The scent of freshly cut grass greeted my arrival at Clarendon on a beautiful spring evening. The opening night of a wonderful weekend of music, Tasmanian food and wine, beautiful gardens and heritage buildings. The Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival isn’t just about the music. It’s a celebration of all the wonders Tasmania has to offer, in one beautifully crafted package.

As the name implies, the music is the main thing. A sprinkling of Tasmania’s finest musicians joined with artists from the mainland – some of international stature, all outstanding – to present a weekend of music that truly offered something for everyone. Asking around at the final lunch, I found that everyone had a different highlight. For some it was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, for some it was Handel’s Cantata La Lucrezia, for some it was the Tinalley Quartet’s highly polished rendition of Ravel’s Quartet. For me, the performance that will stay with me for years to come was Umberto Clerici’s interpretation of Bach’s D Minor Cello Suite.

Tasmanian Chamber Music FestivalThe Tinalley String Quartet at the Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival. Photo © Mel de Ruyter

The Festival opened with a fine dinner at Clarendon, followed by the Tinalley Quartet performing in Evandale’s Falls Pavilion. Of the four works presented by the Tinalleys, I enjoyed the Debussy Quartet the least. For me, they somewhat missed the mark with their tonal colours, and in general there was a slight lack of unanimity that was disappointing. Not what I would expect from them, but their change of cellist is still in its first year, so this perhaps accounted for it. The second work in the opening concert was Schubert’s C Major Quintet – beloved of musicians and audiences alike. The second cello part of this work is important, providing the foundation of both harmonic structure and phrasing. To hear this in the hands of Umberto Clerici was revelatory. He is a magnificent communicator as well as a beautiful musician. He sat in the centre of the ensemble, which had both advantages and disadvantages. It’s wonderful to hear the harmonic foundation emerging from the centre, and it is a great place from which to drive a performance. However, it perhaps gave too much prominence to this demonstrative cellist. He drew every eye, to the slight detriment of the other, less extrovert, players. That being said, it was a wonderful performance. The colours were magical, especially in the slow movement, and the pianissimi breathtaking.

The following day brought the Tinalleys again, this time at the Nigel Peck Centre, on the Woolmers Estate. Any thought that they were still adjusting to their new cellist was dispelled by an outstanding performance of Ravel’s Quartet. They played as one person, with a veritable rainbow of tone colours and impeccable ensemble. For their final work, they were joined by Andrew Seymour for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. They had only just met Seymour, but it was assuredly a match made in heaven. A joyous performance of a joyous work: beautifully nuanced with a wonderful feeling for the big picture, as well as the finer details.

Tasmanian Chamber Music FestivalThe Grigoryan Brothers at the Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival. Photo © Mel de Ruyter

The second Tinalley concert was preceded by the Grigoryan Brothers in Evandale’s Uniting Church. This was a perfect venue for a guitar duo. Impeccably maintained, with stunning stained glass, it was a beautifully intimate setting for a concert. The Grigoryans themselves exceeded all expectation. Their varied program ranged from Baroque to modern Brazilian, and included a couple of their own compositions, as well as their father’s arrangements. They drew an astonishing array of sounds and effects from their guitars, including some very impressive percussive work. Their versatility was remarkable. They had an unerring instinct for style; every work was played with a respect for both the composer’s intentions and the era in which it was written. The communication between the brothers was something special to behold. Completely without showmanship, they looked to each other for the perfect placement of phrases in a manner that, at times, seemed almost psychic. By turns reflective, romantic, fiery and energetic, the brothers delighted from beginning to end.

