MUSIC REVIEW : Full Chamber Program in Sparse House

Word of mouth hadn't preceded the Australian Chamber Orchestra's visit to Los Angeles Saturday. The exceptional young ensemble played at a Luckman Fine Arts Complex nine-tenths empty.

But then Australians are used to vast, empty spaces. These 17 string players and harpsichordist--average age hovering apparently below 30--certainly seemed unfazed as they played a wide-ranging program with an enlightened sense of style, tightly meshed ensemble, flair and commitment.

Violinist and music director Richard Tognetti led his collarless, coatless compatriots in taut and dashing performances of Handel's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 5 and C.P.E. Bach's Sinfonia, H. 660, to start things off: Vibrato-spare, period-influenced playing and unanimous volatility propelled these pieces.

San Franciscan mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, lately of the L.A. Music Center Opera's "Xerxes," then came on for three arias by Handel: "Ombra mai fu" from "Xerxes," "Se in fiorito" from "Giulio Cesare" and "Dopo notte" from "Ariodante." Her attractive, focused, medium-sized and evenly gauged voice skated easily through the florid demands, rose readily to the dramatic peaks and floated vaporously in pianissimo. Still, she made the music, not her voice, the center of the performance.

After intermission, she exhumed the lush and refined cantata "Il Tramonto" by Respighi (a setting of Shelley) with silken line and communicative grace. Too bad texts weren't provided (or program notes). The orchestra supplied warm, tailored accompaniment.

Puccini's plump "Crisantemi" (in a reading of pinpoint elegance) and Tognetti's brilliant arrangement of Janacek's First String Quartet (in a robust, rustling and intimately expressive account) wound up the program. A full evening, if not a full house.

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