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Photo by Daniel Boud


Factory Theatre, March 2

The pleasures or diversions or deliberate complications of an ACO Underground show once used to begin with the shock of juxtapositions.

There was the fact that an offshoot of one of the world’s finest orchestras was playing before you in downmarket venues and in informal wear, and some of its more genteel subscribers had had to program the GPS to find parts of Sydney they only knew from the evening news or those “discover the quirky ethnic corner of the city” stories in the broadsheets.

And of course the likelihood that a piece by Bach or Pendericki might be followed by something from Cobain (Kurt) or Greenwood (Jonny), or even that the sometimes troublesome Webern and provocative Pateras could be preceded by the even more troublesome Reznor (Trent) and perennially provocative Weill (Kurt) and Brecht (Bertolt).

This no longer really applies. Not because those juxtapositions don’t occur; au contraire, they remain the core of the setlist for violinist/vocalist Satu Vanska’s ensemble with, on this night for example, Pateras followed by Spector (Phil), Stravinsky and Dessner (Bryce) opening, and Paganini and Weill, closing the set.

Instead what has come more and more into focus over the years as we have grown accustomed to the selections is the curatorial thinking, the thematic, or maybe more accurately, emotional underpinning of each performance.

This packed-out show at The Factory Theatre seemed linked, to my ears anyway (so, yes, it may say a lot more about me than Vanska), by an undercurrent of discomfort that would open out into self-disgust at regular intervals.

Photo by Daniel Boud

The obvious candidates were there in Nine Inch Nail’s grey-lit Something I Can Never Have (Vanska treading firmly into the quicksand of lines such as “I still recall the taste of your tears” and rubbing raw “you make this all go away, and I’m starting to scare myself”) and Schnittke’s String Quartet No.2 with its stark severity held in only so long before agitation and a bid for escape, principally through cellist Julian Thompson.

Or the isolation deepening in the two selections from Nick Drake, the contained and distant rather than sombre, River Man, early in the set, and the more sparse (Slava Grigoryan’s guitar to the fore) and accepting of fate, They’re Leaving Me Behind, as the final number.

And it positively bellowed at us in the driving blend of No Wave and post-punk (think Lydia Lunch fronting The Au Pairs), with electric violin and stabbing electronic treatments, from Joseph Nizeti, of Richard Tognetti’s Heston. Yes, named after the celebrity chef. No, it’s not a love letter.

However, it also wasn’t hard to find in the synth pulse and contrasting stream of pricked and elegant strings in Dessner’s Aheym, paired with the deep well of the classic eastern European blend of romance and tragedy within Stravinsky’s Three Pieces For String Quartet.

Or for that matter in Pateras’s An Island Of An Island Off An Island, which seared immediately with discordant violins in disjointed unison before a strong burst of disgust cleared space. And, naturally, in Weill’s decrepit cabaret, Alabama Song, which rode along with bassist Maxime Bibeau.

A sliver of joy, you ask? Fear not, there were there in Tognetti and Vanska’s dance through Paganini’s Caprice No.5 In A Minorand Tognetti’s elegant Transfiguration (with Nizeti on electric guitar soundwash), in the surprising small-town fair climax of a selection from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a courtly solo moment from Grigoryan, and in the many contributions of Elizabeth Woolnough, on viola and vocals.

But really there was so much to extract from the more lacerating elements, whether that was Evan Mannell’s sometimes bitter percussion, or that strain of disgust which flowered regularly. As any recovering Catholic can tell you, there’s enjoyment to be had in a burst of self-loathing.

ACO Underground will play MEMO Music Hall, Melbourne, March 11 and Earl Arts Centre, Launceston, March 12 (both sold out unfortunately)

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