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The Australian Chamber Orchestra will perform in Toronto on April 19 and 20. The ensemble includes didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton.NIC WALKER/Handout

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in a chamber music program is not unusual but featuring the 1880 classical work alongside contemporary pieces showcasing the electric violin and didgeridoo – the Australian Aboriginal wind instrument – might be considered unorthodox.

The mix is very much a reflection of the creative ethos of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) which, since 1975, has cultivated a unique position in the classical world. With a series of North American dates this month, the group performs at the Meridian Arts Centre in Toronto on April 19 and 20.

The award-winning ensemble’s repertoire runs the gamut from well-known European names to contemporary composers and includes work with a range of artists and outlets – Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood; entertainer Barry Humphries (also known as Dame Edna); Berlin Philharmonic principal flautist Emmanuel Pahud; and the Sydney Dance Company.

The ensemble’s connection with didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton goes back to 2001, when artistic director Richard Tognetti asked him to join a post-9/11 concert he was organizing. “It’s fair to say he’s the preeminent crossover artist,” Tognetti says of Barton. “He’s really developed a particular style.”

Hailing from Mount Isa in Queensland, Barton first heard classical music via his mother, singer/writer Delmae Barton, a descendant of the Indigenous Bidjara people with whom he still performs and records. “She used to listen to Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso,” he recalls. “She’s had a big influence on my journey.”

Introduced to the didgeridoo at the age of 7 by his uncle, an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga peoples of Western Queensland, Barton began playing for Aboriginal dance troupes at the age of 12 and later toured with the Doonooch Dance Company; he celebrated his 15th birthday at a stop in Edmonton.

Barton’s debut in the classical world came at the age of 17 with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. He has since gone on to tremendous acclaim, performing with and composing for prestigious groups and events, including the Berlin and the London philharmonics and the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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Mr. Barton first began playing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2001. He has performed with tremendous acclaim for prestigious groups and events over the years and was appointed to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors.

In Toronto, Barton will be performing two original works, Didge Fusion, a showcase of his soaring vocals in the Kalkadungu language, and Hypersonic, a poetic, timbral dance between strings and didgeridoo. “There is no reason my – or others’ – music cannot be recognized as serious music,” he says. “I see my work as journey music: I am carrying the legacy of 40,000 years on my shoulders.”

Also on the program is the Canadian premiere of Echo Transcriptions, a work for electric violin by American composer Samuel Adams.

That range of sounds sewn within the program reflects a larger creative objective, as Tognetti explains. “We like knocking down walls,” he says of ACO’s overall approach, “but it’s easy to be radical – the classical music world is still horribly conservative in this respect.”

As many classical organizations move toward greater diversification, the line between sincere engagement and performative gesture grows more pronounced. Barton highlighted this concern in a 2020 interview at the Barbican Centre in London during the ACO’s digital residency. He said he wanted to “create new repertoire for the didgeridoo and not make it a tokenistic sort of collaboration. I wanted it to be a real and meaningful engagement of this ancient instrument.”

Such purposeful involvement manifests with Barton’s appointment to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors last month. He is the organization’s first Indigenous member.

“I want to be part of that engine room of change,” he says of the appointment. “With my 25 odd years of experience, I’ve got a few ideas, you know. I want to help the next generation of storytellers.” Barton is also at work on an opera commission for the Australian Contemporary Opera Company, set to premiere in 2024.

Interest in engagement extends to education. Along with its live concert, the ACO’s upcoming Toronto visit includes an all-Australian program for students and an open rehearsal, both on April 19. “Anyone who has or is around kids knows that if they’re engaged, they’re being educated,” Tognetti says. “If you love something, you’ll absorb it that much more.”

Barton says it’s all about opening “a space of connection” for audiences, to “take them on a journey that hopefully reignites the lullaby of their own ancestry.

“A lullaby is such a universal thing, but we can forget about it because of our 9-to-5 lives, our busy jobs, the things on TV. I want to take people to that magic space in the sky – that’s where I’m at.”

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