Christ Church, Longford, festooned in candles, was a magical setting for an evening of Handel. The soul was soothed even before the music began. Audiences love performers to speak a little about the music before they play. This is sometimes an uncomfortable experience for many musicians, and can come across as something of a chore. Not so with Erin Helyard. His words were pitched perfectly – enlightening without being too academic, humorous and informative. He established a real rapport with his audience. A whole evening of Handel’s music may have been too much, but was saved by skilful programming – alternating solo, duo and trio works to create variety. Helyard combined his knowledge with spontaneity and an emotional response to the music to create an unforgettable evening’s music. The wonderful, rich, full-bodied tones of soprano Jacqueline Porter were spellbinding. Her rendition of La Lucrezia brought Handel right into the 21st century – a reminder that however old the music, the feelings expressed are timeless. This performance brought drama, heartbreak and human frailty to life with spine-chilling immediacy. The delicacy of Emma McGrath’s baroque violin provided a wonderful contrast to the richness of the soprano. She wove in and out of the texture, always sensitive to the important distinction between foreground and background, creating a lively and appealing dialogue.

Tasmanian Chamber Music FestivalErin Helyard at the Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival. Photo © Mel de Ruyter

Finally, Bach in the Barns. What a great way to end an incredible weekend. It had something of the magical mystery tour about it, as we were transported from barn to barn by a fleet of buses. Each performer played three times, giving the illusion that Bach in the Barns was eternal, and we simply dropped in to eavesdrop.

My first barn, Brickendon, featured Helyard, and it brought with it some unexpected joys. I never before realised that donkeys brayed so loudly, or that tiny lambs might want to make friends. All part of the festival experience. Sadly, the harpsichord didn’t take kindly to the Northern Midlands climate, so Helyard had to cut the Bach Prelude and Fugue from his program, because they couldn’t warm the instrument in time for the early start. Nevertheless, the remaining two works provided a satisfying performance. As before, Helyard brought the music to life with his enthusiasm and knowledge. Even the cows mooed their appreciation, although they waited until the end.

Tasmanian Chamber Music FestivalEmma McGrath at the Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival. Photo © Mel de Ruyter

McGrath treated us to Bach’s E Major Solo Partita, in the very sophisticated barn at Haggerston – more luxury accommodation than barn, in truth. She played from a gallery, high above her audience, which gave the impression of Bach wafting down from heaven. And it was heavenly. E Major is a richly glowing key, and McGrath brought vibrancy and joy to her performance. Interestingly, despite her previously demonstrated mastery of the baroque violin, she chose to play the partita on her modern violin. Asked about this, she said she would have been equally comfortable playing either, but that she is principally a modern violinist, and the baroque instrument is something of a sideline. The difference between modern and baroque pitch, which McGrath negotiates with ease, does not alter the feeling of the keys. E Major still shines, regardless of whether the instrument is tuned to 440 or 415.

Clerici completed the triptych of Bach performances. The barn at Clarendon was a perfect, private space for this most intimate of Bach’s suites for solo cello. Words cannot do justice to this performance. Accompanied by the birds, each movement had its own distinctive feeling, most notably the wild exuberance of the Courante and the sublime reflectiveness of the Sarabande. This was what I think of as an inside-out performance: Umberto found the inner meaning and emotion of every phrase, every harmony, without needing to impose anything upon the music from the outside. The result was a performance that seemed to come from Bach himself.

All that remains is to pay tribute to the wonderful food and wine provided by Josef Chromy for the closing lunch. His restaurant is in a beautiful setting: massive windows looking over open vistas of dams and grape vines. In the absence of Christopher Lawrence (who hosted the conversation at least year’s festival), performers chatted to Festival Director, Allanah Dopson. By turns personal, funny and informative, this dialogue provided a glimpse into the lives and personalities of the musicians that added greatly to the personal feel of the weekend.

Led by Dopson’s inspired vision, she and her team created a weekend that felt like a single event. There was a feeling of unity that brought audience and performers together, and led strangers to reach out to each other in friendship and shared experience. The boutique venues, the sharing of food and wine, the contribution of our heritage villages and buildings, and the idyllic rural setting, complete with assorted wildlife, all combined to create an unforgettable experience.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine