Orchestra plays with uplifting sadness until the end

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Music / “Luminous”, Australian Chamber Orchestra, at Llewellyn Hall, August 10. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE.

THERE was an uncommon eerie melancholy to this program. Uncommon because it lasted from beginning to end. But the melancholy had an uncommon beauty that was, in its sadness and mystery, somehow uplifting.

The backdrop was composed of cityscapes and portraits by the brilliant and famously controversial photographer and cinematographer, Bill Henson. And it wasn’t just pictures of pictures. The sequencing explored the close detail of each, slowly zooming in and out, panning left to right, top to bottom, and fading one to the other, with a sporadic separating blackness. A brief film sequence occasionally punctuated the stills.

The portraits had a character reminiscent of painters of the Renaissance and Baroque art periods. Faces emerging from blackness with subtle lighting softening the beautifully detailed white skin. In contrast, the cityscapes had a harsh austerity to them, only softened, again, by the subtle lighting creating an almost photographic negative quality.

To complement the photographs, Richard Tognetti chose music whose eerie melancholy did not so much describe the photographs as underscore them. Disparate as the composers were – from Janáček and Benjamin Britten to Henry Purcell – the music selections and arrangements, played without breaks, became as one composition.

Even the four songs in the first half, featuring the stunning and versatile voice of Israeli-Australian singer songwriter, Lior, integrated with the orchestral works perfectly.

The only incongruity was a recorded music track of abstract sounds – “Sound Sculpture” by Australian film composer and sound designer, Paul Healy, which featured three times during the performance.  Effective though the composition is, it seemed disconnected from the rest of the program and denied the Australian Chamber Orchestra the opportunity to create abstract sounds of its own, something of which it is perfectly capable.

The dominating feature of the second half was “Distant Light”, a concerto for violin and strings by Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks, written in 1997. The composer says the title comes from childhood memories, “but,” he says, “also the glittering stars, millions of light years away.” In the lengthy solos, Tognetti and his tastefully amplified instrument were a shining ornament to this superb work.

A hallmark of the Australian Chamber Orchestra is that its playing is absolute perfection.  And the perfection extends right through every nuance the music and the band’s director demand.  Expression, tempi, balance, control, passion and the innate ability to “feel” the emotion, all work together to turn the notes into music. This concert was no exception. It is as though the 18 players in the band are one, producing music that embraces the very soul, taking it to a higher plane.

“Luminous” certainly embraced the soul.

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