A couple of weeks ago a worldwide audience of many millions enjoyed seeing BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor Sakari Oramo putting down his baton to dust off his violin and play duets during the Last Night of the Proms.
But the ex-music director of the CBSO is not the only carver devotedly wielding his fiddle. In fact Richard Tognetti, director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, leads performances from his instrument, just as was the norm until the early years of the 19th century.
“I do have very full days trying to pack in everything that I want to do, from planning the artistic programme, arranging pieces for the ACO as I’m always seeking to expand the repertoire and finding time for composing,” he says as he explains how he manages to juggle violin-playing and practising with his directing activities.
“My main concern is leading the orchestra and playing the violin. There’s no way around it – it boils down to practise, practise, practise – you have to commit to the basics and do the work,” he adds.
Richard brings his Australian Chamber Orchestra to Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 5 and they are thrilled to be making the visit.
The orchestra will be bringing to life a new piece of work written for them by Jonny Greenwood, the rock guitarist with the band Radiohead.
The piece, called Water, came about as the result of an invitation to Greenwood by Richard and the ACO, impressed by the power of his score to Paul Anderson’s 2007 film There Will be Blood.
Greenwood, who lives in rural Oxfordshire, headed off to Sidney where he stayed with the orchestra for three months, holding workshop sessions, and performing with them in one of their underground concerts.
Water emerged from his experience of playing the tambura, a resonant lute-like instrument used in music from southern Asia, and his obsession with the colours it produces, wanting to write music that flowed out of those sounds.
“In addition to guitar, Jonny plays piano, recorder and harmonica, and he has a love for the ondes martenot,” explains Richard, referring to an electric instrument from the 1920s, with a keyboard where you can slide the note up and down so that sounds like an alien (think Doctor Who).
“We love performing in Birmingham,” he says. “This is the ACO’s fourth time playing there. Symphony Hall has one of the finest, if not the best acoustic in all of Britain, so it’s always a thrill to be asked to perform there.
“Add to that the hall’s reputation for presenting some of the world’s great orchestras, and a discerning audience, and we’re truly honoured to be asked back.”
There are few well known Australian composers in the UK, with the late Peter Sculthorpe probably the biggest name to emerge from Down Under. Does Richard see himself as an ambassador for his country’s music?
“Every traveller, whether in person or through the sound waves, is an ambassador for our music,” he says.
“ I’d say Brett Dean is one of Australia’s best known composers on the international scene. I commissioned Brett’s first string work, Carlo, which was taken up by Sir Simon Rattle in one his first concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic.
“For the ACO he’s composed a good handful of works, and the most recent was Electric Preludes, a new electric violin concerto written for me in 2012. Since then, we’ve performed it all over the world, and Francesco D’Orazio and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played the piece at the Proms this year.”
ACO’s programme on Sunday also features Haydn’s Symphony no. 83 in G minor (La Poule), Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and Mozart’s poignant last piano concerto, no, 27 in B-flat, Steven Osborne the soloist.
Another string-playing conductor is Kenneth Woods, equally at home with his cello in the Trio Epomeo as on the rostrum. Currently achieving great success as music director of the English Symphony Orchestra, on October 8 he conducts the ESO’s strings in the wonderful new Elgar Concert Hall in the Bramall Music Building at the University of Birmingham for an all-English programme of Tippett, John McCabe (currently celebrating his 75th birthday), Vaughan Williams and Elgar.
The novelty in the programme is John McCabe’s Pilgrim for Double String Orchestra, written as an adjunct to Tippett’s great Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which precedes it this evening.
* Australian Chamber Orchestra at Symphony Hall on October 5 (3pm). Details on 0121 780 3333. English String Orchestra at the Elgar Concert Hall on October 8 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 345 0600.