little bit other. The full string sound had a warmth not usually encountered in this work, adding a romantic lustre to proceedings while Tognetti’s savvy mix of solo lines and full sections ensured that what we got was far more than just Beethoven with extra heft. The experimental nature of pretty much everything the composer was up to in the 1810s came through loud and clear, especially in the unpredictable themes of the Allegretto ma non troppo second movement and the delicacy of the third movement trios sandwiched as they are between outbursts of a ferocious Viennese waltz.

A great evening of great playing, then, that took and held the attention throughout. If Kuustisto’s future programmes are as interesting as this one, expect me to be first in the queue.

ACO Collective is touring to Brisbane and have more Sydney dates until February 19.