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Roland Peelman: master storyteller

Features - Classical Music

Roland Peelman: master storyteller

by Maxim Boon on April 26, 2016 (April 26, 2016) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
The director of the Canberra International Music Festival shares why narrative is at the heart of his approach.

You may know him as one of Australia’s most eminent conductors and pianists, but Roland Peelman is also a supremely gifted storyteller. During his 25-year tenure leading a cappella vocal ensemble, The Song Company, the thoughtful and thought provoking became the trademark qualities of his programming, and this aptitude for spinning a narrative is something Peelman continues to channel as the Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival. For his inaugural offering last year, Peelman got the neurons of festivalgoers firing with a selection inspired by the centenary of Einstein’s cosmos-defining General Theory of Relativity. 

In ways both overt and subtle, this momentous scientific discovery offered a fascinating lens through which discoveries of a musical nature could be made, unifying the array of performances while never being overly insistent about this narrative undertow. As Peelman notes: “One of the most important things when programming a festival is allowing a degree of freedom. The audience should feel empowered to make choices, empowered to decide how much or how little of these thematic concepts they acknowledge. As long as they are emotionally, physically and intellectually engaged, I’ve done my job.”

The Festival's hub at the Canberra Glassworks

This year’s CIMF programme once again adopts a central thread of unifying subtext, which promises to bring a few welcome rays of equatorial sunshine to combat the chilly autumn weather in ACT, as the historical and cultural riches of the Mediterranean are explored through music. For Peelman, the music of the Med offers a chance to explore some of our modern society’s earliest cultural expressions. “When you think back to where music starts, and where our civilisation starts for that matter, you invariable end up somewhere in the Mediterranean,” Peelman explains. “Whether it’s Egypt or Greece or the Roman Empire, this area of the world was the cradle of Western Civilisation. But it’s a culture that’s been constantly evolving, so I felt this was a perfect opportunity not only to feature this part of the world but also to explore the ways ideas are born and changed, morphed and developed from generation to generation.”

Peelman sees the process of curating a music festival as similar to the curation of visual art, he tells me. “Walking through a gallery is not just about the artworks, but rather the perception of those works within a particular context. Having a point of reference, such as a theme or a particular location, creates different ideas and experiences that are very individual, and that’s the beauty of it,” Peelman says. “People will read different things into their personal experiences, and that is at the heart of what we do at the CIMF: we create wonderful, fresh, new experiences.”

Ken Unsworth's Smokestack Piano

There is a similarly thoughtful approach to the logistics of the Festival, exploiting new and unusual spaces around Canberra, as it did last year, for the popular Sounds on Site series. However, this year Peelman has refocused some of the more idiosyncratic performances as intimate encounters. One of the most extreme examples of this will be Ken Unsworth’s Smokestack Piano, which uses a specially modified piano, featuring an alien array of boubous glass tubes that light up as the instrument is played. Just 15 people per performance (with each mini-recital lasting 10 minutes) will have the opportunity to see this extraordinary fusion of music and art, making it one of the most exclusive performances ever offered by the Festival.

Peelman has created several events this year that afford the audience the chance of a perfomer's-eye-view. “There are many chances for people to hear music close up this year, which is such a rare opportunity,” Peelman says. “I think this wonderful proximity can reveal something very compelling, because when you’re that close to the performer, you experience the concert almost as they would, in direct contact with the music.” For Peelman, eschewing the traditional paradigms of classical music has been central to cementing the Festival’s value within the Australian music scene. “Everyone who will be performing is a musician at the top of their game, but there are also artists on the edge, who have refused to settle into a routine or complacency. They are musicians who keep music alive and dynamic. They provide people with a different experience, a different way of hearing music, and that is so important.”

Opening Gala: Tango Tambuco

Kicking off proceedings this year is a microcosm of the entire festival in a single programme, featuring a stunning line-up including accordionist extraordinaire James Crabb, guitarist Andrey Lebedev, and the world renowned Tambuco percussion ensemble (pictured). The perfection of Bach rubs shoulders with the Latin spirit of Piazzolla, and 2016’s composer in residence, Gerard Brophy, will also unveil one of this year’s newly commissioned works.

The Battle of the Sexes

In an evening of vocal delights plucked from the opera scena of Monteverdi and Pergolesi, star-singers Taryn Fiebig and David Greco are pitted against one another. The pair will first lock horns as the lovers in Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, set against the battles of the First Crusade, and then in the upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners, La Serva Padrone. The evening’s final stalemate comes from Monteverdi’s heartfelt Lettera amorosa, performed by the inimitable Marco Beasley.

With Love and Fury

Celebrated Australian songstress, Katie Noonan, has joined forces with one of the world’s great chamber ensembles, the Brodsky Quartet from the UK, to create a new Australian songbook. Settings of the poetry of eminent poet Judith Wright have been created by some of Australia’s foremost composers, including Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Tognetti, Carl Vine, Andrew Ford, Iain Grandage and Paul Dean. 

A Midnight Tale

In a beautifully stripped back performance, featuring just the voice of Marco Beasley, a modern bard who sings ancient stories, A Midnight Tale (Il racconto di messanotte) will bring to life a captivating narrative in an event that promises to be one of the most enchanting experiences of 2016’s Festival.

Sounds on Site series

At five unique and iconic locations around Canberra, this series of events takes music making to unusual and beautiful places. Each concert is a bespoke experience, tailored to its surroundings, offering exciting perspectives on repertoire both new and treasured. 

The Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across the city, April 28 until May 8.