By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – The last time the Australian Chamber Orchestra toured the United States — April 2015 — they brought Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s Water with them as part of an otherwise conventional program of Mozart and Haydn. Also, everyone except the cellos played the music on their feet, Baroque-style.
Yet when they turned up Feb. 16 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Aussies were seated and the stage was dark. There was water on their agenda again, all right, but now it came in the form of gigantic waves from a faraway ocean on a big screen. And the program was anything but conventional. Indeed, it was unlike anything I can recall even in a playground for new music and multi-media tricks like Disney Hall.
This was The Reef, a 101-minute fusion of live music from a bewilderingly wide variety of genres, and films from the deserts and coastlines of the remotest reaches of Northwestern Australia. It was a fortuitous confluence that this program landed in between installments of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “City of Light” festival, for The Reef fit right in with the multi-media dominance of Disney Hall in the month of February.
If you’ve ever seen the granddaddy of all surf films, Bruce Brown’s riveting The Endless Summer from 1966 (celebrating its 50th anniversary, as can be seen on the website), you would recognize The Reef as a high-tech sequel, updating the genre with extreme close-up photography. The focus is on the daredevil Australian surfer Derek Hynd, who manages to ride some of the most spectacularly dangerous-looking waves on the planet on a surfboard without a fin (he received the rather unique credit in the program book as director of surfing).
We don’t spend much time in the outback, just enough for Hynd to drive across the continent from the east to the west. But just as Deborah O’Grady did in her Utah national parks video earlier this month, director Mick Sowry makes the usual point about man’s inhumanity to nature by showing a desert scene littered with rusting junk.
To these and the ocean scenes, the Australian musicians played through a wildly shape-shifting program for which the term “eclectic” seems completely inadequate. It had everything except real surfing music — no Beach Boys or Ventures or any of that stuff.
Before the film started, artistic director and concertmaster Richard Tognetti announced that there would be a “Welcome to Country” prelude to immerse us in the landscape. We were promptly greeted by the strange, electronic-sounding honking of Shelton Murray’s didgeridoo, accompanied by fizzing Stravinsky-like strings in Iain Grandage’s and Mark Atkins’s Immutable. Then the Aboriginal singer-guitarist Stephen Pigram, a native of the far northwest, sang some very pleasing pop-folk-like songs in a reedy, nasal voice with lovely, suave string backing. It sounded very close to 1970s-vintage Gordon Lightfoot — and that’s a compliment.
The film got underway to some competently done, mood-setting scoring written by Tognetti himself, and his cues would serve as links among a succession of many short pieces in a circus of styles. The glass harmonicas in George Crumb’s “God-music” from Black Angels soon gave way to bustling Rameau from Les Boréades and then back to Crumb for the scratchy fiddling of “Night of the Electric Insects” (also from Black Angels). The delicious melding of microtones and standard tuning in Ligeti’s Ramifications accompanied the scene of the desert junkyard, and a J.S. Bach fugue arranged by Tognetti served as delicate ballet music for a surfer flying through the mist.
But after the minimalist agitations of Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa rose to a peak, we were met by a high-decibel blast of metal-munching grunge rock, Alice in Chains’ “Them Bones,” with Satu Vänskä – the ACO’s principal violinist – morphing convincingly into a rock singer in tandem with Tasmanian singer-songwriter Craig Johnston. As suddenly as the blast appeared, it was gone, replaced by the almost comically sweet strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”! Both were accompanying essentially the same thing, some of the wildest waves of all, yet the strange juxtaposition began to make some sense — heavy-metal for the violence of the water, Rachmaninoff for the serenity of the brave surfers riding it.
With the brutal Allegro molto from Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a in Rudolf Barshai’s transcription – brilliantly and vehemently played by the ACO strings — the emphasis on aqua-violence returned. Then Tognetti showed off some of his range as a composer, moving from moody electronic underscoring to cavernous arena rock to a haunted pop ballad for voice (the versatile Vänskä again), strings, and mallets.
Finally, Beethoven had the last word as Sowry pointed his camera at the galaxies. It was the celestial Cavatina from the String Quartet, Op. 130, which just happens to be the piece that was included on the recording of Earth’s sounds taken along by Voyager on its journey through the solar system. It was soulfully played, at first by a quartet of first-desk players who were eventually joined by the rest of the strings.
All of this gave some listeners stylistic whiplash — there were a few walkouts during the Ligeti — and I’m not sure whether it was meant to cohere. A generous spirit could say that this program was an expansion of Mahler’s remark to Sibelius that a symphony should be like the world and embrace everything, which this certainly tried to do. But overall, the whole show was a lot of unpredictable, off-beat fun, a tour-de-force for a skilled ensemble unrepentant in its obliteration of boundaries, and also a lingering look at some seldom-visited seascapes and landscapes.
From here, the ACO took The Reef on a very short U.S. tour — to New York’s Kaufman Concert Hall Feb. 18 and Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall at the University of Virginia Feb. 20 before heading back to Australia.
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.