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Australian Chamber Orchestra: River

A winding river in a canyon

In their latest collaboration with film-maker Jennifer Peedom, the ACO and Richard Tognetti offer a haunting exploration of the power of rivers.

Stunning visual imagery and sublime music from Europe and Australia flow together for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s extraordinary exploration of the importance of rivers to our world. 

Rivers cover less than one percent of the planet’s surface, yet they are central to the development of human society. Offering sources of sustenance, power, transport and more, they inhabit roles from familiar settings of home (such as here in London), to awe-inspiring demonstrations of nature’s power, and are even worshiped as deities. Nevertheless, we use them, abuse them and ignore their vital role in our existence.

Putting the fundamental nature of these essential elements of planetary forces front-and-centre is the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s latest awe-inspiring film-and-concert project River. It combines dramatic imagery of the world’s great waterways with music by some of the best-known western classical composers and one of Australia’s most acclaimed Indigenous musicians, William Barton. Actor Willem Dafoe voices a script written by renowned author Robert Macfarlane.

River was designed to inspire awe and wonder and connect people back to nature,’ says director Jennifer Peedom. ‘My hope is that it can also play a role in helping us understand the dangerous consequences of our actions and how our future depends on the natural world.’
Through the power of photography and music, River asks us to question our treatment of the world’s waterways. And, this being the Australian Chamber Orchestra, an important element of the meditative work is an exploration of the relationship between Indigenous cultures and rivers. Flowing through the programme is a new collaboration between ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti, leading didgeridoo player, composer and singer William Barton, and Australian composer Piers Burbrook de Vere. 

‘We are kin to rivers, connected in ecology and spirit,’ says Indigenous writer, critic and researcher Tristen Harwood. ‘To speak of Indigenous peoples’ connection to rivers is to speak of the essence that sustains us in the world. The river is language, song, philosophy, ceremony, life-source – our social world.’

Barton explains to Harwood: ‘As I sing, I’m picturing my “old” people, my uncles and aunties – my ancestors – and it transports me to my home country, even though I might be singing alongside visuals [in River] that are from around the world.’

Peedom recalls when Barton came to record his final vocal track: ‘William asked if he could take some time to respond emotionally to the film. What followed was an uninterrupted, improvised 15-minute vocal performance. When it was over, I looked around the room, and we were all in tears. It’s haunting and sublime. When he returned to the control room, he told me he had channelled his ancestors and ancestral ties to Kalkadunga country.’

Like Mountain (performed here in 2018), River was conceived primarily as a concert film – with music as the starting point. This created its own technical challenges, says Peedom, who also directed the previous film. ‘The foundation of the soundtrack of River is pre-existing classical repertoire. In general, this kind of music is very challenging to edit in a way that both maintains its integrity and meets the very specific requirements of the film – its need for music to fit the length of scenes, or to carry and influence the emotional responses of audiences.’

She says Tognetti’s decision to include J S Bach’s solo violin Chaconne is a prime example of his vision and talent for arrangement. ‘[The film] includes an amazing drone shot, part of an early scene-setting sequence about the birth of rivers,’ she says. ‘When Richard saw it, he was adamant that he wanted to use the Chaconne, even though it is 15 minutes long and written for solo violin. For months he explored how he might make the piece work for the smaller ACO ensemble. I was initially sceptical, but every time I watch that sequence in the finished film, I get goosebumps.’

The breadth of the music selected for River is a signature of the ACO, International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court. The programme includes works by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Antonio Vivaldi, Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Maurice Ravel, Pēteris Vasks and Thomas Adès, all of which generated their own creative questions. And Tognetti’s response, with his profound knowledge of music and determination to produce unforgettable experiences, is fundamental to the production of another extraordinary concert-hall experience.

For all the damage that humans do to the planet’s freshwater systems, there is hope, as this thought-provoking cinematic production shows. Life comes back to rivers – if we give them a chance.

© James Drury

Programme and performers

Antonio Vivaldi Violin Concerto in D major, RV232: Largo* 
Richard Tognetti Deep Time 
Piers Burbrook de Vere Birth 
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr Richard Tognetti) Partita for Solo Violin No 2 in D minor, BWV1004: Chaconne* 
Richard Tognetti/Piers Burbrook de Vere/William Barton Wildness 
Richard Tognetti/Piers Burbrook de Vere Intervention 
Richard Tognetti Magic; Archive 
Jean Sibelius Voces intimae, Op 56: Vivace* (arr strings) 
Piers Burbrook de Vere Globalisation 
Richard Tognetti Pyres 
Jonny Greenwood Water
Richard Tognetti/Piers Burbrook de Vere/William Barton Ritual 
Antonio Vivaldi Concerto in G minor, RV578: Adagio e spiccato – Allegro* 
Richard Tognetti/Piers Burbrook de Vere Industrialisation 
Richard Tognetti Greed; Downside of Dams; Pollution 
Pēteris Vasks Vox amoris
Piers Burbrook de Vere Are We Being Good Ancestors? 
Thomas Adès O Albion 
Jonny Greenwood Water
Maurice Ravel (arr Tognetti) String Quartet: Assez vif – Très rythmé 
Jonny Greenwood Water
Radiohead Harry Patch (In Memory Of) 
Richard Tognetti/William Barton, after Gustav Mahler How We Feel 
Gustav Mahler (arr Tognetti) Symphony No 4: Ruhevoll (Poco adagio)* 
* This work or movement is abridged for this performance

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti director & violin
William Barton vocalist
Nigel Jamieson staging director
Jennifer Peedom director
Robert Macfarlane writer
Willem Dafoe narrator

Artist biographies