Llewellyn Hall, ANU, Canberra
June 23, 2018

Two world premieres, a massive concerto by Shostakovich and an engaging Haydn symphony made up an ambitious concert program for the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  They delivered brilliantly.

Opening the program was Movements (for us and them), by the 32-year-old, Samuel Adams (his dad is composer, John Adams). He says his approach is to “create flexibility and volubility” without being “too specific about [his] intentions”. So, it’s open to the listener to take their own view of the composer’s bent. Even so, he wanted the piece to bridge the interpersonal relationship between composer, orchestra, and audience.

Steven Isserlis, ACO, Australian Chamber OrchestraSteven Isserlis and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Jeff Busby

Written for strings, Movements is in concerto grosso form, founded on a single motif, interweaving and moving in and out of sync across the orchestra, exploring the many ways it can be expressed.  The opening scurried like a busy rush hour, building volume and tension until a final climactic release, with almost inaudible cellos underneath, introducing a meditation with an abstract line for Richard Tognetti’s violin. Then there were suggestions of a hoedown, building through a tension-filled and frenzied crescendo to a monster sforzando, and, finally, a hanging, silent pause and… the faintest discord that, with its ambiguous double pianissimo, left the tension unresolved.

The ACO was totally at home with Movements (for us and them). Their playing of the feverish rhythms, the impossible dynamics, the myriad moods, and the ever-unanswered question undoubtedly created the relationship the composer wanted, confirmed when Adams stepped onto the stage to warm applause from audience and orchestra alike.

Then Steven Isserlis, with his trademark curly, silver moptop, joined the ACO, enlarged by woodwinds, brass, tympani and celeste, for Dmitri Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, his Op 107.  Tensions and unanswered questions continued into this piece, written in 1959 at the height of the cold war. There are theories aplenty on what inspired Shostakovich, given his mixed fortunes with the Soviet authorities.

Isserlis addressed all those uncertainties brilliantly, giving the strongest definition to the furious rhythms and wide-ranging dynamics of the first movement, the more melodic but strangely deceptive shred of hope in the second and the militaristic fourth. Isserlis shaped them superbly, exuding emotion and passion beyond measure.

But it was in the third movement, Cadenza, that Isserlis really shone. Playing alone, his incomparable technique, phrasing, expression and sensitivity across all the tempi and dynamics, quite simply, were incredible. There can be no doubt that Isserlis is an inspired – and inspiring – musician, highlighted by the fact the audience demanded, and got, a short but light-hearted encore.

Opening the second half was the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s A Knock One Night.  Written in four movements for strings, this is a programmatic work, commissioned to tell the story of an oppressed family seeking and finding refuge in Australia. Even so, its structure is melodic in its beauty, giving it an undercurrent of optimism.

The first movement, Childhood, begins in an expectant hush, building to suggest skipping and playful games, but in a minor key. The second movement, Knock, which includes the cellists knocking on their instrument casings, conveys an ominous urgency as the family hurriedly escapes in the night. Then they’re on the Train, the incessant rhythm driving them ever onward towards freedom, with the countryside easily slipping past, recalling the mood of Beethoven’s 6th symphony.  A tango in the middle suggests a new beginning. Finally, in Peace, there is quiet resolution, happiness, and safety. Kats-Chernin’s evocative writing tells the story by itself, but the ACO brought it to life brilliantly.

For the ACO, Haydn’s 104th symphony is bread and butter, but they gave the work new energy and freshness. The second movement, Andante, was especially lovely with some delightful phrasing and the occasional judicious pause, just for subtle emphasis. A rollicking fourth brought a thoroughly engaging, inspiring and interesting concert to a spirited conclusion.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Steven Isserlis Plays Shostakovich tours to Melbourne from June 24 – 25, Adelaide on June 26, Perth on June 27 and Sydney from June 30 – July 4