Music News & Reviews

Australian Chamber Orchestra takes on American music for U.S. tour


The orchestra is Australian, but the music is distinctly American.

When the Australian Chamber Orchestra visits Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville on Friday, audiences will hear the group and American soprano Dawn Upshaw perform Maria Schneider's Winter Morning Walks.

"Maria Schneider's music comes out of your country's great jazz history," artistic director and group leader Richard Tognetti said Wednesday, hours after arriving in Atlanta from Australia.

"She worked and studied with Gil Evans, which, when I heard that, I was on my knees in praise. He's an astonishing musician and one of my all-time heroes," Tognetti said of the legendary band leader, pianist and composer. "With this great sense of American-ness and coming from the Midwest, coming from the prairies, there is something unashamedly American about the music that does shine through."

In touring with Upshaw, the ACO is joining one of the world's great advocates for new music. Among the Nashville native's legendary recordings is Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which helped spur a renewed interest in contemporary classical music in the mid-1990s. Upshaw has since worked with virtually every other prominent composer of today, including John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov.

Asked whether the Australian Chamber Orchestra has a similar commitment to new music, Tognetti said, "Everybody should."

He said programmers often can get conservative in what they want to present, pulling primarily from standard repertoire of the 18th through early 20th centuries. Tognetti said he senses that today's audiences are more open to new music and new performance styles.

The chamber orchestra doesn't get too outrageous in its concerts, but its musicians play while standing and eschew formalwear for concerts. Tognetti chuckled at a Time Out New York review that called the ACO "badass," but he also said he thinks the group is engaging modern music with a modern style.

The North American tour takes the group from Atlanta on Thursday to New York's Carnegie Hall on April 30.

Works on the tour include pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich, Franz Schubert and Edward Grieg, but Winter Morning Walks, which the orchestra is recording in New York with Upshaw, is the centerpiece.

The time would seem to be right for new American music, Tognetti said.

"Twenty years ago, modernism was still the predominant voice, and everything else was regarded as cheap and tacky," he said. "Now we're really in the age of post-modernism, and there is room for different voices, and the American voice is very clearly projected through Maria's music, and you can't help but love it."

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