Australians Float U.S. Journey On ‘Water’ Premiere

The Australian Chamber Orchestra opened its United States tour with a concert in Palo Alto, CA.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra, marking its 40th anniversary, opened its U.S. tour in Palo Alto, Cal.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — The Australian Chamber Orchestra is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a U.S. tour during April, and Stanford University got the ensemble first on April 10. The Australians delivered a spirited performance as lively as the acoustics of the campus’ Bing Concert Hall, which opened in January 2013.

Richard Tognetti is the ensemble's artistic director. (Gary Heery)
Richard Tognetti is the ensemble’s artistic director. (Gary Heery)

All of which confirms a hunch I had when I heard them on a previous U.S. tour in 2007. They were playing then in CalTech’s multi-purpose Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena, whose parched acoustics did no favors for the modern-instrument ensemble’s incorporation of period-performance techniques. I wondered at the time whether a more sympathetic room like Walt Disney Concert Hall — which had originally booked them that year but ran out of available time slots — would get the ACO’s sound to bloom.

The 842-seat Bing, whose acoustics were designed by the same Yasuhisa Toyota who worked on Disney Hall, turned out to be just the thing the band needed. Within the Bing’s vineyard-style terraced seating on all sides, the Australians projected youthful vigor with a big, forward, in-your-face sound that had a shine to it, aided by the room’s well-defined bass response and moderately long reverberation time. In this space, the visitors’ predominantly swift tempos and use of little or no vibrato in the strings were given room to breathe, a cushion. It was quite an improvement.

As before, all but the cellists and some of the winds played standing up, and Richard Tognetti — in his 25th season as artistic director — directed from the concertmaster’s desk. The musicians aren’t afraid to move around a lot as they perform, and one imagines that helps their stamina; better than standing stock-still for long periods of time.

Stanford Live’s 2014-15 season brochure promised an exceptionally adventurous program — a clarinet concerto by Anders Hillborg, a transcription of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, the U.S. premiere of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s Water, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 49. But long before the Australian orchestra reached Stanford, the program had been toned down considerably, retaining only the Greenwood premiere and substituting safer Mozart and Haydn material.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed 'Water.' (Jason Evans)
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed ‘Water.’ (Jason Evans)

Greenwood, who had an early grounding in contemporary classical music before joining Radiohead, has been steadily gaining footholds in film and classical circles. The results up until now, as heard on a sequence of Nonesuch CDs, have been variable — a string of film scores heavily influenced by Penderecki, Messiaen, and conventional film writing, and some imitation-Penderecki scores as responses to the Polish composer’s own music on a collaborative album.

Yet Water is the most interesting concert piece Greenwood has come up with so far, one with plenty of ideas to fill its nearly 15-minute time span. The piece is grounded in a drone played on an amplified Indian tanpura (with a second tanpura part played on a synthesizer), over which a piano makes sounds like droplets of water. The drones give Water a pleasing simulated electronic color, amplified with surprisingly subtle effectiveness in such a reverberant hall, and the strings emerged in repetitive cascades and waves, giving way now and then to the drone. The Australians had an unusual round-robin routine of leaders in this piece: Tognetti would beat time with his bow, and when he was set to solo, the first violist started conducting and when he, too, had to resume playing, the first cellist took over as the textures grew more complex.

Though the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is standard repertoire, the solo performance by Charles Neidich (subbing for Martin Fröst, who had suffered a shoulder injury) was unusual in that Neidich was playing a basset clarinet with a bell that pointed backward instead of forward. Not only that, Neidich was apparently playing his own reconstruction of Mozart’s original score for that instrument (the manuscript remains lost), with a few lower notes that don’t exist on a conventional clarinet. The basset clarinet has a deeper, warmer timbre in general, and it colored the overall picture of this piece in moodier shades. A good match for this orchestra, Neidich also has an overtly physical style, playing to his audiences on all sides in a smooth, songful, darting performance.

Charles Neidich played Mozart on the basset clarinet.
Charles Neidich played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on the basset clarinet.

The orchestra opened its concert with a zesty race through Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (The Hen), making the most of the quietly droll jokes in the second movement and firing away like a juggernaut in the crackling finale. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 was treated to a fine, jet-propelled performance, with thrust and anguish that approached the point of vehemence — which the music can take — in the finale. There may have been a few spots of untidy ensemble early on in the evening, but by the time they reached Mozart 40, everything was completely unified.  The finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, tacked on as an encore, extended the momentum a little further before quitting time.

This was touring ensemble’s only West Coast stop — indeed, the only one west of eastern Kentucky — for the schedule calls for a gigantic leap to the East Coast for the remaining eight dates. They stop in Morrow and Thomasville, Ga. (April 12, 14), Princeton, N.J. (April 16), Blacksburg, Va. (April 17), Hanover, N.H. (April 19), Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (April 22), and Richmond, Ky. (April 24) before the tour culminates at Zankel Hall in New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 26.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.