It was the best concert from the Australian Chamber Orchestra in years. I’m biased though… I’m Australian and I love to hear music by composers from my country. Even better when it is performed by world class musicians having a good time.

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Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s programs have become increasingly Euro-centric; there are only two works by Australians on the 2018 subscription series. But on Wednesday the attraction of a new work by Elena Kats-Chernin plus the larger than life cello soloist Steven Isserlis attracted a near-capacity crowd to the Perth Concert Hall. Mingling in among the audience was Kats-Chernin and Mirek Generowicz, the Perth local who commissioned her new work.

Kats-Chernin’s music is very personal – she once told me her music is her diary, her thoughts coming out through her fingers. In this commission however she made someone else’s diary audible through music. In A Knock One Night Kats-Chernin cleverly transported the audience into back in time via a hazy a cluster chord out of which a melody, a memory, emerged. Strains of Polish children’s songs were given a bittersweet edge by artistic director and concertmaster Richard Tognetti and his string players. The abrasive second movement was peppered with aggressive taps on the wooden bodies of the instruments to depict the night in 1941 when there was a knock at the door and the Generowicz family were deported with thousands of other Polish families. Kats-Chernin’s idiosyncratic chugging rhythms captured the train journey into the unknown, coloured by shivering tremolo and harmonic dissonance.

The program notes revealed that the family eventually found refuge in a British army base where a local coffee shop owner played a tango when the camp inmates went for their daily march. Kats-Chernin needs no excuse to weave in her favourite dance form and so the third movement with its sweet flowing melody and tango groove bubbled with optimism and humour.

Expansive drones and string harmonic chirping in the final movement heralded the arrival of the Generowicz family in Australia. There were also delicate taps on the wood of the instruments, perhaps the transfigured return of the knock theme? It was a peaceful and satisfying conclusion a work that was quintessential Kats-Chernin: concisely crafted, evocative but without schmaltz and bristling with creative ideas couched in familiar forms.

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My preconcert talk audience included Elena Kats-Chernin (second from left) and her commissioner Mirek and the Generowicz family.

The resonance in the program between Kats-Chernin’s work and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 – written during the period the Generowicz family fled Russia – revealed the thoughtfulness behind the ACO’s programming.

Shostakovich’s concerto is regarded as one of the most difficult for cello but Isserlis was at ease with the multitude of runs, double stops, harmonics and left hand pizzicato. Unfortunately the wind and brass players who also joined the orchestra were less comfortable and the concerto got off to an untidy start in terms of pitch and timing. Isserlis’ extreme dynamic contrasts soon brought the cohesiveness back. His understated, elegaic performance of the Andante was a highlight, particularly the extremely high ending coloured by celeste and clarinet contributions. In the final movement he gave us glimpses of Shostakovich’s passionate heart, contained within a Soviet military precision and an icy coldness.

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Cellist Steven Isserlis

To add to my joy there was a second world premiere on the program, a work by American composer Samuel Adams. Movement pitted a quartet of soloists pitted against the larger ensemble in a nod to the Baroque concerto grosso form. A pattern of triplet rhythms was the core motif and the accompanying ensemble offered contrasting material or performed the same musical idea but rhythmically displaced. The ACO members had taut control of the complex layering and the effect was like a web of electronic samples dispersed in stereo across the stage. Musically Adams’ ideas were interesting (and strongly reminiscent of his father John Adams’ roots in minimalism) but the dense harmonic suspension became wearing on the ear. A calm central section provided respite before the work concluded with the return of the racing triplets.

Haydn’s Symphony No 104 was the perfect finish to the night. Tognetti led an explosive version of the first movement with phrase ends tossed off with almost dismissive lightness. The perfectly paced Andante was graced by an exquisite flute line while the Minuet and Trio had the jaunty precision required to pull off Haydn’s musical jokes. The orchestra, now well into their national tour and relaxing into the familiar repertoire, began to stretch the boundaries in a very fast finale bursting with elan. Tognetti led with typical veracity, eliciting smiles of delight from the players as the last movement of Haydn’s symphony became a hoedown.

It was a fabulous ending to a deeply satisfying program. But then I am biased – everything sounds fresh when it is balanced by the voice of my contemporaries.