The Australian Chamber Orchestra, led by violinist and composer Richard Tognetti, will perform Thursday, April 12, at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. This will be only the group’s second appearance in the Atlanta area; the first was in 2007 at Spivey Hall.
The Atlanta concert kicks off an 11-concert North American tour, culminating in a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 30. This time around, Tognetti is bringing a core ensemble of 17 stringed instruments plus harp. Although most of the concerts in the tour will feature superstar soprano Dawn Upshaw as guest soloist, Upshaw performed a recital at the Schwartz only last week with pianist Gilbert Kalish, so Atlantans will instead hear the engaging New Zealand-born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
Rhodes will be featured in two song cycles: Richard Rodney Bennett’s rarely heard “Songs Before Sleep” and Beethoven’s seminal song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte.” Although it was originally for voice and piano, a version of “Songs Before Sleep” for voice and strings is readily available from Bennett’s publisher. But the Beethoven songs were another matter.
A little over a year ago, Tognetti was persuaded to arrange “An die ferne Geliebte” for strings and harp, specifically with Rhodes’ baritone voice in mind. At first, Tognetti told ArtsATL, he resisted the idea of arranging it, then it grew on him. Having initially been given wrong information about Rhodes’ voice, Tognetti said he first arranged it in a slightly unsuitable key but subsequently made the necessary adjustments. “I think we found a good tessitura for him, and it seems to work well for the strings,” says Tognetti, who is also the orchestra’s artistic director. “It’s still fresh. And yes, I think there is something quite refreshing about the sound of strings and harp playing this song cycle.”
Readily adapting to circumstances like that is one of Tognetti’s strengths, and under his leadership the versatile group has built a reputation for a chameleon-like ability to present sizzling, highly energized performances of interesting repertoire. Several works on the Atlanta program demonstrate the orchestra’s willingness to bend the rules and approach the music in a slightly different way.
One of those ways is a simple matter of size. For example, the concert will open with the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which is normally played by a large contingent of strings. Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, which will close the show, is normally played by only four instruments. Tognetti takes the risk of defying those norms, performing both with all of the 17 string players at hand.
It’s as much a pragmatic choice as anything, but one that also has tangible musical merit. Tognetti argues that while large symphony orchestras have massive volumes of repertoire readily available to them, famous works for string orchestras can almost be counted on one’s fingers. “There might even be some fingers left,” he jokes. “Of course that’s discounting early music, which is quite different. I’m talking about Romantic into 20th century.”
Togenetti defends this approach, pointing to how performing transcriptions and arrangements was quite common before the late 20th century. In doing so, he suggests that musicians and audience can discover different aspects of the music they reveal. “Hopefully, as an interpreter I’m being fairly true to the emotional language of the music,” he says.
In addition to the works mentioned above, the ACO will also perform the Prelude and Scherzo from an early string octet by Dmitri Shostakovich, Edward Elgar’s brief but elegant “Sospiri,” and Robert Saxton’s “Birthday Piece for RRB.”
The ACO’s latest recording, featuring music of Edvard Grieg, was released on March 27 on the BIS label.