Vivacious! | Australian Chamber OrchestraLeft - Alina Ibragimova. Photo Sussie Ahlburg

What a charmed life I (occasionally) lead: the ACO, twice, in the space of about as many weeks. This time, not in Angel Place, at the impressive City Recital Hall, an expansive, parallel musical universe, tucked away, surreptitiously, from the drunken weekend rampages on George Street, but at Anita's Theatre, Thirroul, among the Illawarra's pretty northern, coastal villages.

Owner and controversial Wollongong developer, John Comelli, might be something of a drama queen himself, if recent news items are anything to go by, but, whatever its genesis or future (assured, I'd like to think), Anita's is an eccentric, baroque space, to a degree which has to be seen to be believed. Kind of like a try-hard rendition of Sydney's stately State, but made of icing sugar. Comelli's gingerbread house. But that's another story, for another day, and publication.

The real point is, Anita's also has to be heard to be believed. To look at the construction, I wouldn't have guessed it, but this theatre has an enviable acoustic for chamber music; easily trumping the struggling-to-be-heard one which prevails in the cavernous Angel Place space.

From Angel Place to an actual angel, in the form of impish pixie Russian violin prodigy, Alina Ibragimova, who, at 23, among countless other world-stage achievements, has temporarily supplanted the irrepressible Tognetti as director of the ACO, for this programme, so redolently entitled 'Vivacious!'

Beginning with the square, but infinitely satisfying JS (that's Bach, major, to you), Ibragimova (presumably) took the brave and audacious, even cheeky, decision to alternate movements from The Art of Fugue with rather more obliquely triangular work of Kurtag, from Signs, Games & Messages. This is a devilishly, deviously clever thing to do, for a broad, but, one surmises, tending towards conservative, audience: to 'bury' the comparatively hatchet-like attack of Kurtag amidst the comforting predictability of Bach.

Don't get me wrong: Bach's middle-class, middle-market acceptability doesn't, in his case, diminish the validity, power or importance of his work; The Art of Fugue is, indeed, a work of art, if an unfinished masterpiece. It, in itself, is cleverly devised and arranged, in ascending order of sophistication, so that the opening piece, Contrapunktus I, written for a full ensemble, is almost humble in its unadorned simplicity, & all the more elegant, attractive and digestible for it. And, of course, in general terms, Bach is to fugue as John Lee Hooker is to blues.

Befuddled by fugue? Simply put, it involves composing for numerous 'voices', which conspire to expose a particular theme. Indeed, herein lies its beauty and appeal: the patient listener is rewarded and flattered by his, or her, recognition of the emerging melody; a little like smelling the strudel, while its cooking, then, finally, tasting the crisp, flaky pastry and warm, sweet, soft fruit.

Controversy still rages among buffs, nerds, audiophiles and pedants, as to whether Die Kunst der Fuge, to give it its German due, was and is Bach's greatest hit. Let's settle for it being up there. Either way, it's significant for the fact it amounts, virtually, to his last will and testament, as his harpsichord fell uncharacteristically silent very shortly after its near completion.

Certainly, I can't imagine hearing a cleaner, more committed or vigorous exposition, than that bestowed by Ibragimova's ACO. It might be politically incorrect, to say nothing of hopelessly romantic to speculate on national characteristics (I have been heard to condemn, damn and blast others for doing so), but there would seem to be some kind of resilience, robustness and investment of selfhood in Russian endeavour, whether athletic, musical, or political. I'm deeply suspicious about the political, somewhat less interested in the gymnastic, but moved profoundly by the instrumental. Specifically, Ibragimova's command of her instrument (which is as much her self as her violin) and orchestra is breathtaking. Of course, it takes two to tango and this impression couldn't have been made without the corresponding complicity, if you will, of the ACO.

It's testimony to Tognetti's strength of vision & character that he should almost selflessly allow Ibragimova to commandeer his ship. And all credit to the young woman for stepping into such big shoes and strutting the stage as if the maestro's boots were made for her to walk in.

The Romanian, Gyorgy Kurtag, hero-worshipped seminal Hungarian composer, Bartok, but never realised his dream of studying with him. Nonetheless, the 'out there' influence is clearly evident: unlike Bach's, Kurtag's music is not of a particular, defined shape, but shape-shifting, surprising, challenging. By comparison, is work, but work is character-building. Or so Karl Marx would have us believe &, from what I understand, Kurtag would most probably have enjoyed that notion. Having said as much, Bach was, in fact, a major influence on GK &, indeed, he reflects this, in homage.

Berg, too, was a formative influence on Kurtag. Berg was from the second Viennese school, which takes in Schoenberg. Nuff said. Berg is, in the popular sense, an unheralded genius: his intrinsic understanding of the orchestra, the interactions between its various elements and how best to exploit them, is astonishing. As with Kurtag, not all will be prepared to put in the hard yards and, thus, be more than rewarded. But those that overcome pathological resistance to the shock of the 'new' will enjoy an epiphanic extension of their musical horizons.

The hero of the evening was Vivaldi's inescapable The Four Seasons, performed in entirety. If I have it right, this is the most played and recorded of all classical works and rightly so. The problem, of course, is that this gives way to a propensity for lesser renditions to find their way into many an ear. The result can be and, perhaps, has been a gross Muzakal devaluation. But Ibragimova's leadership of the ACO has, in one fell swoop, put paid to that. What I heard on the night was nothing less than exciting: I never knew Vivaldi could be so visceral, impassioned and potent; Ibragimova seemed almost divinely inspired, which is why I have hardly at all frivolously, or superlatively, sought to endow her with a veritably angelic status. To hear her and what was, for the occasion, very much her orchestra, perform in an, at least, pseudo-Venetian context, allowed the mind to be freed and sing along, harmoniously, with the heart, so liberated by and abandoned to the vivid imagination of The Red Priest, as Antonio Lucio was known.

In the end, the real vivacity here doesn't merely lie with great music. It lies with great, almost inestimable musicianship, rich in character; of substance, as against mere showmanship. It sometimes seems hard to believe this can be manifest in a place as parochial as a southern coastal hamlet, on a Friday evening, in relaxed-and-comfortable Australia. This music is of a quality fit for a gathering of the literati, glitterati, rich, right royal & powerful, at The Hermitage, Louvre or, at worst, Lincoln Center. It's nice to know someone sees fit to play it to us, too. It's nice to know this chamber orchestra is Australian. We should look past swimming, tennis, netball and shooting and save an 'oi! oi! oi!' for that. The ACO: it's gold, gold, gold, for Australia. They serially surpass expectation, elevating past experience of known musical commodities to new heights, underscoring and deepening the value and vitality of important works. Brava!

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Dates and Venues

Anita’s Theatre, Thirroul, Wollongong Fri 22 August 7.30pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Sat 23 August 8pm | Bookings 02 8256 2222
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane Mon 25 August 8pm | Bookings 136 246
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Tue 26 August 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Wed 27 August 7pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
Newcastle City Hall Thu 28 August 7.30pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra Sat 30 August 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Sun 31 August 2.30pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Mon 1 September 8pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
Adelaide Town Hall Tue 2 September 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
Perth Concert Hall Wed 3 September 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Sun 7 September 2.30pm | Bookings 02 9250 7777

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