Click photo to enlarge
PAUL HENDERSON KELLY/CAL PERFORMANCES Australian Chamber Orchestra.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is as good as its considerable press. Its performances are models of clarity and balance; the audience gets to peer, as it were, into the scores as new sub-strata of expression are revealed. Think of Old Master paintings getting restored -- those layers of grit removed, the colors newly shining, pulling you in.

That was the orchestra's impact Friday in Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, where it played the first of two programs, presented by Cal Performances. It was an all-Russian event: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, whose impudent and desperately beautiful Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings was the centerpiece of the concert's first half. It was composed under the Soviet gun in 1933.

With soloists Alice Sara Ott (piano) and Christopher Martin (trumpet), it received a searching performance: sad and solitary, an essay in alienation, even while needling and sticking out its tongue. Ott, only 24, seemed to empathize with the composer's existential plight. She played with elegance and bite (though not always with enough volume), while tumbling through Shostakovich's circus-isms in the first movement, or prowling about his spider-in-the-basement secondary themes. Martin, an incisive player whose tone can be buttery or tinged with a tipsy buzz, expertly partnered the exploration.


Advertisement

Shostakovich spent a portion of his young adulthood accompanying silent films in a seedy theater, and the Lento movement's melancholy theme sounds like something he might have composed for Charlie Chaplin, imagining "The Tramp" as a victim of Stalinism. Ott's cadenza here was tenderly expressive. And in the finale -- peppered with allusions to Beethoven and the cavalry charge of Rossini's "William Tell" Overture -- her barrelhouse breakout was virtuoso comedy. Yet, the true star of the show was the orchestra, dropping sheer curtains of wistfulness throughout, or keeping its energies under wraps, tamped down, and then opening up into startling outbursts.

Violinist Richard Tognetti, the orchestra's artistic director since 1989, is a physical player, hunched down and edging or lunging into phrases. He guided and spurred on his players through the evening, which began with Prokofiev's "Visions Fugitives" (1915-17), composed as a set of piano miniatures and arranged for strings in 1962 by Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai. These 15 bite-size works made for a good introduction to the orchestra: its frosty shivers, its frenzies of crystal pizzicato and rosy-hued lyricism.

Except for the cellists, the orchestra's members stand while playing, a bow to tradition that pays off with a pervading alertness. After intermission, Shostakovich's Prelude and Scherzo for Strings, Op. 11 (also known as Two Pieces for String Octet) was the beneficiary of another "antennas up" treatment: exquisite chamber playing for a stripped-down ensemble of only eight musicians. One could hear so many details here, not only the work's inner voices, but whole inner conversations.

Shostakovich composed the piece in 1924-25, following the death of a friend, young poet Volodya Kurchavov. Friday, the opening Adagio was composed of one dreamy texture inside the next, quickening into clean, Baroque-inspired imitative passages. Later, the Scherzo rose to an alarming level of violence: almost murderous, the strings swarming.

The piece isn't often played, and it might have been the program's highlight, had not the orchestra finished with Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," performed by 18 players. This familiar work -- composed in 1890 and revised in 1891-92 -- sounded as if it had been re-scrutinized by Tognetti and the group. One suspects they studied and fought big-time over the score, taking it apart and reassembling it to reveal something freshly scrubbed and breathing like a babe in arms.

The waltzing first movement built to such a stunning crescendo that the audience broke into applause. The Adagio teemed with sweetness -- great unison playing with awesome micro-control of dynamic levels. The rhythmically charged, ensemble bowing in the third movement was world-class. It gave way to some muddiness in the finale, but not enough to undermine this nurturing performance.

There was no need for an encore, but the orchestra played one, anyway: an arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," with Tognetti as the sweet-voiced soloist.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Richard Tognetti, lead violin and artistic director

Program 2: Haydn's Symphony No. 49 in F minor and Symphony No. 4 in D major; Brett Dean's Electric Preludes for Electric Violin and String Orchestra, with Tognetti, soloist; Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E major
When: 8 p.m., March 23
Where: Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $52, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org