The Reef (DVD)

Australian Chamber Orchestra. Richard Tognetti, Jon Frank, Mick Sowry, Iain Grandage
Classical, Early Music, New Music
DVD ABC Classics 076 2850
Reviewed by , March 1st, 2014

Richard Tognetti’s introduction to The Reef captures his overall philosophy in the most beautiful way. He describes the magical experience of playing Bach and Beethoven in a small shed near where the desert ‘pours into the sea’ at Ningaloo Reef in north Western Australia. He hopes we will enjoy the coming together of the live performance of these and other works with the visual footage taken on the contributors’ trip as it is presented in ‘this shed’, the Opera House. Tognetti’s never-ending endeavour to capture the essence of the Australian experience, his joy in combining the music he loves from the gamut of genres, with his experiences of nature, is realised in this DVD. This presentation is a strange concept because it is a film within a film. But his desire is to highlight the physical presence and engagement of the musicians as an integral part of the experience, rather than as simply the providers of a soundtrack. Our perception becomes altered and the meaning changes. We are privy to an amazing concert and an extraordinary film, neither of which have the same potency without the other.

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John Frank’s photography is breathtaking, from star constellations falling into the sea to the below-water bubbles, which seem the same – this gasping, expansive reality of creation. The sun rises, a backdrop to smoke from fires across the scrub, lit by the indigenous inhabitants to sustain and regenerate the environment. Tognetti and Grandage’s music capture the awesomeness of this scene evocatively. The emphasis is on describing the essence of flow. Both visuals and music are in slow motion as sounds converge, sustain and are subtly shaped to then diverge.

Visually we are taken from an underwater swimmer luxuriating in movement and power of the water to a prone surfer and on to those who take control of the waves, standing, bending, sometimes falling spectacularly. One completely understands the synthesis Tognetti sees between music, sea, landscape and surfing. The beauty of a hand gesture as a surfer keeps his balance and swivels atop a wave is perfectly juxtaposed with the music of Rakmeau. And the decay wrought by salt on discarded man-made objects and ants on sap is highlighted in Ligeti’s Ramifications.

Any work exploring harmonious interplays and complexity of form is remiss without the work of J. S. Bach. Here his Fugue from Sonata for Solo Violin No.1 is largely unadorned with visual accompaniment except for a lone underwater surfer who, in a small fragment, rides towards the surface and clouds, a different form of H2O, so that one is not sure where earth ends and the ether begins.

Atkins, Tognetti and Thompson’s Improvisation for didgeridoo and strings is extraordinarily moving with the focus a stunning drone as we visually  traverse flat, endless, intoxicating desert. This is a feature as is the warmth and knowing of the Pigram Brothers and Alex Wasiliev’s Mimi, the spirits said to have taught Aboriginal people how to hunt, cook and paint when they first came to northern  Australia. The cyclic work of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s Orowa is illustrated with a desert windmill and, of course, rolling surf.

Crumb’s God-music with bowed glass and electric cello provides gorgeous sustenance of sound locating the mind of the surfer as he tube rides, at one with the universe. It is powerful stuff indeed. Rachmaninoff’s well-known Vocalise is a fitting counterpoint to Dean, Alice in Chains and Shostakovich. It is a luxuriant aesthetic as we are enveloped in mountainous waves and underwater tumult, the romanticism of the music emphasising the visual forms. One only has to turn off the music to realise its potency. The synchrony of bowing arms and surfing arms is also a lovely touch. Pete Seeger’s Where Have all the Flowers Gone? is used to add dimension to wonderfully diverse desert dweller portraits. The return to Beethoven’s emotive Cavatina is a fitting sunset and poignant closing curtain.

It is Tognetti and his forays with Grandage which best capture the ‘beauty and terror’ of what would seem like utterly contrasting environments, desert and sea, but which, in fact are brought together so thoughtfully here as a musical and visual continuum. Tognetti’s composing skills are perhaps underestimated with the dominance of his technical prowess. This will change with time. Similarly the music of the Pigram Brothers is ‘home’, the Australian music best painting the portrait Tognetti seeks. It is such a rich experience, the viewer is almost there.

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