Tchaikovsky’s Serenade: The Australian Chamber Orchestra
Review: ACO StudioCast online concert, premiered on 7 July, 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.]
The ACO has released the fourth concert in its StudioCast series; called Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. For me, these beautifully shot concerts, filmed and recorded especially for streaming, have been an oasis of beauty and calm, especially during the dark days of this past, very grim English winter.
I could not really understand the ACO’s own marketing description of this concert’s theme:
“But the heartfelt, the music coming from the core of woman or man, can ask something special too. Maybe at times even ask more…”
Given the state of the marketing description, I’ve concluded that the ACO has just chosen to play beautiful, emotional pieces that the musicians love. This is probably the very best way to programme a concert and I think it’s fine (and honest) to say so.
The star of the show, taking up half the concert’s length, is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. This is shot in some sort of huge, empty industrial space – perhaps an empty warehouse. It is backlit with a combination of warm spotlights interspersed with cool white skylights, which fan out across the back wall. The huge empty space is a visual representation of your auditory space – and on the opening notes of the Serenade, both visual and auditory spaces are filled with richness and warmth.
When he started writing this piece in 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend:
“Today I could not bear it, and endure it no longer, and I busied myself a little with designs for a future symphony—perhaps? I immediately began to feel cheerful, well, and relaxed…”
Listening to this piece, as performed by the ACO, I think you will also immediately feel cheerful, well, and relaxed. In fact, by the fourth movement, which is to be played cheerfully, with spirit (allegro con spirito), there is a distinct party atmosphere. All the musicians start smiling and you can see how much fun they are having, playing the repetitions of the two bar, staccato ditty.
There’s also quite a bit of fun with the upbow spiccato - playing detached notes at the lower end of the bow by bouncing the bow off the string – which is as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.
The piece that follows, Andante for Strings by Ruth Crawford Seger, written in 1931, is the slow movement of a string quartet, transcribed for string orchestra. The piece is about three and a half minutes long and creates an interesting contrasting element. The piece is full of long dissonant overlapping notes, full of crescendos and diminuendos - developing a sound scape across the orchestra. As I was listening to this piece, images of a huge traffic jam in New York filled my mind. It was quite a fun experience.
Crawford Seger’s piece was followed by Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies, which fits nicely; Crawford Seger abandoned her dissonant compositions in order to collect, transcribe and arrange folk music.
I always love Ravel with his elegant and majestic orchestration. This piece, originally for voice and piano has been arranged by Tognetti – with the violin taking the part of the voice and the rest of the orchestra accompanying. Tognetti is a master at arrangement. I loved his melodies, staying on the G and D strings, rather than switching to the higher strings. High notes on low strings means a rich, deep, emotional tone and that proper, fat vibrato that I secretly feel is only really satisfying on the lower strings.
The fourth piece is another Tchaikovsky – his Andante Cantabile – originally a string quartet but gorgeously arranged by Tognetti as a cello solo with string orchestra accompaniment. You know when an arrangement is great because it sounds the way the piece is meant to be – and so it is with Tognetti’s arrangement.
Timo-Veikko Valve plays the cello solo and it is truly something very, very special. I absolutely love Valve’s style of playing. He always plays as though he’s just spent the day at a spa – in the steam room and getting massages. He looks utterly relaxed and fluid and this translates into the music – the tone he coaxes from his cello is like whipped molten gold.
My only criticism of this portion of the concert is the cinematography. This piece is a cello solo – so when the cello is playing, I want to see the cellist play. For some reason, often enough to be annoying, the cinematographer jumps to show Tognetti playing accompanying notes during some beautiful cello passages. Tognetti is in half darkness and is playing sympathetic accompaniment – there is no reason to keep jumping to him during the cello solo. It’s the movie equivalent of an action film constantly cutting to a bystander during thrilling parts of a car chase.
I’m also not particularly a fan of the “arty” shot that shows extreme close-ups of, for example, the strings – when we can’t see the bow hand or the fingering hand. Many people, like me, gain enjoyment out of watching the musicians play as well as hearing the music and too many “artistic” shots hamper this enjoyment. In fact, there were so many cuts to different angles that for the first in this concert series I felt that the cinematography damaged the experience of the music. It’s easily remedied by closing your eyes!
The concert finishes with Lyric for Strings, composed by African American composer, George Walker, when he was only 24. Walker composed this piece in memory of his grandmother, who had been a slave and lost her husband, when he was sold. Even though Walker changed the title from “Lament” to “Lyric for Strings”, he continued to refer to it as his grandmother’s piece. The piece is full of compassion, sadness, warmth, and love – and will bring solace to those who have suffered over the past year. The ACO performs this piece cleanly and with respect – letting the intention of the composer shine through rather than imposing an over emotional interpretation.
This fourth ACO concert, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, is a collection of some of the most beautiful music ever composed, played by some of the most talented musicians alive today.
All photos are video still from the concert.