Seeing a chamber orchestra play classical music sounds like the kind of thing you’ll do when you can no longer digest solids and your thoughts oscillate between your rosebushes and your mortality. There’s a reason chilling with Chopin is a geriatric pursuit. The term ‘classical music’ has become synecdoche for elite culture, intellectual music, and expensive ensembles. Musically, it’s more demanding than the offerings of Nova 969. It’s hard to see why you should put in the effort before you retire.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra doesn’t sound cool – but they have an edge on other classical ensembles. They’re led by Richard Tognetti, a ($10 million Stratocaster-equivalent) violin-totin’ rock star. He hangs with Russell Crowe (and taught him to play violin for Master & Commander). He left his wife for his assistant leader. Juicy. The ACO is also sartorially satisfying, dressed as they are by Akira Isogawa. Even more convincingly, tickets for under-30s go for $38, no matter where you sit.
All of this becomes peripheral when they start to play. Their latest national tour was a two-concert series, ‘curated’ by Alex Ross. Ross is a borderline-Gen Y music critic who writes for the New Yorker and maintains a blog; he likes Bob Dylan, but he likes Beethoven more. He’s also written two bestsellers: The Rest Is Noise and Listen To This, also the names of the two ACO concerts. Ross curated the tour in the sense that he selected the pieces and then gave a talk before each concert, probably in a self-interested bid to increase sales. Lucky, then, that he has excellent taste and an enviable way with words.
The first concert was The Rest Is Noise, featuring works by the big twentieth-century guns (Stravinsky, Strauss, Britten) and some lesser-known characters (Xenakis and Takemitsu). Ross’ twentieth century is a dark time, embodied by his composers – Takemitsu had half his face blown off by a bomb, and Strauss’ Metamorphosen is an elegy for German culture written in the last weeks of WWII. The ACO pulled off this dark repertoire faultlessly. While The Rest Is Noise was tremendously involving, Listen To This exceeded it in depth of feeling. Honi readers may recognise Barber’s Adagio for Strings from a remix on 100% Hits of many years ago, and while the real-life classical version is less dancey, the band’s ability to play as one and their sensitivity to nuance meant that it was the perfect expression of primordial sadness. Tognetti really was the star of the show, startling the audience with the beauty of his solo Bach and keeping the orchestra in line as conductor of John Adams’ Shaker Loops. It’s puzzling that so abstract an art form can elicit such concrete emotion, but that’s what is so astounding about classical music at its best.
Tognetti and his band are no strangers to collaboration – they’ve teamed up with Bill Henson, Michael Leunig and Katie Noonan in the past. Their next tour features both the Tawadros brothers and surf photographer Jon Frank. If you think you can Handel it, make sure to add it to the Liszt.