Australia may suffer from devastating water shortages, but music festivals are not only plentiful but rapidly on the rise. Recent additions include the Hepburn Springs, Albury and Tyalgum Festivals. Bangalow Music Festival, initiated by Queensland’s acclaimed Southern Cross Soloists and now in its eighteenth year, prompted the renovation of the town’s old Agricultural and Industrial Hall. It’s hard to imagine cattle lowing and the bleat of sheep and auctioneer’s gavel in what is now an elegant theatre with a plum backdrop gifted with enviable resonance.

Karin Schaupp and Lina Andonovska. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography

In between the nine main concerts, strolling Byron Street with its tempting cafes and colourful shops is a pleasure. There was instrumental colour aplenty in this year’s musical line-up, which boosted Southern Cross Soloists’ instrumentation of oboe, flute, clarinet, horn, violin and piano. Additions included classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas, and bassoonist Adam Mikulicz. The inclusion of the stunning Orava Quartet, wickedly dubbed a ‘boy band’ by a Brisbane-based journalist, was inspired.

Festivals come in assorted formats and guises. Tyalgum Festival, from September 6-8, holds performances throughout the town’s shops and cafes as well as in its official concert venue, whereas the Bangalow Festival’s events are almost exclusively situated in the A & I Hall, but given its dream acoustic it’s easy to see why. Program design juggled repertoire by musical giants; Mozart, Mahler and Mendelssohn with music by present day creatives Robert Davidson, Ross Edwards and Osvaldo Golijov.

Xenia Puskarz Thomas. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography

There were two Saturday concerts. The first featured NZ Chamber Soloists and consisted of violinist Amalia Hall, cellist James Tennant, and pianist Katherine Austin. In 2019, according to the ABC, Beethoven is Australia’s best-loved composer. Rather topically then, the group performed the composer’s Trio in D Major, Op. 70 No 1, the choice of repertoire appropriate for a Federation town where it’s easy to picture the ghosts of Bangalow’s pioneering past.

The NZ Chamber Soloists communicated robust energy and an extroverted tone. Austin is able to run the gauntlet of finger-spinning challenges yet easily retreat in support of Tennant and Hall. A commendable performance, but the players were more authentically engaged in John Psathas’ Corybus, composed with the Soloists in mind. The work strayed from Beethoven’s relatively symmetrical rhythmical path into choppy syncopation, the piano contributing a swirling churning pattern with which violin and cello expertly intertwined increasingly elaborate melodies.

Ashley Smith. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography

Dohnányi’s Sextet in C, steeped in Brahmsian soulfulness with a quasi-orchestral sound and bombastic sensibility, starred clarinettist Ashley Smith (whose Festival contributions in general were superlative), violist James Wannan and French hornist Alex Miller. Theatrical in the first movement, the flamboyant sound filled the hall, pushing against the decorative metal-pressed ceiling and walls and demanding full attention despite the 3pm, post-lunch start. The Intermezzo’s subdued chorale plains colluded with the haptic chittering of a bird.

Concert Six was studded with musical gems and in this event SXS’ pianist Alex Raineri stole the show. Increasingly, his own original approaches permeate the repertoire he champions and yet he is faithful to each composer’s style. Bach’s Flute Sonata was a superb vehicle for the talented, gutsy flautist Lina Andonovska and Raineri’s playfully filigree fingerwork. Blair Harris and Raineri’s performance of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano commanded a rapt audience, Harris’ declamatory cello singing with a ravishing tone. As for voices, audiences raved about the young singer Xenia Puskarz Thomas’s marvellous mezzo-soprano excursions programmed elsewhere, as they did guitarist Schaup’s revelatory incarnations of Rodrigo and De Falla works.

Alex Rainieri. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography

Joe Chindamo’s poignant double concerto Sanctuary 2017 was beautifully delivered by artistic director and oboist Tania Fraser and clarinettist Ashley Smith, with Festival strings admirably conducted by Christopher Dragon. Raineri’s flexing rhythmical flair was demonstrated to advantage in his lovingly shaped, dazzling take on Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He expertly matched and contrasted and teased and synchronised with the supportive orchestra of Festival Artists, SXS and Orava Quartet. But the absolute Festival standout in Concert Seven was the Orava Quartet’s performance of Wojchiech Kilar’s Orawa. Its thrilling precision-powered, pointy delivery was like a supernatural, sound-shifting portal vividly revealing the sights and sounds of a Polish rural scene.