Scottish-born Sydney-based classical accordionist James Crabb was appointed as Artistic Director of Four Winds in October 2016. Tomorrow his first Four Winds Easter Festival will get underway at Barragga Bay, nine kilometres south of Bermagui on the Sapphire Coast of southern NSW.

Four Winds Festival Artistic Director James Crabb. Photograph © Chris Sheedy

The popular Festival is renowned for its unique setting, with the majority of the performances happening on a purpose-built open-air sound stage designed by architect Philip Cox  – the 2000-seat Sound Shell amphitheatre – surrounded by 30 acres of stunningly beautiful open bushland.

The Festival also stages performances at the more intimate Windsong Pavilion and will once again present a series of concerts in local private residences. Over the five days 60 artists and 10 ensembles will give 26 performances. The line-up includes British violinist Jack Liebeck and Israeli flautist Ariel Zuckermann as well as a strong Australian contingent, among them soprano Emma Pearson, pianists Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Ian Munro, harpist Alice Giles, and guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski. Ensembles performing there include the Goldner String Quartet, The Song Company, Speak Percussion and the Australian Brass Quintet.

The music ranges from Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich to Chopin and Vivaldi, and includes five world premieres of works by American composer Timothy Geller, Australian Damien Barbeler (read our story here) and Gerard Brophy, as well as local South Coast residents Geoffrey Badger and David Hewitt. There is also a new showcase of seven short music theatre performances where circus meets sideshow and illusion in a program called Sideshow Alley. Crabb spoke to Limelight about his first Four Winds Easter Festival.

Have you been obsessively checking the weather forecast?

You can only really take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s not looking so bad at the moment. It depends on whether that weather front comes a little ahead or later, you never know with these things. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to have rain.

The gorgeous setting is one of the attractions of the Festival. When you first played there yourself in 2012, did you fall in love with the surroundings?

Absolutely, and I did go in with slightly negative experiences of outdoor events from way back in my childhood when [the score] blew off a music stand. But when you get there you fully appreciate that it is a unique setting. It’s beautiful, but the fact that there’s a natural amphitheatre actually does improve the sound, so you never feel like you’re just playing out in the open air with the sound dissipating into nothing. It’s really quite contained, it’s a marvellous acoustic actually, so once you experience that and you can actually feel the sound coming back, then that often makes musicians relax. And the audiences are also so close to you. An outdoor event often feels like you don’t have a connection with anything apart from nature, but actually it’s almost like an outside concert hall in that you actually do have a very good connection to the audience –and that’s everything. Because we’re talking to the audience and if you don’t feel them, then it’s just like talking to yourself, which is not nearly as fun.

The Sound Shell amphitheatre at the Four Winds Festival. Photograph © Robert Green

How much did the setting influence what you decided to program?

Quite a lot. Everyone has a different idea about that, and of course you could program anything and it will work, but having spent a considerable amount of time there now, I seem to get more and more inspired for every car journey down to that part of New South Wales. And that kind of has inspired me with my choices, and all of a sudden I’m thinking ‘it would be wonderful to experience this music and that music in this setting’. The music’s not all about trees or plants or the ocean. I think it’s just the fact that you’re in such a beautifully tranquil setting where you can let yourself go, and some of that more meditative music works really well. But music is beauty anyway, and musicians expressing themselves is a beautiful thing and so it’s more a case of that then that I’ve tailor-made a program that suits a natural environment. I can sense that all the music that I’ve programmed really does work in the outdoor events. And it’s been built around themes and different things that have evolved during the repertoire planning, so all of a sudden you have those pockets of thematic things which weren’t really consciously intended, but have sprouted out of having those little seeds planted, which is such a curious thing, and quite nice.

Can you give us an example of something like that then?

