Why Bach? “It’s our 25th anniversary and this is my anniversary present to all those people who have stood by us and allowed us to develop this Festival into something special,” Roland Peelman tells me over coffee – “Bach liked coffee,” he says – “and into something stronger than ever before!”

“If I were to pick one composer to design a festival around, Bach would have to be it. Our Canberra patrons simply love Bach. They’re so outspoken about it, that we have to present some Bach every year,” Peelman says.

Canberra International Music Festival, Roland PeelmanCanberra International Music Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. Photo © William Hall

“So, instead of playing Bach on Sunday morning, I thought, okay, let’s do a whole festival around Bach,” he continues. “And it gives us an opportunity to present Bach in a different, antipodean context. I never had any desire to replicate the Leipzig Bachfest. And needless to say, there’s more than Bach.”

Peelman’s festival will see international guests ranging from the British Brodsky Quartet, French quartet Quatuor Voce, the Berlin-based sonic.art saxophone quartet to Chilean/Colombian band Los Pitutos as well as local artists including Bach Akademie Australia, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Circa, the Penny Quartet, Andrew Goodwin and more – performing music by Bach, or music that speaks in one way or another to his legacy.

“There’s an enormous legacy, in places where you’d expect it as well as in places where you’d least expect it.”

Bach’s shadow, he explains, “stretches not just to late Mozart, late Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin or Liszt,” he says, “but actually left a mark beyond musicians.”

“Just think of all those iconic tunes that people recognise, even if they don’t know it’s Bach,” he says, singing – along with other famous Bach melodies – the Badinerie from the second Orchestral Suite BWV 1067, forever engrained in the memory of many as Nokia mobile phone ringtone, circa 2000. “The man actually wrote a lot of very good tunes!”

Bach’s music reached the most unlikely places, such as the central Australian desert. “The Lutheran Church arrived in Australia in the late 19th-century, by way of Carl Strehlow, who set up shop in the middle of the Australian desert in Hermannsburg,” says Peelman. “And what do you think he did? He taught the Lutheran Chorales to the local Indigenous people, and translated them into Arrernte, the local language.”

“That’s extraordinary, those quirks of history in this great brown land, which in the 19th century was not focused on art and culture,” Peelman says.

The festival will pay tribute to these ‘quirks’ in a concert at the National Gallery of Australia titled Bach in the Central Desert, featuring the Ntaria Choir with William Barton and the sonic.art saxophone quartet.

Canberra International Music Festival, Roland PeelmanQuator Voce. Photo: supplied

Weaving through the festival is music from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the composer’s final work. “It was a document about how to deal with all the creative possibilities of counterpoint,” Peelman says. “To me, Bach is first and foremost about counterpoint.”

“Each voice is equally important,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a leading voice or an accompanying voice, they all take turns in leading and accompanying and counteracting, which is the very essence of counterpoint. That strikes me as a rather interesting metaphor for the kind of world we live in – a world of many voices.”

Another thread running through the festival are Bach’s six Cello Suites, which will be performed by six cellists – Daniel Yeadon, Lydia Shelley, Blair Harris, Miles Mullin-Chivers, David Pereira and Anton Baba – in six Bach for Breakfast concerts. “It’s my little personal tribute to Pablo Casals,” Peelman says. “Casals always said, ‘in order to start my day, I need Bach.’ It’s like the shower or a ritual cleansing before the day starts. Six Suites presented for breakfast – and what better way to start the day?”

In keeping with the idea of counterpoint, the festival will feature not just one composer in residence at this year’s festival, but a collective, consisting of Nick Wales, Bree Van Reyk and Jess Green. “They work naturally together as improvisers, composers,” Peelman explains. “They are broad thinkers and work across many different styles. They really think outside the box.”

So while Bach’s spirit is at the centre of the festival, Peelman is embracing a wide array of music and musicians. “Who would have thought that someone living in a small provincial town in Germany, would create a body of work that remained relevant to virtually every single generation since?”

Peelman cites Glenn Gould’s version of the famous Goldberg Variations, alongside festival guest Dan Tepfer. “Dan is a jazz pianist who performs the variations alternating with his own improvisations. Bach was a great improviser, we should never forget that,” he says.

“Ever since Mendelssohn started the Bach revival in the 1820s, generation after generation has rediscovered Bach and has found different ways of performing, reinterpreting, and transcribing Bach,” Peelman says. “In this day and age we have people who interpret Bach from a historical perspective, on period instruments with gut strings, in historic tuning and temperament systems, whilst you can play Bach on marimba or hear a Bach fugue played by a saxophone quartet and it can all sound very convincing.”

“Our festival really is a discovery festival. A way to discover certain aspects of Bach which are not so obvious, and to rediscover the Bach you know and love already.”

“It has been very nice to concentrate on one figure and at the same time create something incredibly diverse, like the world is today – with different tastes and different people speaking different languages, even though we may all have the same smart phones.”

Roland Peelman’s Festival Highlights

Bach’s St John Passion

Bach Akademie, Canberra International Music Festival, Roland Peelman

In the opera/oratorio slot this year is Bach’s St John Passion, with Bach Akademie Australia and a stunning line-up of Australians singing the solos and chorus parts. “It is an amazing piece,” Peelman says, putting you bang in the middle of the action. “Of course it has great reflective moments, but the action, the dialogue between Pilate, the Crowd, Christ, the Evangelist (the narrator) is so vivid – so dramatic!”

The Brodsky Quartet

Canberra International Music Festival, Roland Peelman

“We’re very proud to have the Brodsky Quartet returning to Canberra,” Peelman says. The British Quartet will spar with French ensemble Quatuor Voce in a concert titled Brexit Blues – “negotiating over Elgar and Franck” – before performing a recital on their own.

“They have assembled a program entirely based around fugues,” Peelman explains, featuring Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and culminating in Bartók’s String Quartet No 1.

Winther’s Bach

Canberra International Music Festival, Roland Peelman

Canberra-born violinist Kristian Winther tackles all of Bach’s solo violin works – from the sonatas to the partitas – in an epic odyssey across one day of the festival. “That experience you may only have once in your life,” says Peelman. “It’s both a technical and creative tour de force. This is music that transcends all boundaries. In these six works Bach crosses the borders of what is physically, humanly possible on a violin.”


Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra May 2 – 12. Tickets are on sale now.

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