Australian Chamber Orchestra – Enchanted

String Sextet No.1 in B flat, Op.18
Partita in E, BWV 1006 – Preludio [incorporating Sinfonia from Cantata, BWV29]
Caprice No.5 in A minor
La Ritorna de Madrid

Interspersed by Folk Songs & Fiddle Tunes from the United Kingdom & Australia

Members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra [Richard Tognetti & Satu Vänskä (violins), Christopher Moore & Nicole Divall (violas) and Melissa Barnard & Julian Thompson (cellos)]

Mike Kerin (fiddle)
Danny Spooner (vocals & squeezebox)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 13 June, 2007
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia

This concert, part of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s latest Australian tour, brought together an unlikely combination of performers in order to find common ground across genres. The results were both interesting and exciting.

Mike Kerin is well-known in Australian country-music circles, and it was the legendary Slim Dusty who introduced Kerin to Richard Tognetti. Danny Spooner is a collector and singer of traditional song; originally from England, he arrived in Australia in 1962 and has been working the folk-clubs there, as well as in New Zealand and the UK, ever since. The ACO was represented by six of its members.

Although this was a genuinely collaborative effort, it wasn’t ‘crossover’, at least not in any crass way. Brahms’s B flat String Sextet took up the first half of the programme, and received a vigorous, if sometimes too strident, account. The folk influences in Brahms’s music have been made explicit, not least by the composer himself (both verbally and musically), and the ACO’s demonstrative yet non-Romantic approach seemed to chime with these influences. Most convincing in this respect were the second-movement Theme and Variations and third-movement scherzo, while the opening movement could have benefited from a little more sweetness.

The second half introduced Kerin and Spooner; all the performers were miked up for the occasion. Of Kerin’s contributions, the “Hangman’s Reel” was the most memorable, but his cross-string bowing throughout, as well as his idiomatically-phrased accompaniments to Spooner’s singing, were never less than affecting. Above all, you felt that here was a complete musician – fluent, relaxed and thoroughly engaging. I wish his contribution had been more substantial.

The last two sentences equally apply to Spooner, a real storyteller with a gift for dramatic nuance and delicate comedy, both qualities realised with a warm, rugged voice. His selections included the haunting “Call of the Seals” and “Hey Rain”, the foot-tapping “Byker Hill” (a coalminers’ song from the north-east of England) and “Oh! For Me Grog” (an adaptation of the sea shanty “Across the Western Ocean”). Spooner was accompanied for the most part by both Kerin and the ACO strings, as well as occasionally making use of his squeezebox.

The ACO’s main contributions to the second half largely comprised arrangements of works by Bach, Boccherini and Paganini. Tognetti’s phenomenal virtuosity and musicianship came to the fore, particularly in the Bach Preludio/Sinfonia hybrid (solo violin and pizzicato strings). Both here and in the Boccherini (an addition to the programme in the form of an excerpt from the String Quintet Opus 30/Number 6, ‘La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid’) Tognetti again strove to underline the folk connections: in the former, the use of idiomatic bowing techniques; in the latter, the use of traditional Spanish tunes. Second violin Satu Vänskä was also given an opportunity to shine with Paganini’s Fifth Caprice, here arranged for two violins and string accompaniment.

Judging from the enthusiastic applause, the mix of classical, folk and country fans was obviously delighted with this experiment. As an encore, we were treated to a second performance of “Byker Hill”, which sent us dancing off into the night.

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