Australian Chamber Orchestra / Tognetti review – persuasive experiments with Jonny Greenwood

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood’s new work held its own alongside Haydn, Mozart and Tchaikovsky played by this exciting ensemble

It’s not just the fabulous sound but the physicality of their playing that marks out the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In Mozart’s last piano concerto, the B flat major K595, the piano, with lid removed, was placed at the heart of the ensemble, with soloist Steven Osborne facing the audience. His positioning allowed for an intimacy and immediacy of crystalline exchanges which, by the allegro rondo, were joyfully exuberant.

In commissioning Jonny Greenwood to work with them, the ACO and leader/director Richard Tognetti showed their openness to experimentation. The Radiohead guitarist had clearly drawn on their fluidity of movement for the piece that emerged. That movement was reflected, too, in the final title, Water, from Philip Larkin’s poem in The Whitsun Weddings. The effects of light bouncing off water created a distinct aura. Once again, strings were wrapped around pivotal instruments: two flutes and two Indian tanpura, the smaller of which was played by Greenwood himself, with Tognetti leaning in to deliver concertante violin lines. The tanpuras’ low, gently plucked droning gave the piece – in five interconnected sections – a constant deep resonance. Featuring amplified upright piano and keyboard, synthesising the sound of glockenspiel and celeste (nodding to the soundworld of Messiaen, yet without the use of ondes martenot), Greenwood’s soundscape was organic and persuasive. The rhythmic ostinati and the shimmering rise and cascade of scales, with rippling chromatic colour, created a more dynamic effect. Greenwood bowed as modestly as a novice; in fact, he is anything but.

Having opened with Haydn’s Symphony No 83, the ACO complemented it with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Greenwood must have wished he were still a viola player to be part of their dancing, gutsy performance.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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