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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - Richard Tognetti Elec­tric Pre­ludes

vi­o­lin­ist’s shoul­ders and neck can rea­son­ably be ex­pected to sup­port. The bridge, crafted from solid maple with hard­wood plates, in­cor­po­rates a pres­sure-sens­ing piezo pickup of his own de­sign.

John­son, a crafts­man and pioneer of the mod­ern in­stru­ment, was in­spired in the 80s when he came across a prac­tice vi­o­lin from the Vic­to­rian era, with a skele­tal struc­ture in place of a con­ven­tional hol­low cham­ber. At a time when elec­tric folk mu­sic was un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance, and when trans­ducer and am­pli­fi­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy was mov­ing apace, the elec­tric vi­o­lin’s moment had fi­nally ar­rived.

John­son’s Vi­olec­tra com­pany is now 20 years old. Happy own­ers of his be­spoke in­stru­ments in­clude vi­o­lin­ist Nigel Kennedy, who last year re­cov­ered two $40,000 in­stru­ments stolen af­ter an ap­pear­ance in The Cav­ern in Liver­pool in 2005. There was no mis­tak­ing them when they turned up for auc­tion last year af­ter a dealer had picked them up for $30 each; for­tu­nately, they had been decked at Kennedy’s re­quest in claret and blue, the colours of his foot­ball team, As­ton Villa.

No two Vi­olec­tras are the same. Tognetti’s in­stru­ment is made of maple, the den­sity of the wood pro­duc­ing a richer and more in­tense sound than that of poplar or other alternative woods. Amer­i­can clas­si­cal vi­o­lin­ist Leila Jose­fow­icz, who like Tognetti is an afi­cionado of the Guarneri del Gesu, asked John­son to in­clude the Guarneri’s dis­tinc­tive flow­er­ing scroll. Da­vide Rossi, the Ital­ian who contributed much to the dis­tinc­tive sound of Cold­play’s al­bum Viva la Vida, plays a five-string jet-black vi­ola. The glam­orous Es­cala Quar­tet reached the fi­nals of Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent in 2008 play­ing in­stru­ments with a me­tal­lic sil­ver fin­ish.

Hand­crafted in­stru­ments take time: typ­i­cally John­son makes only a few each year, each one a work of art in its own right. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween soloist and maker is a close one. ‘‘ You think you’ve fin­ished your work when you hand it over,’’ he tells Re­view, ‘‘ and then some­one like Richard Tognetti takes it to an­other level.’’

Dean’s Elec­tric Pre­ludes evolved fur­ther in re­hearsals as he, Tognetti and sound de­signer Bob Scott dis­cov­ered new tricks. In an echo of Dean’s 2006 work for vi­o­lin and orches­tra, The Lost Art of Let­ter Writ­ing, the six pre­ludes are played to­gether.

The arpeg­gios doned Play­ground, of in the first pre­lude, Aban­sum­mon haunt­ing im­ages derelict space. The in­spi­ra­tion for the sec­ond, To­pog­ra­phy, was an ex­hi­bi­tion of West­ern Desert art fea­tur­ing the work of artist Clif­ford Pos­sum Tjapalt­jarri at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria early last year. It be­gins with Tognetti blow­ing across the strings, as a flautist blows across a reed, a tech­nique dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent dur­ing re­hearsals in old Slove­nian cin­ema for the piece’s in­ter­na­tional de­but in that coun­try at the Mari­bor Fes­ti­val last year.

While the novel man­ner of play­ing is made pos­si­ble by the Vi­olec­tra’s ex­tra­or­di­nary sen­si­tiv­ity, Scott says am­pli­fi­ca­tion is not high on the list of features he and Tognetti will be ex­ploit­ing. He says am­pli­fi­ca­tion gives the in­stru­ment greater pres­ence, ab­bre­vi­at­ing the dis­tance be­tween au­di­ence and per­former, but crank­ing up the sound sim­ply in­creases the dif­fi­culty of main­tain­ing bal­ance with the rest of the orches­tra.

In a world of ubiq­ui­tous loud­speak­ers, the clas­si­cal con­cert hall as it was once imag­ined, where elec­tric­ity pow­ers noth­ing more than a light bulb, is a sanc­tu­ary of acous­tic pu­rity. For this per­for­mance, how­ever, the en­tire ACO will be am­pli­fied. Sub­tle ‘‘ en­hance­ment’’, as it is eu­phemisti­cally known, is al­ready used more fre­quently in con­cert halls than many au­di­ences are aware. ‘‘ When it’s good the au­di­ence doesn’t no­tice it,’’ says Scott.

For Scott, who worked with Dean on Bliss, the new piece is es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing; the fre­quent changes of sound and main­tain­ing the bal­ance with the rest of the orches­tra re­quire a vir­tu­os­ity of its own. Dean says: ‘‘ It’s a bit like a dou­ble con­certo in that sense. I think Bob was both as anx­ious and ex­alted as Richard was on the open­ing night.’’

Scott, in turn, pays trib­ute to Dean, who will be con­duct­ing. ‘‘ It’s a cracker of a piece,’’ he says.

For the re­as­sur­ance of tra­di­tion­al­ists, Elec­tric Pre­ludes will be book­ended by Haydn’s La Pas­sione and two fa­mil­iar Mozart pieces. For th­ese Tognetti will rely on his del Gesu; what­ever sound emerges will be his alone, un­com­pli­cated by dig­i­tal ar­ti­fice.

For it is a com­fort­ing fact that while we are ca­pa­ble to­day of dig­i­tal tricks Mozart’s first au­di­ences would have mis­taken for alchemy, the sound of a Guarneri or a Stradi­var­ius can­not be re­pro­duced in any­thing but an in­ex­act form. It may be the wood or the glue, who knows; let us hope we never find out.

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