Bellingen is probably the perfect place in the world to have a classical music festival.

It’s a bit inland of Coffs Harbour, just a bit off the highway. When you finally escape endless kilometres of green farmland, you see an urban-renewed pasteurisation factory, built partly of brick (now it’s an art gallery). Drive along a little further. The main street is perhaps one hundred years old; the pharmacy is marked “Apothecary”. There are two concert halls, one a disused church, the other built for use by veterans of the war. The first war.

It is just about the best setting I’ve ever heard of for classical music.

The festival was full of chamber music. The Acacia Quartet opened the festival, playing repertoire from their recent tour, Lyle Chan’s new String Quartet. It’s a musical memoir of his grim time fifteen years ago illegally producing drugs to help fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  A number of his friends died in the fight.

Synergy Percussion took the second half of the opening concert, with Xenakis’ epic work Pléïades (1979). It’s an energetic work – you might even say violent – and almost impossible to play. Bellingen is probably one of the few places the work has been heard in this country outside a capital city.

Synergy Percussion at the Bellingen Music Festival (photo: Jack Meagher)

Bellingen is a bit like an “uptown Nimbin”, according to one local I talked to. One organic café (there must be a dozen) won’t provide fruit out of season, on moral grounds. There are organic gardens on the side of the road. People are open-minded, willing to try new things. And so many are dedicated artists themselves: there was one concert in the local art gallery, with paintings hung on the walls. A local guitar duo gave a flawless concert of Bach and Sculthorpe; the local school orchestra played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony quite well, too.

Bellingen Youth Orchestra at the 2014 Bellingen Music Festival (photo: Jack Meagher)

It was a weekend of new music. There were two big premieres. One was Joseph Twist’s Dancing with Somebody. Joe loves musical theatre and it shows; it was full of tangos, big and brassy and fun.

That said, a few people did walk out of Synergy Percussion’s incredible performance of Pleiades. I don’t actually blame them. It can be a tough work to understand, full of cross-rhythms, strangely evolving harmonies and sometimes gratingly metallic tone. It’s perhaps unlike anything you’ve heard before.

If there is one group of people who get the most through a weekend like this, it’s the youngest participants. The other big premiere of the weekend was a handful of Year 12 assignments (in NSW, all music students have to complete a two minute composition for the HSC). They were mostly played, for the first time in public, by the Acacia Quartet. What an opportunity! Festivals like this maintain music as a living, evolving thing.