The Australian Chamber Orchestra brought suitable trappings for its appearance in the Baroque Variations series at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night. The ornate harpsichord looked antique and worn. The ensemble decided to forgo the hall's Scandinavian-modern music stands and use its own, old-fashioned folding models.
Like players of yore, most performed standing up. The repertory included proper Baroque works by Vivaldi and Rameau, as well as some middle-period Haydn and Mozart, which was close enough for jazz.
Actually, the evening was, in spirit, surprisingly close to jazz. These Aussies are no period-instrument junkies, no all-but-bewigged scholar/performer period-practice zealots. They dress in sophisticated modish black. Some of the guys sport nifty spiked hair styles (the women, curiously, dress more conservatively). Everyone plays everything with raw, high-spirited, rhythmically propulsive energy.
The ACO has just made a surf film, "Musica Surfica," which looks pretty great from the YouTube trailer. In it, surfers seem to be eloquent dancers on waves of purple haze accompanied by a Baroque soundtrack with the drive and din of Jimi Hendrix. Early music doesn't get much hipper than this.
You might also say that early music doesn't get much more authentic than this, either, if true period practice is less about history and more about making ancient music sound as though it were written yesterday.
The ACO was founded 20 years ago by violinist Richard Tognetti, who leads it from his fiddle. It has an international reputation and attracts top soloists. In the past, it has brought with it soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianists Piotr Anderszewski and Angela Hewitt to UCLA and OCPAC. Paul Lewis, the young British pianist whose recent fastidious recordings of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas has won raves, was on hand Tuesday as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12, K.414.
But the ensemble's profile is still Down Under. Its recordings on the ABC Classics label -- which include old and new music and some smart crossover -- are hard-to-find expensive Australian imports in the States. And the ensemble didn't do itself any favors by collaborating on the widely promoted but trivial "Classical Destinations" television series. PBS would do far better to pick up "Musica Surfica."
Or maybe it should just broadcast a terrific concert like Tuesday's in Disney. The evening began with the 11th of Vivaldi's 12 concertos from the "L'Estro Armonico" series, with Tognetti as startling soloist and conductor of a small contingent of strings. His approach to Vivaldi was one of extreme articulation. Strings were sharply attacked with bows. The ensemble virtuosity was breathtaking. Drama took center stage, and yet through it all Tognetti maintained an engaging singing line.
Mozart's concerto was, in contrast, exceptional for its melting eloquence. Lewis is a wonderfully fluid player, and I began to have visions of surfers here, as he seemed to glide over ravishing strings with sure, delicate grace. Heavenly melodies were shaped for maximum pleasure and exchanged between piano and strings like kisses and caresses. Maybe this is the place to praise the three violas. Never buried, they felt somehow to be Mozart's mellow soul. The pairs of horns and oboes stood in the back adding a sonic glow. In the ACO, winds and brass are second fiddle.
Haydn's Symphony No. 44 was played after intermission. It is known as the "Mourning" Symphony because Haydn may or may not have asked for its slow movement to be used at his funeral. The movement, here, was given an extraordinarily delicate treatment, Tognetti and his colleagues producing the finest slender thread of exquisite string tone, the sound of the soul leaving corporeal flesh. But the rest of the raucous symphony was pure red meat.
The suite to Rameau's "Dardanus" closed the program with grand flourishes. Lacking recorders and flutes, only part of this color-saturated French Baroque score could be presented. Two horns stood apart on risers. The oboes were embedded with the violas, and the lone bassoon shared space with the cellos and bass. Once more, it wasn't their show now when the strings rocked and rolled in six short, irresistible movements.
The last was war music and a rollicking riot. If there were still mainstream surf hits, I'd bet that with a bit of electronic voodoo and a backbeat this could be turned into one. After 20 years, this red-hot band is long overdue for a major record contract and star treatment. And next time the Australians come to town, bring the kids.