Hamer Hall, Melbourne
February 4, 2018

For its opening concert of 2018, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and its Artistic Director Richard Tognetti proved they’re at the forefront of musical innovation, balancing the familiar with the new in a program featuring two classical favourites, complemented by two contemporary works, both by women, one of them a world premiere.

The Australian premiere of US-based, London-born Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds saw two of the ACO’s violinists, Ike See and Glenn Christensen, take solo roles in an extended meditation on musical lineage. Clyne’s work contrasted opposing states of floating lyricism and crunching dissonance, seeing the soloists’ rhapsodic offerings rise above a surging ensemble texture, before being swallowed up in turn.

Following this striking opening statement, the ACO delivered a mainstay in the string orchestral repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s beloved Serenade for Strings in C. Tognetti’s direction of this heartfelt work was full of shape and nuance, with the ensemble’s infectious personality shining forth throughout. From the reverential opening, through the second movement’s sparkling waltz and third movement elegy, to the spritely finale on a Russian theme, the performance was charismatic, expressive, and fresh.

The second contemporary work came in the form of a rare beast – a concerto for solo double bass. The work, Dark with Excessive Bright (a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost), by major voice in the international new music scene, US composer Missy Mazzoli, was written especially for the ACO’s principal double bassist Maxime Bibeau, to celebrate his 20th year with the orchestra this year.

Exploring the over 400-year-old profile of Bibeau’s own instrument, Mazzoli’s work conjured a mysterious sound world born from a series of double bass gestures: string-crossings, ricochet bows, and glassy harmonics. Occasional projection issues were balanced with passages of real sonic beauty, and a definite highlight was Bibeau’s duet with the ACO’s second double bassist, David Campbell.

The ACO chose to conclude proceedings with Brahms and his second string sextet, in a brilliantly crafted arrangement for string orchestra. The musicians augmenting the ACO’s forces were students of the Australian National Academy of Music’s string faculty. And as Tognetti explained before this final work, it had been around ten years since the ACO had invited ANAM musicians onto the stage to play, following the announcement of the institution’s (thankfully short-lived) closure.

And so, in a final pairing of the old(er) and the new, and a celebration of the continued evolution of two treasures of Australia’s musical life, the ACO and ANAM musicians wove the romantic lyricism of Brahms’ score, working together in perfect synergy, and building towards a thrilling conclusion in the work’s vibrant finale.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra performs Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms at Arts Centre Mebourne tonight, at Adelaide Town Hall tomorrow, at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, February 10, 13, 14 & 16, at Sydney Opera House on February 11, and at QPAC, Brisbane on February 12.