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There’s been talk again about getting that classical music stuff into the ears, and the wallets, of people under the age of 40. It’s a perennial, and perennially a bit of a waste of time as people try to make the classical repertoire “sexy” or “relevant” and try so hard they kill it.

Let’s not call it crossover ok?

But as we saw in 2012, in one of the first incarnations of the experimental edge of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, ACO Underground, sometimes it just takes imaginative programming (say something by Jonny Greenwood, who performed in this show, alongside pieces by Reich and Webern) and some different rooms (a porn theatre anyone?).

Or, if you’re the regular ACO at the moment, doing it by touring a program of works by artists better known for their pop/rock work – with that Mr Greenwood again, alongside Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner – alongside their influences such as Pendericki and Lutoslawski.


ACO Underground

The Standard, December 2

ACO Underground were upstairs actually, in the slightly dank and definitely crowded environs of a room – part of the old Kinselas building - never really envisaged as a classical venue. But then ACO Underground aren’t classical really, not if you go by look (denim and heels), by audience (there was no age/class/sponsor’s ticket demarcation) or terminology (the group’s founder, violinist/vocalist Satu Vanska, is referred to as the “frontwoman” in their press material).

However, the superfluousness of definitions and differentiations is part of what these musicians and these shows - the second in Australia by this offshoot of the Australian Chamber Orchestra but there’s also been one in a Slovenian porn theatre - are about.

In two sections which might loosely be described as focusing on solemnity and sadness and then pain and anguish (but belying both descriptions to be quietly thrilling), we had shifting formations of strings and samples, on-stage looping and virtuoso oud, vocals and acoustic guitars, electric guitars and laptops.

None of it seemed contrived; all of it felt progressive, in the sense of moving forwards from one idea naturally into another in a way which carried novices and the knowledgeable back and forth.

Blending William Walton’s pastoral Facade, a Finnish hymn and Richard Tognetti’s Sometimes You Wait with voice and samples (bringing to mind a few classic Tex Avery cartoons actually) began bridging the musical and temporal distance from a Bach fugue to a Ravel kaddish (with oud master Joseph Tawadros freelancing underneath) to the measured flair of Tawadros’s composition lamenting the destruction of an ancient city’s heart.

It was not that far then to Jonny Greenwood’s ACO commission, Miniature #1, which was underscored by the lute-like Indian tambura.

That it came via hearing Vanska channel Marlene Deitrich (or maybe Lili von Shtupp) for a song, Wenn ich mir was wunschen durfte, which was cast in sadness, and an excerpt from Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, which was cast in sombre greys, made perfect sense. As did Greenwood himself exploring the back and forth possibilities of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint via guitar and laptop.

Even greater emotional synchronicity was achieved in the second half of the night when the flow between Webern, Shostakovich and Cobain (as in Kurt, with Vanska on primal scream) superbly and disturbingly linked pain and terror and inchoate anger. No one was debating classical versus popular by then.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra perform works by Szymanowski, Greenwood, Penderecki, Stevens, Dessner and Lutoslawski at the City Recital Hall tonight, June 26, June 28 and 29.

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