Music / CIMF, Concert 14, “High Stakes”. At the High Court of Australia, May 5. Reviewed by Graham McDonald.

WITH 20 concerts over 10 days and a finite number of diverse performers to fit into combinations and venues, it would seem inevitable that some concerts juxtapose unlikely combinations of musical styles.

This performance in the soaring atrium of the High Court featured classical viola player James Wannan playing excerpts from various Bach violin sonatas and partitas with jazz pianist Aron Ottignon improvising works between the solo viola works. There was supposed to have been a work for solo tuba to open the program, but tuba player Jason Catchpowle was unavailable due to a dose of covid.

Ottignon’s contribution to the program was four piano improvisations, opening the concert with one that started with slow arpeggios and built to cascades of notes from the left hand with rippling hints of a West African kora from the right hand.

This was followed by two movements from the first violin sonata, BWV 1001, performed on a high walkway 10 metres or more above the audience. It was far enough away for the audience to strain just a little to hear it and the peculiar acoustics of the building brought out some frequencies better than others.

Jazz pianist Aron Ottigno performs at the High Court. Photo: Peter Hislop

Ottignon followed this with another improvisation that subtly echoed the Bach in tempo and key. His third work brought in a stronger African feel, based around a three-note riff that anchored the entire five minutes or so.

Wannan moved to the lower part of the access ramp through the middle of the building for the second work where the sound was a little more immediate and then to a “Juliet” balcony above the audience for the third sonata.

Even two movements of each work are still 10-12 minutes long and are a relentless streams of notes with complex bowing. Hard enough on a violin and playing them on a viola must add an extra degree of difficulty. The occasional slippage in pitch or slight fuzziness of phrasing is easily forgiven. Moving to the centre of the audience for the final work give a satisfying immediacy to his playing.

This was an unlikely pairing of music styles, with no obvious reasoning behind it, other than perhaps as they were festival participants and it allowed them an opportunity for their solo work.

It was a contrast in musical styles and did showcase these two talented musicians.

Feature image: Classical viola player James Wannan… playing excerpts from various Bach violin sonatas. Photo: Peter Hislop

This review was originally written and published by GRAHAM MCDONALD from CityNews on 05 May 2023.