Richard Tognetti might be artistic director and lead violinist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra in all its guises, but, last night at Liverpool Street’s godforsaken (no air-conditioning in a packed house) Goodgod Small Club, it was Satu Vanska who visibly took charge. And, why not? She is, after all, the founder, frontwoman and curator of ACO Underground and, for this one-off concert, she brought together a band of instrumentalists (and occasional vocalists) as eclectic as the brace of compositions played. That both musicians and material melded so well, despite the stylistic chasms between them, is among the grandest of compliments to her vision, instincts and expertise. And she has presence. Oh, yes, she has presence.
At once, a modern-day Marlene Dietrich (vampish in her way, but reminiscent of Dietrich’s fiercely intelligent presentation) and rock goddess, she brought together a band of brothers: Tognetti; violinist Glenn Christensen; principal violist from the orchestra, Chris Moore; cellist, Julian Thompson; bassist, Maxim Bibeau; former Midnight Oil guitarist and keyboardist, Jim (‘the ginie-us’) Moginie; former Violent Femme, Brian Ritchie, on bass and shakuhachi; with Joseph Nizeti manipulating electronica.
Given my dare-to-compare Dietrich reference, something from Kurt Weill hardly seems more fitting to open with and, sure enough, that’s precisely what we got, in Alabama Song, co-arranged by Tognetti. Vanska sounded surprisingly (and appropropriately) gravelly, which brought a corresponding intensity and gravitas, as she pleaded with us to show her the next whisky bar. It almost sounded like she’d been to one beforehand, which is entirely relative to the cabaret genre the tune embodies, with its crisp rhythm—not so much the upbeat, Latinised boom-chicka-chicka big band swing of Georgia Brown’s early ’60s rendition, as in the more true-to-tradition Lotte Lenya mode, which honours interpretation and communication of Brecht’s lyric with far greater fidelity.
Not that I could see much, past the many silhouetted heads in front of me in the ostensibly standing-room-only hole-in-the-wall space, so redolent of a dank, pre-war Berlin cellar, but keyboard, bass and guitar underpinned the arrangement, enriched, of course, by the warm textures of the other strings, providing supple support. It was a scene-setter.
From a dark cloud over Berlin to the halcyon (well, for some) days of JS Bach, in his Preludio, from Partita No.3, in E major, BWV 1006 (not to put too fine a point on it). Tognetti seemed to be playing with, even by his standards, exceptional vigour, in this expanded arrangement of what is essentially a solo violin showcase. To hear his virtually priceless mid-18th-century violin, an instrument of such impeccable provenance (and, at least in his hands, with a wealth of tone to match) in such a rustic subterranean room, is almost subversive. And subversive, in my book, is a good thing. In any case, the elegance and innate beauty of this piece can hardly be overstated and remained entirely undiminished by less than distinguished circumstances. But how do you follow JSB?
Why, with Kurt Cobain, of course: Nirvana’s Something In The Way is but one of Vanska and company’s adventures in grunge. RT’s orchestration has old strings and playing harmoniously; an electro-acoustic synthesis that’s raw and not so watertight that it kills any spontaneity of individual expression. In that way, too, it pays homage to the grunge genre. I felt like one of the animals that all become pets Cobain refers to in his lyric: caged in a confined, claustrophobic space, nearly expiring from heat exhaustion, but spellbound by the charismatic Vanska and ACOU-at-large. Well, at small. Club. Good God.
And if you thought that was a difficult bracket to bring home, nothing could prepare you for the out-thereness of an excerpt from Schnittke’s String Quartet, No. 2. It’s almost futile to try and nail Schnittke’s eclecticism to any particular signpost. If I’m not mistaken, we heard the second, agitato movement, one of the most challenging of all, as therein implied; spiky, discordant, even disturbing. But, equally, fascinating. And a wonderful platform for both technical mastery and passionate performance. More familiarity reveals its surprising subtleties and the genius of its harmonic structure.
If that was a jump to the left, Radiohead was, perhaps, a step to the right. Actually, the orchestrated opening of How To Disappear Completely has an eeriness in common with Schnittke’s arguably bleak musical outlook. No, really. Even if Jonny Greenwood’s original string arrangement has been rejigged by Tognetti, it can still walk through walls. The lyric speaks of disorientation and out-of-body experience, of the kind that occurs when one can’t cope any longer. Phrases like ‘that there, that’s not me’ and ‘I’m not here, this isn’t happening’, in light of the tragic denouement of the Martin Place hostage drama, take on a chilling poignancy.
From Radiohead, per se, to Jonny Greenwood’s Prospector’s Quartet, from his solo outing, There Will Be Blood. Say no more. Except that it’s a ravishing arrangement, exquisitely played by ACOU; sorrowful, but redemptive. I can think of no finer, more succinct, or eloquent, accidental tribute to those lost.
Krzysztof Penderecki has been described as Poland’s greatest living composer and who am I to argue? His first string quartet is an exemplar of the originality of his gift. It has the string players tapping and otherwise exploring their instruments in a way Apollo probably never intended, with much more emphasis on percussive, than melodic, possibilities: ungodly; unheard of.
Thompson mocked the rather solemn acclamation. Presumably, he finds it playful, even in its seriousness. Good to see. Also gratifying is seeing all these musicians move so self-assuredly from Brecht to Bach and, later, Nine Inch Nails to Nakamura. In between, there was Tea For Two, made much more meaningful than is customary by Vanska’s omission of the jaunty chorus (hummed, rather than sung) and taking the tempo down. Without ‘tea for two and two for tea’, you become suddenly, aware of deeper reflections, as in the first verse: ‘I’m discontented with homes that I’ve rented, so I’ve invented my own’; more world-weary than wide-eyed.
Then, in predictably perverse programming, something from Toch: his Geographical Fugue, in which ACOU becomes a part-time choir. Chances are you’ve heard the shouts of TRINIDAD!, between rapidfire, meticulously-timed explosions of far-flung place names. It’s almost certainly the most famous work for spoken chorus ever and, when first performed, in June, 1930, way ahead of its time. A four-part contrapuntal masterpiece. Not to mention furiously-paced, fabulous fun. We had David Bowie (The Man Who Sold The World) and a chance for Moore to shine, with a little of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Just before that, the traditional Waterboy, an emblematic stamp of Vanska’s peripatetic predilections.
ACO Underground is a splinter group that gathers some of the world’s finest musicians and puts them, but only once every so often, in one small, almost secret place. You feel like you’re part of a very privileged, slightly clandestine, revolutionary cabal, just being there. I can’t really think of anything better than that.