The Australian Chamber Orchestra: Beethoven 1,2 and 3 in celebration of 250 years since Beethoven's birth and Richard Tognetti's 30th year as the ACO's pioneering Artistic Director. Saturday February 8th, Llewellyn Hall.
In a summer of far-reaching drought and horrific fire events, musical performances in many genres and styles bring temporary relief as we confront the devastation and grief that have affected much of Australia. The ACO's first concert for 2020 was such an occasion, with a capacity audience gathered in Llewellyn Hall to hear Richard Tognetti and his orchestra interpret Beethoven's First, Second and Third symphonies with inimitable flair.
This year is also a celebration of Tognetti's 30 years as founding Artistic Director of the ACO, and his contribution to developing an Australian orchestra. By including talented students from the Australian National Academy of Music and internationally renowned guest principal woodwind and brass musicians in the orchestra, Tognetti achieves what he does best: a musical collaboration that breaks down boundaries.
Beethoven's capacity to convert the dramatic spectrum of emotions into musical sound was evident throughout in the ACO's interpretation of striking dynamic contrasts and a fresh approach to tempo variation, mimicking the natural increase and decrease of the human heartbeat in response to thematic material. Tognetti's interpretation of the First Symphony communicated the excitement of the young composer presenting his work in a style that would be impossible to forget.
The performance of the Second Symphony in D major, Opus 36 was particularly successful for the way in which it highlighted how Beethoven's writing for the woodwind section had developed. Flute, oboe, bassoon and clarinet parts converse with each other, then interject between the strings, horn and trumpets in a commentary that later developed into the grand proclamations of the later symphonies.
Beethoven's Eroica symphony is remembered as the work that altered the Symphony forever. The ACO's blazing energy in the first movement was followed by the solemn majesty of the Marcia funébre in which the flute and oboe voices shone clear and the violas evoked ghostly voices leaving the battlefield. In the third movement, the String's fortissimo passages resounded as if the world's forests were singing in response to the irresistible summons of the horns; while in the fourth movement, bows flew, breath surged and percussion thundered wholeheartedly.
I asked cellist Julian Thompson, graduate of the Canberra School of Music, how he approached the program.
"Its quite easy to forget how radical Beethoven was when he started," he said.
"The progression through the nine symphonies was an incredible landmark and a foundation to build on for all other composers who followed.
"Beethoven is so much part of our cultural consciousness - the wild-haired portraits, the strong dynamic contrasts - but this music was written in his late 20s and 30s by a young man wanting to make his mark in Vienna; a fantastically talented, up and coming composer, who invites us as musicians to push boundaries and introduce the humour he felt as a precocious newcomer."
Of the Eroica, Thompson says, "the form is massive.
"The ACO has a distinctive strength with abrupt attacking dynamics, augmented by rock star woodwind. We all play with gut strings, and instruments appropriate to the sound of Beethoven's era. We are constantly testing the bounds of the instruments...which makes it exciting for the audience, and physically demanding for the musicians."
Thompson has played with the ACO for 14 years. "The ACO was somewhere to aspire to as young musician. Punching way above its weight, the orchestra makes waves around the world with how they choose to make music. It connects Australians with the standards of elite music making in the rest of the world."
Growing up in Canberra, the School of Music was beacon of music education, and he pays tribute to his teacher Lois Simpson and the then Director, John Painter. Thompson firmly believes that the institution, now under the auspices of the ANU, has a vital continuing role to play as "the beating cultural heart of the nation's capital. Yes, there are conservatoriums in Sydney and Melbourne, but there is always room for great teaching to develop music and art, it's the cultural fabric of life."
About the significance of music in this time of natural disasters, Thompson comments, 'These events will resonate for the rest of people's lifetimes. Music can play a great healing role, bringing people together to share Beethoven's joy, vision and humour.'