The Australian Chamber Orchestra played to a packed out Hamer Hall in Melbourne last Monday night, in the orchestra’s first concert in its 2017 season. In a programme promising blood and holy deliverance, the orchestra managed to serve out both under the charismatic guest direction of violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The Finn’s playing was as infectious as his elfish stage charm, with Kuusisto leading the ensemble in a stylistically diverse concert ranging from the most sublime art music, to the gritty honesty of folk. Guest musician Sam Amidon made for a compelling contrast to the classical content, singing and strumming through a series of sobering folk ballads with string accompaniment, that brought the concert back down to earth.

Continuing the ACO’s unique and eclectic approach to concert curation, the night’s programme was divided into two halves, echoing the opposing themes of the concert’s title. Murder saw the interpolation of four folk songs with a string orchestra arrangement of the four movements of Janáček’s first string quartet Kreutzer Sonata.

Amidon’s raw and unaffected vocal style gave his retellings of these folk songs a powerful sincerity, with his roughness standing in perfect contrast to the warm, cultivated tone of the ACO. New York wunderkind composer Nico Muhly’s arrangements gave the ballads a glowing aura, lending a touch of the heavenly.

Each song melted into a movement of Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata string quartet, which is based on Tolstoy’s novella of the same name about a jealous husband who does away with his wife. One of the finest features of Kuusisto’s direction here was to lead the ensemble in emphasising the folk-like nature of Janáček’s melodies, eschewing classical phrasing and ‘prettiness’ through enjoying the simple pleasure of bow riding hard on the string.

The ACO demonstrated plenty of guts throughout this temperamental score, particularly in more furious passages where themes were thrown and parried around the ensemble in wild abandon. Janáček’s quartet gained an interesting dimension, juxtaposed against the brutal honesty of the Shaker ballads, though admittedly some of the full dramatic tension of the quartet was inevitably lost through the programmatic toing and froing.

While this interpolation strategy might have proved less effective in the concert’s first half, the placement of Kuusisto’s own arrangement of Brackett’s immortal Shaker hymn Simple Gifts between the movements of Adams’ Shaker Loops in the concert’s second half, was a stroke of genius. Amidon’s direct and almost child-like intoning of this famous tune was set fascinatingly at harmonic odds with Kuusisto’s shimmering arrangement, which featured some clever nods to the hymn’s setting in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The ‘interruption’ to Adams’ Shaker Loops by this spellbinding episode in no way hindered the impressive developmental arc of Adams’ composition. One of Adams’ defining early works, Shaker Loops requires an incredibly tight and responsive ensemble, and the ACO delivered, with a dynamic reading of the scintillating score. From meditative dreamscapes to fluttering aviaries of timbre, this was one of the most compelling features of the evening’s program.

The performance of Shaker Loops was preceded by a generous array of songs performed by Amidon and Kuusisto alone, in a sweetly casual yet intimate manner that provided some light relief from the darker subject matter of the first half. With Kuusisto treating his instrument more like a folk fiddler, and occasionally adding his voice to Amidon’s, the pair’s folk sojourns made for the perfect counterpoint to the ensemble-dominated program.

The ACO with Kuusisto and Amidon were also generous enough to provide the enthusiastic audience with one final juxtaposition, at the conclusion of the night’s programme: an earthy folk ballad O Death, and the most perfect reading of the sumptuous last movement of Olivier Messiaen’s celestial masterpiece L’Ascension.

The ACO tours Murder & Redemption until February 14


This review was made possible by the generous donations of Limelight’s readers through our Australian Cultural Fund project