In the wake of Brexit and Trump, Artistic Director Roland Peelman explores social upheaval across history at the 2017 Festival.

Cataclysmic upheaval is the theme for 2017’s Canberra International Music Festival. This year it coincides with the centenary of one of the most significant events in the 20th century, and it was this that has inspired Artistic Director Roland Peelman.

“The Russian Revolution, or some would say, the coup d’état, of 1917 sent shock waves around the world and did away with the most backward-looking empire in Europe at that time,” says Peelman. “It was also the first Marxist revolution that worked.”

“Like the one in 1959 in Cuba, it succeeded in overthrowing the establishment and building a new social order. It also signalled the start of a number of similar revolts around the world: Mao’s Long March, the revolutions in Africa and Latin America – and the idea of the proletarian struggle taking over the world. Che Guevara and Trotsky never relinquished that fight, and became martyrs of the revolution. In Trotsky’s case, a simple ice-pick, in the hands of one of Stalin’s secret agents, became his undoing.”

Canberra International Music Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelmann

“These ideas provide fertile ground for festival programming. Russian music will be a starting point – Shostakovich particularly,” Peelman explains, “but we’re also presenting a new work by Robert Davidson, called Stalin’s Piano.”

The work will explore the broader connections between art, artists, politics and politicians. According to Peelman, it takes its inspirations from “the rather bizarre and intriguing relationship between Stalin – one of the most lethal dictators of all time – and this very formidable woman Maria Yudina, who was his favourite pianist.”

“She never pulled her punches, verbally,” he says. “Throughout her life, she spoke up for artistic freedom, against oppression, state censorship, – and somehow she survived it all. An amazing woman and an amazing story! Her rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 was on Stalin’s record player as he died in March 1953.”

“Sonya Lifschitz is the pianist/performer emulating this extraordinary musician, in every way,” says Peelman, “on a musical level, on a personal level and on a political level.”

The world premiere of Stalin’s Piano won’t be Australian composer Robert Davidson’s only contribution to the festival. “We are actually featuring an entire Robert Davidson series of pieces based on Australian Prime Ministers’ speeches,” Peelman says. “That’s been a growing body of work for the last five years or so, everything from the ‘Light on the Hill’ speech and Keating’s ‘Redfern’ speech to Kevin’s ‘Sorry’ speech and Julia Gillard’s ‘Misogyny’ speech. Throughout Australian history, those are the great political moments that we remember.”

Following on from the original concept, the Festival will embrace revolution and social change in a variety of different forms. “A festival is always more than one thing – and it has to be,” says Peelman. “It has to reach out to different people, to different demographics, and so it’s an opportunity really to look at revolution from more than one point of view, not just politically. There is such a thing as the digital revolution – so we’re doing a concert themed around video game soundtracks, for example.”

Game On! will feature music by game composer Gary Schyman – known for his award-winning soundtracks for the Bioshock series and Destroy All Humans!  – who is flying out from the USA especially for the festival.

“We’re looking at the Sexual Revolution as well,” says Peelman. “Ensemble Offspring is doing an all-female composers event in the National Portrait Gallery, called Half the Sky. The name comes from the Chinese saying – made famous by Mao Zedong – ‘women hold up half the sky.’”

“We’re also doing a fantastic concert that looks at the Enlightenment and the English Revolution,” Peelman explains. “There never was a real revolution in England, it was always a process of more gradual change. People have different opinions as to when the moment of real change actually happened in England. But we are doing quite a wonderful concert called Why do the Nations? with music by Handel. That should be very special.”

Other concerts will explore the idea of revolution in a broader sense. “We’re giving special attention to the Mozart Quintets, which are rarely heard,” says Peelman. “When you have the four lines developed in quartet writing, it’s rich, beautiful and very colourful because of the tessituras,” he explains. “And then you add a fifth one in there and everything is so much more complex.”

“It’s music from around the time of the French Revolution, as well as the time that European people came here to Australia – it was a revolutionary time. There’s an
all-Mozart concert with the French quartet, the Van Kuijk Quartet, making its first appearance in Australia.”

Peelman believes re-examining the revolutions that shaped our world is more important than ever. “We will ignore history at our peril,” he warns.

“In the wake of what we’ve just witnessed in Britain with Brexit, the election of Trump in the USA, there’s been a deluge of commentary,” he says. “I think it is important that we talk about it. It is important that our politicians, and we as a society, think about what is happening. Why are there people who are disgruntled? How do they voice themselves? How do
we actually deal with that?”

For Roland Peelman, the Canberra International Music Festival is the perfect setting to engage in these conversations. “A festival is all about dialogue,” he says. “That’s the whole essence of a festival. That people come together and have experiences that are somewhat different to your average concert.”

Roland Peelman’s Festival Highlights

Simón Bolívar String Quartet. Photo by Harald Hoffmann/DG

The Simón Bolívar String Quartet

I’m rather excited about the Simón Bolívar String Quartet. They’re four young guys who come out of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and the El Sistema programme. Simón Bolívar was one of the revolutionaries of Latin America, so what better way to realise the theme than with a string quartet from Venezuela! They’re coming with some of the big guns in the quartet repertoire – Shostakovich and Beethoven – it will be quite fantastic.

Canadian Brass. Photo by Bo Huang

Opening Gala

Our opening concert and our finale will be extraordinary. The opening concert combines Canadian Brass, Lisa Moore, the Simón Bolívar String Quartet and more – quite an array of people brought together for this event. Canadian Brass haven’t been in Australia for decades. They’re the most iconic brass ensemble in the world – so for brass lovers it will be something quite special! I could name each and every concert. It will all be wonderful!

William Barton

Dreaming Across the Horizon

It’s an extraordinary concert that combines English nursery rhymes – in Andy Ford’s beautiful arrangements – with Indigenous, Aboriginal nursery rhymes and children’s stories, involving local Indigenous Elders and didgeridoo player William Barton. The English world and the Indigenous world. The world we invaded in 1788, the year before the French Revolution. This is the
closest Australia has ever come to revolution.

The Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra, from April 27 to May 7. Tickets are on sale now.