I guess some of the beautiful music of Arvo Pärt, which is really calming and reflective. I’ve often had that experience just sitting in the amphitheatre alone as well as in an audience setting, and so those composers started to emerge. And then I got the idea of using the wind as an inspiration as well, and that kind of fits into the commission that’s been written for Alice Giles the harpist. It’s using wind harp, so we’re using the live nature of the wind in real time, activating those wind harps and that’s part of the composition. So all that kind of thing started to fall into place. Using the strings in different styles as well was also very important, so we have the ANAM string ensemble coming. What I really wanted to do was to present them in a wide range of repertoire, and with the strings obviously there’s a wonderful core repertoire of strings, particularly from the classical and romantic period, but I was really interested in presenting some earlier music so we have Vivaldi on the program as well and Respighi. It’s a nice mix of musical flavours, really.

And you have a range of venues including some in private homes?

We think of all our performances as being intimate – even if there’s a thousand people in the amphitheatre, it’s really intimate because you’re right there. But obviously the house concerts are another step. Going back to how chamber music used to be experienced, it was in the home setting, so that’s a kind of more intimate event where you get to meet the musicians. You’re actually sitting right next to them when they’re performing, it’s a very intense experience, and there’s a lot of wonderful homes around the south east coast to make music in. So it is a question of just trying to find different homes each year to have those wonderful events. We’ve capped the audience at 31. I’m sure there’s a lot more people who’d love to come to those events but we’re keeping them small. And they may grow in future years, but it’s just a different experience that some would like to have, to give them the choice.

You’re performing in one of those concerts in a private residence yourself?

That’s right. It’s my first year as Artistic Director and I’ve always maintained that I’m first and foremost a performing musician. That’s what I’ve always done, and I don’t want to lose that identity, of course. So being an artistic director, I wanted to make a strong statement in a way that I’m also an active musician, so I like to come and perform and make the festival. For me it’s really important to feed both sides of my visions for Four Winds and how I perform as a performer, without sounding too precious about it.

Can you tell us about the Sideshow Alley music theatre program? You used to do a bit of music theatre yourself in the past?

Yes. I’ve always been drawn to different forms of musical performance anyway, and my instrument is a very physical and dramatic instrument to look at and to listen to, and so there’s a growing number of works written for that and other instrumentation where the accordion is a very expressive medium. I was very drawn to the fact that actually we are acting out a scenario through sung language and our expression. As a teacher I was very drawn to that: how do you activate that kind of imagination in a musician? Because it’s often not to do with actually playing the instrument, it’s about the musical understanding of what you want to say. And if you take the instrument away, then you really get to the heart of the problem often; it’s not just playing the notes, it’s how you play them. So I did that a little bit with my students in Copenhagen where I “just said put the instrument down and we’ll try a new way to express what it is you want to say”. And I mean that’s incredibly confronting because you have nothing to hide behind, it’s just you and your imagination, and just being aware of body language and how you enter a stage and present yourself – all of this which is a communication with the audience. It’s just being aware of all those kinds of things, so I’ve been drawn to music theatre for a long time and I love having fun with music anyway in general.

I wanted to delve into that side of music theatre through the more comical side of how you can present music and that was an inspiration for the Sideshow Alley. It’s also to have something different which hasn’t been at the previous festivals too. Just to set up maybe a thought in the audience’s mind that there will always be something a little different at Four Winds. We want the audience to make it their own experience. The way we’ve ticketed it you don’t have to go to everything, you can choose your own experience but you create it yourself. That’s a lovely thing to be able to offer the audience and when you add that with wonderful musicians and quality, then everybody is winning.

How do you feel about the Four Winds Festival becoming an annual event again?

I’m very excited. For a small town and community like Bermagui, it’s really important to have consistency in what’s going on, and now that we’ve really focusing on our [musical] education in the area, what we’re doing in the schools all year round is creating a lot of awareness at Four Winds. I think every second year is too long to be waiting for that iconic event and it just gives us me a lot more programming opportunities as well. It just means we can savour each festival and make them unique. The worry is always that we have audience fatigue, but if we make every festival unique and different and exciting, I think we will win more than we will lose by doing that.

The Four Winds Festival runs from March 28 – April 1