Australian Chamber Orchestra: Pekka Kuusisto

The director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti, is closely identified with the ensemble’s superb reputation but concerts like this demonstrate that it can play as well with a guest director.
Australian Chamber Orchestra: Pekka Kuusisto
The director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti, is closely identified with the ensemble’s superb reputation but concerts like this demonstrate that it can play as well with a guest director. Particularly when that guest is of the calibre of Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Not only is he a virtuoso performer in his own right, and a conductor who elicits the best from others, Kuusisto has another vital characteristic: he is, quite simply, a “good fit” with our finest chamber orchestra. Yet Kuusisto’s self-deprecating manner suggests his has not read his own press: “a huge, charismatic talent” (The Times), “may be the best thing to happen to classical music in years” (The Guardian). What evidence is there of these claims in his current tour, Bach and Sibelius? Plenty. First up was the world premiere of Bright Shiners by Andrew Ford, who was commissioned to write the piece to celebrate Tognetti’s 20 years as director. Kuusisto’s task was to realise the sound envisaged by the composer: “high-pitched spiccato dots glittering in relief against slowly drifting harmonies”. This was achieved in part by having several players apart from, and either side of the main group, widening the economical sound to fill the stage. Mysteriously, these players appeared to simply evaporate from the stage after the final three bars of the work, drawn from Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no.3. As flagged by Kuusisto in his opening remarks to the audience this allowed a neat segue into a full and fine performance of the Bach, with the ACO on very familiar territory, and Kuusisto’s energetic direction ensuring a pleasing exactness of tempo and rhythm. My only quibble was with the use of the harmonium, as it seemed “blurred” and at times inaudible, compared with the more often used virginal or harpsichord. Keyboardist Milla Viljamaa was heard more to advantage in a second Bach concerto, the Violin Concerto No.2 in E, BWV1042. This also allowed more focus on Kuusisto as performer as well as director – but as he is an ambassador for Finnish music, of greater interest was Voces Intimae, his arrangement of Sibelius’s String Quartet in D minor. The ACO showed yet another of its accomplishments: the ability to play in unison as if each part were a single instrument. The work mixes almost atonal passages (often played as scales) with Sibelius’s distinctive harmonies. The virtuosic final movement has a suggestion of folk tunes – which formed a link with the final work in the concert – Sketches from Folkscenes, a new work by Finnish-born Timo Alakotila. The composer was a founding member of a “superfiddler” group, JPP, whose repertoire was admired by Kuusisto and inspired him to commission a work based on Finnish tunes. The result is reminiscent of Copland and Shaker hymns (with the harmonium at last coming into its own). At times, though, there is a feel of an Irish country dance, with the fiddles playing catchy tunes. It was no surprise that the audience called for an encore – and the swinging, swaying dance music in three-quarter time was a perfect follow-up to Alakotila’s work. Like Kuusisto himself, we found it hard to keep from dancing or stomping in time with the music. This concert is touring Australia until the end of March. If you really need reassurance that the ACO is a fine band, with or without Tognetti, do not miss this it. If you really need reassurance that the ACO is a fine band, with or without Tognetti, do not miss this it. Pekka Kuusisto and the Australian Chamber Orchestra Bach and Sibelius Nationally until 26 March

Suzanne Yanko

Wednesday 18 March, 2009

About the author

Suzanne Yanko is the editor of www.classicmelbourne.com.au. She has worked as a reviewer, writer, broadcaster and editor for Fairfax Digital, the Herald-Sun, the South China Morning Post, Radio 4 Hong Kong, HMV VOICE - and, for six years, ArtsHub.   Email: syanko@artshub.com.au