Pekka Kuusisto, Sam Amidon and the ACO participating in a living tradition.
Music Review: Jennifer Gall
What an ensemble! Expertise and imagination in equal measure, and camaraderie that communicates the excitement of playing every note in collaboration. The ACO continue to explore partnerships despite the miss-givings reviewers (including myself) have voiced, and in this tour they have stuck gold. Richard Tognetti’s willingness to invite guest directors to tour is a wise insurance policy against falling into weary repetition of canonical composers and an investment in the longevity of the ensemble. Pekka Kuusisto directs with impeccable rhythmic strength energized with intense musicianship and risk taking curiosity. And of course he has a splendid dry wit. Each performance in this tour will be fresh.
Divided into two parts - music describing death and hopelessness and music describing redemption and regeneration - the repertoire interweaves art music and folk music expertly, alternating Janáček’s Quartet No 1 with solo sung ballads to take the audience on a journey through despair and hope into a hypnotic space of equanimity created by John Adam’s ‘Shaker Loops’. Leading the way along the musical path was young American singer, Sam Amidon, whose raw vocal clarity in collaboration with Nico Muhly’s exceptional instrumental arrangements keeps shivers running up and down the spine throughout.
Writing orchestral accompaniments for traditional song styles is perhaps the most difficult kind of arrangement to attempt. Many ballads were originally unaccompanied and intentionally stark. If the strings attempt to mimic the melody they swamp the singer and overwhelm the subtle nuances a skilled traditional singer will impart. Muhly’s arrangements create open-tuned planes of sound, almost like building a resonating chamber in which the vocal line could be articulated and magnified.
Amidon is a true traditional singer. He is not pitch perfect in the way we would expect of art song, opera or pop music performers and the tendency to bend notes, sharpen or flatten them slightly keeps us on edge and listening intently. There is no comfort to be offered when you are re-telling the details of a murderer operating somewhere between reality and insanity – and a ballad singer wants you to really feel this weirdness. Our own Australian Sally Sloane is a fine example of such a singer and can be heard online through the National Library of Australia’s digitised folk music collections.
The responses of the two people next to me in Llewellyn Hall – one in her early twenties, the other in his late 60s summed up the appeal of the concert. The 20 year old was deeply moved by the stark beauty of Sam Amidon’s singing style and the extraordinary ability of the orchestra to become one with the singer. The 60-something gentleman exclaimed in admiration that he would never forget the concert and pondered how the orchestra could keep playing the evocative, shivering patterns demanded by John Adam’s ‘Shaker Loops’. “Do they go home now and put their arms in iced water? How do they train to play like that for that length of time? – Utterly amazing!”
Image credits: Dan Mahon