In their 70th birthday year, it seems that Musica Viva have pulled out all the stops.

The musical champagne corks are already popping as Musica Viva Australia celebrates its 70th birthday with the brilliant Canadian Baroque ensemble Tafelmusik this month, launching a stellar season that will culminate in a gala recital tour by Russian superstar violinist Maxim Vengerov. But at the heart of the celebration is the fourth biennial Musica Viva Festival, which runs over four days at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music from Thursday April 9 to Sunday April 12.

This year’s festival will be a chamber music hothouse of around 30 events featuring 60 musicians, about 40 of them young Australian performers, with the undoubted highlight being three concerts featuring legendary Latvian-born Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky. There will be seven subscription concerts featuring top international performers alongside their Australian counterparts, as well as performances by members of the Australian Youth Orchestra, tutorials, workshops and talks, a film festival and plenty of activities to keep children engaged as well. There’s even an open mic segment being recorded by ABC Classic FM. As Carl Vine, Musica Viva’s artistic director says: “Chamber music is a miraculous exemplification of human endeavour, and a festival compressing its full spectrum into a few short days is an essential encounter for both the novice and the aficionado.”

Vine, of course, is one of our finest composers (he was runner-up to Peter Sculthorpe in Limelight’s recent top 10 Aussie composers) and in fact his brilliant solo for cello and its electronic twin, Inner World, will be performed at the festival by Nicolas Altstaedt. So is it easy to juggle his two careers? “Musica Viva is very understanding,” he explains. “If I have a deadline for a composition they are happy for me to leave off and do it. The sole purpose of Musica Viva is to ensure that there is more music in the world.” 

Maisky, who will give a rare two-hour masterclass, heads the impressive international cast list. Top string quartets include the Pavel Haas from the Czech Republic, plus Brits, the Doric Quartet, who will be joined by Serbian pianist Aleksander Madžar and Armenian clarinettist Narek Arutyunian.

“Mischa Maisky is such an unusual character and an iconic performer that we wanted to do something special with him”

German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt will be playing a dual role – as a performer and also directing young chamber players from the AYO. And the festival marks the Australian debut of brilliant young Bulgarian fiddler Bella Hristova, winner of the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant, who will play works by Fauré, Kodály and Kevin Puts.

Guitarist Karin Schaupp heads an impressive roster of Australians, performing in four concerts. And Melbourne-born pianist Daniel de Borah will feature in two works by Brahms, as well as the klezmer-inspired clarinet trio by Paul Schoenfield. 

Testimony to Musica Viva’s commitment to bringing on young home-grown talent will be the appearance of the Orava Quartet. Founded in Sydney in 2007 by siblings Daniel and Karol Kowalik, they came to notice at the first festival in 2008. They have just returned from a two-year residency in the United States where they have been studying with the world-renowned Takács Quartet, and will appear in three concerts, performing (with Schaupp) Black Dogs by West Australia composer Iain Grandage, and Jean Françaix’s vibrant Clarinet Quintet with Arutyunian. They have also been entrusted with the Sydney premiere of Ross Edwards’ String Quartet No 3.

The 2015 festival has been two years in the making and Vine says that planning for the 2017 festival is already under way. Most of it is done from home these days. “I’ve known most of the international musicians before and it’s very easy with CDs and press reviews to find suitable artists,” he says. “Musica Viva, being a not-for-profit organisation, is very economical, and while it would be easy for me to travel the world for six months of the year there’s no need to.”

And was it easy persuading Maisky to appear? “He had other engagements while he was over here,” Vine explains, “so it was a question of fitting in with those arrangements.” Maisky will perform three of Bach’s cello suites – music that he first encountered at age 11 when his brother gave him the scores, telling him: “Work as hard as you can all your life to be worthy of this great music”. A masterclass will be a rare opportunity to see a legend at work close up. “He’s such an unusual character and an iconic performer that we wanted to do something special with him,” says Vine. “He doesn’t teach and rarely if ever comments on mere technique. It will be very interesting.”

So is there anyone who Vine would give an arm and a leg if he could get them as a guest? “Well maybe not an arm and a leg but certainly a major body part for Yo Yo Ma. We’ve been trying for years and we’ve just about given up on him. And Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is coming out next year to play with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But to come and play a concerto and then head off is a bit different. We require they come for a few days and talk to the young musicians and play with them – it’s a pretty big ask. Some people are happy to do that and love it, others not – which is fair enough.”

Musica Viva Festival 2015 from Musica Viva on Vimeo.

The Musica Viva Festival is at the Sydney Conservatorium, April 9-12. Book online or call 1800 688 482


Carl Vine’s Top Three Festival Picks

Concert 1
Mischa Maisky (above) plays Bach’s Cello Suite No 3. Tom Adès’ iconic, fiendishly difficult and rarely performed piano quintet will be played by his fellow countrymen the fabulous Doric Quartet and piano virtuoso Aleksandar Madžar. The impossibly talented Narek Arutyunian plays one of Brahms’ signature works for clarinet accompanied by pianist Daniel de Borah. And the Pavel Haas Quartet brings the full Slavonic experience down under with Dvorák’s Tenth Quartet.

Concert 7 
The world Premiere of Natalie Williams’ new octet for strings is bookended by Olli Mustonen’s marvellous string nonet. Consummate artist Karin Schaupp (above) plays Giuliani – one of the great solos of the guitar repertoire – while Narek Arutyunian and Daniel de Borah join stellar German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt for Brahms’ magnificent Clarinet Trio. Finally Bulgarian/American violinist Bella Hristova is joined by Aleksandar Madžar for Fauré’s enchanting First Violin Sonata.

Concert 4 
Hear the festival’s other world premiere – a piano trio by Lachlan Skipworth – alongside Ross Edwards’ recently minted Third String Quartet, featuring Australia’s Orava Quartet (above). Mischa Maisky’s last performance of the festival is Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. The SSO’s co-principal cellist Umberto Clerici joins Bella Hristova to perform Kodály’s virtuosic Duo, while the Doric Quartet will deliver a quintessential rendition of Haydn’s First Quartet in the Op 76 set with brilliance and clarity.