The second-string of Australian chamber music looks strong from sleepy Bellingen

Bellingen Music Festival

September 21, 2014

There was a lot of chamber music at Bellingen’s fifth Music Festival. The festival both ended and began with small string groups – Sydney’s new-ish Blackwattle Trio, and the more established Acacia Quartet respectively. You wouldn’t call either a blockbuster ensemble – neither have the profile of an Australian String Quartet, for example. But both ensembles had an incredible degree of artistic maturity.

Chamber music and new music were really the order of the day – a brave decision, but a pretty sensible one. The other performers at the festival included Synergy Percussion and Alison Morgan from Halcyon. Logistically, chamber music is just easier to organise outside a big city. The smaller music form also suits the more intimate country feel of a festival. Chamber works also tend to be reasonably short, so you can play a couple of different kinds of piece in a row – perhaps you sucker people in with some familiar Mozart and then hit them with Ross Edwards when they’re not looking. Can’t do that if you’re playing symphonies.

So it was a sensible decision. But it was also a brave one. A lot of this music is very new – and incredibly depressing.

Acacia Quartet’s repertoire was dominated by an Australian premiere. Just in August, they finished a fairly lengthy tour around the country playing Lyle Chan’s new work String Quartet: an AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music. Much of the foundation of the work was written nearly fifteen years ago, during Australia’s HIV/AIDS crisis. As in the US, public health authorities were unable – or perhaps unwilling – to do what needed to be done to stop the disease. Drugs were banned in Australia, sometimes because they were “too dangerous”. More dangerous than AIDS?

Some politicians even wanted to put restrictions on access to the limited resources they were willing to set aside for victims – moral restrictions. There was a sense that, if you were sexually subversive promiscuous or a drug user, perhaps you deserved it.

Of course, Lyle Chan and other activists at ACT UP had absolutely none of it, and a good thing too. He writes music about one friend of his who broke the law producing and importing banned pharmaceutical drugs like ddC before they had been approved for public use. Lyle ran the Sydney end of this drug ring.

A lot of the music is explicitly about the suicide of friends. He actually sat through the suicide of one friend (Bruce Brown). The piece based on that experience is called Night Vigil. Like the entire work, it’s a crushingly powerful work of musical history and Acacia have really made it their own. I’ve written a lot about the background of this work, but don’t be fooled – it is a work of pure art, too. He is a musician first, I think, and an activist second. Or perhaps they both emerge from the same place: Chan’s immense sense of empathy with all humanity. A towering piece.

Nonetheless, in my humble opinion, Blackwater Trio was the highlight of Belligen’s Music Festival. This is no reflection on the other ensembles, but I did prefer Blackwater’s repertoire – Ross Edwards’ beautiful piano trio, a fiery reduction of Piazolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Shostakovich’s devastating Second Piano Trio. It was a nice balanced concert – enough that was familiar and enough that was challenging. On the other hand, it was incredibly sad, a bit of a weird ending to a really pleasant weekend.

It seems strange to say this now, but before the Second Trio, Shostakovich had written very little chamber music. He built his reputation on his symphonies – by 1944, he’d just finished his Eighth; eventually he wrote fifteen. He only turned to the more intimate, smaller-scale form later in life (for instance, he wrote his Eighth and best Quartet in three days in 1960). The Second Trio is actually one of his first chamber works, one of two he wrote during the war.

Shostakovich, not the happiest or most emotionally stable musicians at the best of times, is downright morose in the Second Trio. There are two theories about the provenance of this work: it is dedicated to his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had recently died. The second theory is that it’s influenced by rumours of the Holocaust; he might well have heard news as the Soviet advanced into Poland and liberated some of the camps. Shostakovich uses Jewish themes throughout the Allegretto, the last movement – which Blackwattle introduced as a “Dance of Death”. But the work is clearly also influenced by the war in general. I fancy you’re hearing in the first movement the advance of tanks or approaching artillery strikes from the dubious shelter of some civilian basement, as Shostakovich once did from his house in Moscow. The work premiered in Leningrad, a few months after the German siege of that city was lifted. It is not a happy piece.

The cellist, Clare Kahn, was probably the standout performer – she had more opportunity to be. Shostakovich writes a brutally tough impossibly high cello solo all on harmonics to begin his Second Piano Trio: it’s an unsettling opening to a pretty heartbreaking work. The cello plays the highest part, with the violin harmonising below her and piano below him. The part is essentially impossible to play in tune. Nonetheless, Kahn nailed it. It was a pretty heroic effort. Of course, it’s not the end of the work. Her depth of feeling throughout this fairly grim work stood out throughout the entire concert.

The Blackwattle Trio are one of those really great chamber groups Sydney seems to produce every couple of years or so. As a trio, they’re only a year or so old – but they sound far more polished. I particularly enjoyed the incredible quietness of their playing, just audible at the edge of your hearing. This is actually their first major festival as a trio outside Sydney. If you’re wondering about the name, by the way, it’s essentially meaningless. To quote their bio, the name comes “from the Inner West’s Blackwattle Bay”. They add that “today the bay is a vibrant hub of Inner West life”. That’s all very well, but hopefully they venture outside Sydney once more! Acacia, a slightly more established group, regularly does.