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You may be familiar with his voice on the airwaves, but during the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville Damien Beaumont is stepping out of the studio and onstage in a series of hands-on performing roles.
The host of ABC Radio’s Just Classics will perform excerpts from the writings of Franz Liszt in a music drama commissioned by Piers Lane for the festival. Scripted by London author Jessica Duchen, Franz Liszt: Sins of the Father will receive its world premiere at the festival on July 31, the 125th anniversary of the composer's death.
Beaumont says a complicated triangle of musical passions, love and betrayal lies at the heart of the show, which takes as its subject not only Liszt but also that other Romantic titan, Richard Wagner. “We explore the story of Liszt, his daughter Cosima and her eventual marriage to Wagner. It’s an extraordinary tale of these two men connected by women, and connected by music."
The suave Hungarian and the imperious German were longtime friends, the wealthy concert pianist often helping Wagner financially. But the relationship turned sour. “The whole story is predicated on what Wagner stole from Liszt, right from his daughter to a musical phrase that Wagner turned into a five-hour opera.”
Cosima had borne two daughters to the composer of Tristan und Isolde while still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. Liszt judged her harshly for her divorce and subsequent marriage to Wagner. “You get a different side of Liszt,” says Beaumont. “You see him as a vulnerable person.”
These insights come at a time when the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth calls for a re-evaluation of his music. “He’s been really misrepresented, and was misunderstood in his day. He was a popstar, the most photographed man of the 19th century, idolised and adored wherever he went. So people thought of him as a lightweight character, with nothing behind the virtuosic showman, but he certainly wasn’t.”
The biographical details in Sins of the Father provide a framework for the festival’s celebration of Liszt over several concerts. The drama is staged alongside performances of works including O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst sung by Lisa Gasteen with Piers Lane accompanying, and La Lugubre gondola (Louise Hopkins on cello). The program admits a generous helping of Wagner, too: Liszt’s piano transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde aptly illustrates the musical bond between the two men, while the Siegfried Idyll was a gift to Cosima on her birthday.
Beaumont believes much of Liszt’s later output, composed after he withdrew from public performance, brings his serious intent and spirituality into sharp focus. “Some of his music is extraordinarily deep. We can’t overlook the fact of his religious convictions, his deep and sincere love of the women in his life.”
Like most of the festival performers, Beaumont’s talents are stretched across a wide variety of ensembles and events for the nine days of concerts. On Monday August 1, he puts his voice to use as the narrator in Stravinsky’s neoclassical curio The Soldier’s Tale, “a furious piece!” whose past narrators include Jean Cocteau and Sting. Beaumont rhythmically recites the Faust-like story of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil.
For this and other projects, he looks to his training as a bass-baritone at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide. It is there that he began to work on spoken elocution with David Miller, before singing a single note. The attention to detail has proved invaluable in many aspects of his career. “I’m doing more and more narration, I've done things like Peter and the Wolf. It’s an extension of my radio work because I still get to use my knowledge of music.”
Now in its 21st year, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music has been embraced by locals almost as much as the V8 supercar championship race – in fact, the rehearsal space where I speak with Beaumont overlooks the circuit.
It is Beaumont's sixth year as a performer and presenter at the festival, where the “great community spirit” and “intimate atmosphere” keeps him coming back to Townsville.
“All the musicians socialise and mix with the crowd; we all stay at the same hotels, all of the volunteers look after us. The musicians travel far and wide for that lovely sense of generosity and community that bigger festivals don’t engender.
“And it’s not as loud as the V8!” he laughs.