Australian Chamber Orchestra closes Fort Lauderdale classical season on high note

April 25, 2015
By David Fleshler
Sharon Kam performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Australian Chamber Orchestra Wednesday night at the Broward Center.

Sharon Kam performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Australian Chamber Orchestra Wednesday night at the Broward Center.

A dark and ghostly performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 was the highlight of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert Wednesday night in Fort Lauderdale.

As one of the composer’s most popular symphonies, the 40th has been heard many times by veteran concertgoers. Yet rarely will you hear such an original, yet uncontrived, interpretation as the one the orchestra brought to the Broward Center.

The famous opening melody was rendered by the violins with spare bowing, low volume and an unusual intensity, leaving the melody easily heard yet shrouded within the orchestral accompaniment. Quiet playing predominated to an unusual degree, dark, rustling passages that yielded to climaxes that arrived with that much more ferocity.

The performance of the Menuetto, normally given a fairly straightforward interpretation, was particularly striking. The musicians played the opening theme faster and less percussively than traditionally, giving it a murky and mysterious quality. When the theme returned toward the end, they suddenly dropped to a quiet tone, then ramped up in a rapid crescendo to an aggressive final statement of the theme.

In the last movement, all the repeats were taken, which is a rarity. Contrasts were emphasized with soft, quick-moving passages, punctuated by brutal, hard-driving attacks.

The orchestra, founded 40 years ago and led by violinist Richard Tognetti, plays—with most members standing—with remarkable unity and incisive, transparent clarity. From a seat in the fifth row, usually too close to allow the sound to blend, the orchestra meshed perfectly, with no stray sounds from individual players.

The turnout must have been a disappointment for the orchestra. The hall was only about twenty percent full, with whole sections of empty seats, reflecting the Broward Center’s continuing difficulty in selling tickets for its classical series. The Center this week announced a scaled-back classical series for next season, with just three major concerts.

The program opened with Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, a series of short piano works composed during World War I, arranged for string orchestra. With many sections lasting just a minute or so, these tiny mood pieces showed how much color and variety could be drawn from a string orchestra with the right musicians. Sudden thrusts of sound in the violins, soft and eerie runs, rhythmic processions of gruff chords, and stark modern melodie, were all played with style and gusto by the Australians.

The Israeli-born clarinetist Sharon Kam came on stage as soloist in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. One of the composer’s last pieces, the concerto overflows with melody yet is shot through with melancholy, from the extended minor-key passages of the outer movements to the sad, nostalgic melody of the Adagio.

Kam brought to the performance a dark and rounded tone, with an assured technique that allowed her to zip through ornaments and runs with a smooth, even sound, but without the sort of virtuoso brashness that would be out of place in this work. She played an elongated instrument called a basset clarinet, a modern version of the instrument for which Mozart wrote, allowing her access to the lower range of notes in the original score.

In her hands, the extended runs and other quick passages of the first movement came off as deeply expressive, always going someplace and rooted in the larger work, but never in a pedantic or formulaic manner. She played the Adagio with classical restraint, avoiding the excessive pathos with which some clarinetists perform it. But restraint doesn’t mean coldness, and her performance of the return of the main theme, soft, like an echo of remembered times, was among the most affecting moments of the performance.

The British composer Jonny Greenwood, best known as lead guitarist for the rock band Radiohead, composed the work Water for the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2013. A violist with training on several other instruments, Greenwood has written several film scores.

Composed for string orchestra, electronic keyboard and two tanpuras (long-necked Indian string instruments), the work gives some rhythmic freedom to the musicians. Opening with repeated two-notes patterns against a background of electronic sound, the music gains momentum, leading to violent, improvisatory passages in solo violin and string ensemble. The strings and two flutes create the movement, as water seems to drip, flow and then surge in torrents, surrounded by the static, unchanging drone of the Indian instruments—-a slow moving procession of tones that conveys a hypnotic, minimalist expression.

As an encore, they performed the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No.  29, giving a bright, spirited performance that raced along with the momentum of an operatic overture.

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