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Shostakovich and a tear on a G string with Steven Isserlis & ACO / FINANCIAL TIMES

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The ghost of Stalin might have done it.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) was on Saturday night at Arts Centre Melbourne's Hamer Hall, well into the fourth movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, where the composer's foreboding soundtrack of life in Soviet Russia rises to frenzied militiaristic pace as, in guest cellist Steven Isserlis's words, "it rushes headlong into the evil machine". Such was the intensity of Mr Isserlis's performance, sawing at Shostakovich's paranoid lines as he threw his great grey mop of hair around like a classical Brian May, that when he let out an enormous "aargh!" one assumed he was merely giving voice to the musical assault. 

Turns out he had snapped his G string.

Sheepishly, the British cellist matched only by Yo-Yo Ma for global renown exited stage left in the company of ACO principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, who was pressed into service to speed repairs. ACO director Richard Tognetti, already holding down conducting and violin duties, gamely assumed the role of stand-up comedian to fill time.

Yet the music's abrasive spell was re-cast as soon as Mr Isserlis played his next note, such is his virtuosity and that of the string ensemble behind him, who were joined on this night by horn players and percussionists borrowed from symphony orchestras everywhere from Sydney to Turku, Finland. "Playing with the ACO is like playing with a dual pianist," Mr Isserlis told us as the applause finally subsided after the Shostakovich's crashing, uncomfortable conclusion.  PHOTO: Jeff Busby