It’s less than two weeks until this year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music gets underway in Townsville and Artistic Director Kathryn Stott is enthusiastically counting down the days on social media.

Kathryn StottKathryn Stott. Photograph supplied

It’s her second festival as Artistic Director, having taken over from her close friend and colleague, classical pianist Piers Lane, who popped the question about her taking on the role on the phone. As she told Limelight before her first AFCM, Lane rang her late one night. She was in a taxi at one in the morning and while they were chatting he suddenly said: “How would you like to take over Townsville?” She admits she was surprised but said yes pretty quickly.

Chatting to Limelight, Stott says that had she not played at the festival several times before being offered the AD role, she probably wouldn’t have considered it.

“I think I played in the festival four times before I took on the position. Otherwise, I think in all honesty I would never have taken it on, because of the geography and [the scale of the festival]. It would have been too big a leap in my imagination.”

Returning now for a second festival feels very different, she says. “Getting through that first festival is always the biggest hoop because it was a big change for a lot of people. Dear Piers had been there a long time and I felt a little bit of pressure last year to deliver something.  But after day two people were so warm. There was just that feeling when I arrived of ‘how is it going to go down?’ but people were just so responsive immediately and so sweet and I just felt this kind of overwhelming ‘okay, we’re off’. And by the end of the festival it was just such an emotional experience, I think one of my all-time emotional highs; the feeling that people were going home and booking immediately for next year, that that this [festival] is something special. So, I left feeling like ‘okay now we can go forward’ and I felt confident. Before that you feel like you’ve got to lay all your cards out on the table.”

This year, having got a better sense of how AFCM operates, Stott says that she has changed things “a wee bit” and “pushed a few boundaries” in terms of the artists that she’s bringing. “And they’re not coming to do just like a one-off [concert], I’m trying to integrate certain instruments throughout the whole program,” she says, citing pipa player Wu Man, who was a founding member of the Silkroad Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, as an example.

Wu Man. Photograph © KuanDi Studio 1

“It’s very interesting to have the Chinese pipa there and there’s wonderful repertoire that she has for her own quartet and her own ensemble. But for me, it’s how to put people together. You can always have people doing a few little solo spots but this is a chamber music festival. Chamber music can have lots of different meanings but it’s basically about collaborations, so that’s what I’m looking for. So, she’ll be there for the whole festival, performing in various concerts, which will be great.”

When she is inviting musicians, Stott sends the photographs to show them the extraordinary location. “I say to them, ‘you do have to work bloody hard when you come here but this is what’s out there. We do this amazing concert on Orpheus Island, you might see some whales on the way, for goodness’ sake.”

Among the many other artists that Stott has invited harpist is Ruth Wall, who is bringing some of her harps with her. “I don’t think it’s been customary to bring a harpist from abroad because we’ve got wonderful people here but she also plays [what I called] the baby harps and she ticked me off for that!” says Stott. “I said ‘they’re Celtic harps’ and she said ‘no, one is a bray harp [the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods] and this one is a lever wire strung harp’. We’re bringing them because we couldn’t find them here. She’ll play concert harp as well, which we’ve borrowed,” says Stott.

Ruth Wall. Photograph © Steve Tanner

“Her partner is a wonderful British composer called Graham Fitkin and I’ve had the closest relationship with him as a composer. I’ve commissioned seven things from him. He’s written a cello concerto for Yo-Yo, he wrote a piece for Yo-Yo and me. I commissioned him for Yo-Yo on his 50th, he wrote a piece for me on my 40th, so he’s been in my life a lot. Ruth will be his wife by the time of festival – after 20 years – so he’s coming out and they’re going to play something with the Goldner String Quartet for harp and that so another little connection.”

“Just like it’s not customary to bring a harpist it isn’t the thing to bring a double bassist, but I said I wanted to bring Roberto Carrillo-Garcia, the Principal Double Bass player of the Hallé Orchestra [in Manchester in the UK] which is my home orchestra, I guess, because he also plays the gamba and guitar. He’ll be the busiest guy in the whole festival, but then it’s suddenly worth it.”

She will also be performing but less than she did last year. “Last year I played a bit too much I think but now I kind of see the toll of that a little bit. So, I have removed myself about 10 precent, but I was to be part of it like everyone else.”

The theme for the 2019 AFCM is ORIGINS, drawing on the origins of the music, the composers and the artists, with the music ranging from 13th-century repertoire to music from today.

“It’s good for me to have a kind of shape,” says Stott. “When I was thinking about origins, I was trying to think of a theme that doesn’t box me into a corner because it’s too big. The festival is too big and there are too many elements and I can’t bring in something like a pipa or marimba if I’m too tightly boxed. So, for me there are a lot of nationalistic flavours in the program. You can find Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and things like that, composers that have very strong connections to their country. Janáček, Smetana, all those kind of obvious things. And then we’ve got folk music, traditional music, things that have strong roots that go back to the heritage of the country. Then things like my personal origins, going back to my connections to French music.”

Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photograph supplied

“But then for me what was important was to think about the inspirations behind some of the pieces, so what was the inspiration behind a composition? I’ve got one program called Homelands [on August 2] and all the pieces come from different parts of the world. There’s a bit of Piazzolla – we’ve got music from his Café – and Songs from the Auvergne and Ruth on her little bray harp playing English music from the 13th century like Greensleeves. The concert will also include the world premiere of a new version of Ye Xiaogang’s Gardenia, a movement for 11 mixed instruments including the pipa, clarinet, percussion, piano, French horn, oboe, violins, and double bass – yet another exciting AFCM moment in musical history. Our Winterschool Director, Pavel Fischer who is from Prague, is also a wonderful composer. He’s written a quartet called Moravia so that program is quite heavily themed.”

A concert called The Final Hour on July 28 features a story especially written by British author Tori de Clare who is well known for her mysteries and psychological thrillers. Here, she has taken music sent to her by Stott as the inspiration. “I’ve actually given some coaching lessons to her son. He studies in Manchester and so I know this lady, Tori de Clare,” says Stott. “She’s into music, I think she also teaches a little bit or she used to anyway. I had this weird idea one day, because in the festival I’ve got a mini-focus on trios. We’ve got the big blockbusters, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, and then I’ve got these little ones that are not so often played by Sibelius and Koechlin and others. “

“Anyway, I sent her four pieces [by Schubert, Grieg, Sibelius and Koechlin] and I said, ‘if I was to have those four in some kind of concert, could you imagine a story where we can integrate this music?’ I just thought she might think I’ve gone nuts but let’s just see if she thinks of anything. Sure enough, she’s come back with this story, this narrative, dramatic short story and she wants it to happen in real time so we will start at 9:30pm. Whether we’ll finish dead on 10:30 I don’t know, but that’s the idea. But I think it’s going to be great. The story came to her mind by listening to this music so that’s a new departure.”

Connor D’Netto. Photograph © Ray Roberts Photography

There are also five world premieres by composers including Australians Jessica Wells and Connor D’Netto, who is the festival’s composer-in-residence. Although Stott has given the popular Bach by Candlelight concerts a break this year, audiences will be pleased to hear that the much-loved Concert Conversations in which Stott chats with festival musicians will be back.

Meanwhile the Winterschool, directed by Pavel Fischer, will be getting more attention than in previous years, and has been extended to 12 days. “It was a real success last year so we’ve invited young ensembles, rather than individuals. They then get to work with him very intensely,” says Stott. “They get coaching, they get public masterclasses, and some opportunities to play in the main program. So, it’s an amazing program.”

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville plays July 26 to August 4