26 February 2013

Review: Nostalgia presented by ARCO string orchestra

Kerr St Artspace (Museum of the Vernacular)

ARCO string orchestra
Alex Taylor - Conductor

Carolyn Drake

ARCO is now a well established feature of the Devonport musical scene, with many memorable performances over the last three years taking place at the Kerr St Artspace on the slopes of Mt Victoria. The brainchild of Silver Scrolls winner and local Alex Taylor, these concerts and other Intrepid Music Projects always promise audiences innovative interpretations of old and new music.

The ensemble began confidently with Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The first violins balanced playfulness with grace in the Praeludium, supported by robust rhythmic drive in the accompaniment. The Sarabande was lovingly shaped but was inflicted by moments of indigestible intonation. The Gavotte was too delicate, lacking the crispness demanded by the score; the task was made difficult by the soggy acoustic. This burden turned into great assistance in the Air where the first violins and lower strings traded beautifully dark and yearning phrases, softly cradled by the inner voices’ solemn pulses. The Rigaudon provided an energetic finish to the suite, with displays of outstanding virtuosity by Concertmaster Olivia Francis and Principal Viola Emma Fetherston.

Ronald Tremain's Five Epigrams for Twelve Solo Strings had the orchestra briefly explore different compositional methods. The concise programme notes were helpful for the listener to observe these Webern-esque process miniatures. The overall sound effect achieved by the orchestra in each movement was convincing, even if strict adherence to detail was hard to appreciate. The players managed the angular musical deconstructions with clarity and aplomb, undoubtedly helped in this instance with the direction of Taylor centre-stage.

The Dances of Brittany by Larry Pruden provided a lyrical contrast to the Tremain. The tolling undercurrent established by the violins energised the resonant viola section in their opening folk-like melody. Emma Fetherston crafted evocative viola solos in the second movement and reinvigorated the ensemble into the sparkling and fleetingly impressionistic final movement. This was certainly the highlight of the evening – excellent music performed with great joy.

After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s demanding Souvenir de Florence. The frolicsome first movement limped at a cumbersome pace, causing its usually flamboyant gestures and lilting phrases to become uncomfortably transparent and sometimes rather mechanical. The movement ended aggressively, saved from an abyss of cacophony with seconds to spare.

The central movements – Adagio cantabile e con moto and Allegretto moderato – were captivating in their simple beauty. The ensemble played the slow movement with a charming naïveté, however a more relaxed sound would have allowed subtler expressivo passages. The addition of double basses to the traditional sextet caused a few balance and intonation problems, however the additional power was particularly welcome in the third movement.

The Allegro vivace requires the players to create a tone of silky lightness but with the strength of steel. The violas and lower strings provided the secure rhythmic platform allowing glorious themes to flourish in the violins and upper celli. Animated by the liveliness of the music, the bright young musicians brought the concert to a rapturous conclusion.