Thursday, March 27, 2014

Webern Saves Australia!

 The Australian Chamber Orchestra in its barest bones (string quintet, piano, percussion and guest guitarists Brian Ritchie and Jim Moginie) breezed through Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s West Village last week - one stop on its five-city tour of North America. There was much that was disappointing in this hipster hodgepodge program, and it is sad to say that most of the blame rests on the ACO’s leader, arranger and brain, Richard Tognetti.

Gesualdo with Radiohead; Kurt Cobain with Webern? Are such pairings still considered cutting edge? The overall impression was provincial, but how thankful we are in this city that LPR has a full bar.

   In a compact evening, four selections were played in each of three sets. A piece for two violins by Australian/Macedonian composer Anthony Pateras opened the concert and explored small grinding dissonant intervals with distended glissandi through a folkloristic section to an episode of stretti and diminution of scampering rising figures.

Jarring and appalling was the segue of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? written in the Antipodes fifty years ago, presented here so syrupy, so Scooby-Doo as to be appropriate to end a bogan wedding reception in Kalgoorlie. Stravinsky’s Canticle for string quartet was a brief, bristling whatever that showed up to very poor effect Tognetti’s 5th Caprice of Paganini with his unimaginative distracting self-consciously beaty ensemble accompaniment, stifling any possibilities of virtuosity.
   The next set began with a luridly rendered transcription of Gesualdo’s madrigal Dry Those Lovely Eyes. I prefer crudity in vegetables. Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s Prospectus Quartet was mushed potatoes melodically and harmonically, distinguished by Mr. Tognetti’s wiry, eager to please vibrato that didn’t.  If this coupling was the most insulting, second was Hollaender’s If I Could Ever Wish for Anything, a composer championed by Marlene Dietrich, presented with an existential emptiness alongside a realization of Bach’s riddle canons connected by repeated notes in the piano and pizzicati in the strings. Where were the bongos? It was admittedly more interesting than the music one endures on hold with American Express. 

   The best set of the night’s show was the last. In the 2nd movement of Shostakovitch’s 8th Quartet over the grittily pitched violins soared the exemplary violist Christopher Moore.  If this group didn’t earn the right to wail as honorary Jews, their Webern Quartet movement (the third of his Five Movements for String Quartet) in this context was a revelation, coming before a ditty by Kurt Cobain. With grunge and groove, who would have thought this music could ever sound so natural?  Dear Mr. Tognetti, the time is overdue for the next complete Webern recording project. You of all people could popularize it!!!
   Nine Inch Nails concluded the evening, and there was an encore, but this listener got lost in his martini. In the pop selections, the leading violinist and his partner Satu Vänskä vocalized, but it is not strong enough to say they were self-indulgent. Every musician must know how to sing, but most should not do this publicly, not even in karaoke kitchens.
   In general these very few Down Under players make a case for healthy robust music making in a land of vast open spaces, but if it must include a lukewarm watered down sentimentality, maybe this is cultural.


  1. They are a great ensemble, but they have been making bad choices for a long time. Thank you for calling them on it.

  2. Dear Mr Crack: as always, a thoughtful review. Thank you.