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MUSIC REVIEWS : Strong Southland Return for Australian Strings

April 05, 1993|DANIEL CARIAGA

Five years after their first visit here, 17 crackerjack string players from Down Under returned to Southern California during the weekend.

In concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and in Royce Hall at UCLA, the touring Australian Chamber Orchestra gave splendid and ear-opening performances before less-than-overflowing audiences.

In Segerstrom Hall, under auspices of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, Friday night, the Australian strings, with their four wind players, brought a conventional chamber-orchestra program--music by Haydn, Weber, Mozart and Bartok--then played it with practically irresistible panache.

Saturday night, in Westwood, the 17 strings, with the addition of a single percussionist, started their 20th-Century program with the same Bartok piece, then moved onward, into music by Leo Brouwer, Peter Sculthorpe and Leos Janacek.

Whatever the score, these young and accomplished musicians excel in it. Their energy, commitment and technical skills occupy a high, international level; their playing as an ensemble has a single-mindedness few orchestras of any size achieve. And they give every evidence of believing in what they do.

Richard Tognetti has become the new artistic director, called "leader," not conductor, in the half-decade since the ACO's last Southland visit. His low profile as the onstage guiding force of the orchestra is an admirable stance: Musical decisions--clearly, most of them wise ones--are apparently made by the players as a group.

Still, Tognetti's quiet leadership seems reassuring; this kind of strength, combined with modesty, exists on very few podiums. Its positive effects, shown in mechanically transparent, emotionally motivated and lushly resonant performances of Bartok's Divertimento for strings (both nights) and a most successful arrangement of Janacek's First Quartet (Saturday) cannot be overpraised.

On the current tour, two soloists add spice to the programs.

Friday night, the American clarinetist Daniel McKelway played an orchestral arrangement of Weber's Clarinet Quintet that threatened to take one's breath away, so fluent, virtuosic and irrepressibly Romantic was his performance of the solo part.

In this guise, the piece itself, hardly well-known, should be seized by every clarinetist able to master its long lines and mechanical demands. The orchestra assisted affectionately.

Saturday, American guitarist David Leisner took the obligato solos in Brouwer's early, forgettable "Danzas Concertantes" and the central role in the local premiere of Sculthorpe's "Nourlangie," an overlong (19 minutes), picturesque tone-poem of no particular distinction.

Leisner's contributions proved solid rather than engaging.

In Royce Hall, as at Segerstrom, the main attraction seemed to be the youth, apparent idealism and rampant technical facility of the orchestra.

Yet another return visit is indicated; perhaps next time, larger audiences will materialize.

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