Love and Transfiguration: The Australian Chamber Orchestra
Review: ACO StudioCast online concert, premiere on 18 May then on demand until 31 December 2021. Tickets available here.
[Disclosure: The ACO provided me with a ticket to this concert for the purposes of this review.]
Love and Transfiguration is the third concert in the ACO’s season of concerts filmed especially for streaming -StudioCasts in ACO vernacular. In this concert, everything comes together to create a beautiful, thoughtful meditation on love and its power to heal.
The programming is gorgeous; it is a literal and philosophical incarnation of the concert title. I loved it!
The first piece, The Voice of Love by Pēteris Vasks, represents love in all its permutations. The second piece, Bach’s I Call to You, Lord Jesus Christ, represents the conjunction between love and spiritual healing. Finally, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, represents transfiguration by healing through love.
Vox Amoris (The Voice of Love) was written by Pēteris Vasks for the ACO in 2008 and has been rarely performed outside Australia. Vox Amoris is a fantasy for violin and strings and explores all the permutations of love, which the composer called; “the greatest power in the world.”
This is a beautiful and spacious piece that rewards both careful listening and letting your mind soar free. There is definitely an element of fantasy here with allusions to Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
The piece contains two violin cadenzas; virtuoso solo passages. The cadenzas are exquisitely enhanced by the cinematography and staging. The first cadenza, at 6.49, plunges the rest of the orchestra in darkness with a single spotlight on the solo violin.
This was dramatic and unexpected and enriched the listening experience. Similarly, the second cadenza, at 12.56, built on the thrill by spectacularly materialising Tognetti onto an empty stage.
Cadenzas of their very nature are exhibitions, and the sensational staging enriched the excitement.
I will make one criticism of the cinematography/editing and direction. The second cadenza dramatically puts Tognetti onto an empty stage – yet in splicing in footage of a closeup, an orchestra member can be seen standing behind Tognetti, at 13.02 (see photo below).
Having an orchestra member suddenly appear when Tognetti is supposed to be on an empty stage is a rather jarring viewing experience. Obviously - this is nothing really – but if the ACO is going to flaunt its cinematography, then it invites greater scrutiny of that aspect of its offering.
The second piece is Bach’s Chorale Prelude number 46 from his Little Organ Book – part teaching manual and part chorale cycle. This piece is called, I Call To You, Lord Jesus Christ and is a 2-minute prelude based on Agricola’s 16th century hymn.
It is a beautiful piece and the 3 organ voices in the original are given to violin, viola with the bass voice being split between the double bass and the cello. Splitting the bass voice in this way is a kind of genius – the double bass pizzicatos (plucks) the note at the top of the beat and the cello plays the note for the full duration.
Done this way, the bass notes sound extraordinarily like the bass notes on a pipe organ – with the initial “attack” of the note by the foot pressure on the organ pedal represented by the double bass pizzicato and the breathy continuation of the note on an organ pipe represented by the cello.
Scholars have postulated that Bach had the first verse of Agricola’s hymn in front of him when composing this prelude – the words are an appeal to God to strengthen the supplicant’s faith so that they can embody God’s values of love and compassion. The words are beautiful and I will include them here.*
Lord, hear the voice of my complaint.
To Thee I now commend me.
Let not my heart and hope grow faint
but deign Thy grace to send me truth faith from Thee.
My God, I seek the faith that loves Thee solely,
keeps me lowly and prompt to aid the weak,
and mark each word that Thou dost speak.
The final piece in the concert is Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Transfigured Night. Schoenberg composed this piece in 3 weeks, having been inspired by Richard Dehmel’s radical poem of the same name. When the poem was published in 1890, it triggered a scandal and was banned for obscenity and blasphemy. Today, we can experience both the Dehmel’s poem and Schoenberg’s piece as beautiful, spiritual expressions of love that transcend all. I include it here in full – because it is so beautiful.
Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood; the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze. The moon moves along above tall oak trees, there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance to which the black, jagged tips reach up. A woman's voice speaks: "I am carrying a child, and not by you. I am walking here with you in a state of sin. I have offended grievously against myself. I despaired of happiness, and yet I still felt a grievous longing for life's fullness, for a mother's joys and duties; and so I sinned, and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex to the embrace of a stranger, and even thought myself blessed. Now life has taken its revenge, and I have met you, met you." She walks on, stumbling. She looks up; the moon keeps pace. Her dark gaze drowns in light. A man's voice speaks: "Do not let the child you have conceived be a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe shines! Splendour falls on everything around, you are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me, from me in you. That warmth will transfigure the stranger's child, and you bear it me, begot by me. You have transfused me with splendour, you have made a child of me." He puts an arm about her strong hips. Their breath embraces in the air. Two people walk on through the high, bright night.
I realise I haven’t said very much about the quality of the playing in this concert. That’s because I don’t need to. The ACO is one of the world’s greatest string orchestras and is at the cutting edge of technical virtuosity, and clean and innovative interpretation. They are also playing some of the best and rarest instruments in the world. When I don’t enjoy concerts by the ACO, it is never about the quality of the musicianship or technical excellence.
This latest of the ACO’s StudioCasts is innovative and beautiful – embodying the idea of love as a transformative and healing power. It demands as much as you are able to give and will transfigure you whether you listen with close attention or with a wandering mind.
All of the ACO's online concerts are available until 31 December 2021. Here's my review of the first concert, Rapture and Revolution , which I loved, and my review of the second concert, Bach and Beyond, which I didn't.
* I have added my own spacing and punctuation for ease of comprehension.