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Review: Beethoven & the 21st Century presented by Pekka Kuusisto and ACO Collective

Beethoven & the 21st Century
Pekka Kuusisto and ACO Collective
Llewellyn Hall
Saturday, February 6, 2016

The first ACO concert of the season brings great satisfaction: the cultural year has truly begun.

Pekka Kuusisto​ is inaugural artistic director for the ACO Collective tour. ACO Collective (formerly known as ACO2) combines musicians of the ACO with talented young professional musicians at the beginning of their careers. Meanwhile, the ACO with Richard Tognetti​ at the helm are premiering The Reef in New York, Richmond and Los Angeles.

Kuusisto has a stage presence that is simultaneously elegant and mischievous. With his balletic conducting gestures and expressive eyes, he led the ensemble into the exciting territory of modern works, classic masterpieces and a reimagined Beethoven quartet.

In a radical approach to the programming of the first half, Kuusisto interwove separate movements of Erkki-Sven Tuur's​ Action-Passion-Illusion between the short works of three other composers. The device focused the mind on the ensemble, led a merry dance by their director, darting backwards and forwards through time and aesthetic sensitivities. Nico Muhly's​ Drones and Violin Part 1 – Material in E flat established the strongly textured character of the bracket. Kuusisto's playing has an effortless improvisatory feel in the way he approaches solos, and this freedom inspires a reflected confidence in the ensemble. I love the way that the piece commemorates the background sounds in our lives – the vacuum cleaners and refrigerator motor drones we pitch the activity of our lives against. The way in which Tuur harnesses diverse emotions in energetic, translated into rhythmic string composition is masterful. The cellos and basses become a rolling mass of sound in his imagination, snapping, stabbing syncopation and chording are his punctuation in the stories he tells.

How cleverly the programming of this style contrasted with Tippett's Lament from Variations on an Elizabethan Theme. He places his exquisitely turned Elizabethan curlicues, courtesy of the theme by Purcell, within a sound structure of modernist chords – it is as if we are looking for the Elizabethan world order in a bombed out cathedral representing the shattered social, ethical and cultural fabric of post-war Europe. As the penultimate "insertion" into Action-Passion- Illusion, Bryce Dessner's Tenebre​ spun its magical web of pre-recorded voices to merge with the ensemble's exquisite string "vapour" – so subtle was the blend of instruments and voices.

Sibelius' Rakastava (The Lover) embodied romantic longing and in the second movement, The Path of the Beloved, the almost palpable sensation of rhythmic unity – bodies walking, skating, dancing in union. This opening to the second half led appropriately into the evening's highlight – Tognetti's arrangement of Beethoven's String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op. 95. In this intelligent setting, the symphonic potential of the thematic material is realised. The complexities of the ideas and the emotion conveyed by question and answer across the instrumental sections to build intensity were true to the deepest currents within Beethoven's original composition.

The ACO Collective are in for a memorable tour with their Finnish musical director – and each performance will convey his instinctive drive to explore new interpretations.