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Music Review : Australian Chamber Orchestra at Wadsworth Theatre

February 23, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

In these days of often faceless symphony orchestras, much of the character in larger ensembles has shifted to small chamber orchestras. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example, is an ensemble with a highly individual profile, clearly demonstrated Sunday evening at the Wadsworth Theatre.

Unlike many such recent visitors from Europe, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is a young ensemble--both the unit and the individuals--composed mostly of women. Among the oddities in performance: The last desk players among the two violin sections exchanged places between numbers, and one of the two string basses dropped out for Mozart, while the principal bassist apparently wanted a recording of his efforts, for if the microphone directly in front of him was used for amplification, it was exceedingly subtle.

ACO generally functions without the ministrations of a conductor. Concertmaster and artistic director Carl Pini leads the well-drilled group by restrained example, with a minimum of gesticulation.

The result Sunday was relaxed, confident, yet, paradoxically, highly disciplined playing.

The Australians' sound was light and their interpretations understated. There are certainly grittier, more intense approaches to Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, but Pini and his colleagues proved an emphasis on elegance and mystery can work effectively. They delivered a remarkably hushed slow movement, and nicely balanced exuberance and reserve in the outer movements.

The ensemble has recently recorded Schubert's Fifth Symphony, with Charles Mackerras conducting. No guiding baton was necessary Sunday, though, for a sparkling, gracious performance of both charm and substance.

As the evening's soloist, 20-year-old American violinist Joshua Bell turned in a quirky, personal account of Mozart's Concerto in A, K. 219. The enormously talented, gangly young musician has a jerky, nervous style, much easier to listen to than to watch. It was made musically manifest most problematically in the Joachim cadenzas and the Turkish sections of the finale.

Elsewhere, Bell proved a facile technician and an interpreter fond of sharp contrasts and almost brittle clarity. The Australians accommodated him suavely, in well-defined accompaniment.

Barry Conyngham's "Glimpses of Bennelong" is four movements of excerpts and re-composition from a music-theater work about a colonial-era Aborigine, a work the ACO will give its first performance to, in Holland, in April. The music consists of evocatively scored, tonally centered impressions, merging film-score influences with bits of aleatoric noodling. It is attractive, if not grandly inspired stuff, and ACO played it with accomplished verve, capably conducted by principal bassist David McBride.

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