It’s Easter morning. The sky is a patchwork of blue and white and the air has a tiny edge of crispness to it. A respectable crowd are gathered outside the Windsong Pavillion, drinking coffee, and pacing up and down as they wait for the doors to open. A Four Winds production manager hurries around offering hot cross buns.

“We’re keeping the hall cool for the lute,” she explains to the restless attendees, who have got up early to hear the legendary Dame Emma Kirkby sing. Understanding nods from everyone. Of course. The lute.

Emma Kirkby, Four WindsJakob Lindberg and Dame Emma Kirkby at the Four Winds Festival. Photo © Ben Marden

***

Jeremy Rose, composer and saxophonist, is at the side of the Sound Shell stage, jabbing at what looks like a mobile phone in between movements of his work, River Meeting Suite. It is a mobile phone.

“He’s not checking his messages,” says one of the performers. “He’s changing the drone,” then explains how the sound of the bulky and rare instrument that would usually provide the drone in traditional Indian classical music is being streamed.

Four WindsChristina Leonard, Sarangan Sriranganathan, Jeremy Rose, Paul Cutlan, Luke Gilmour and Bobby Singh. Photo © David Rogers

A wandering nasal hum from the speakers finds a new key, Rose returns to his place in the line-up, and the music begins again. The four saxophonists of the Compass Quartet are joined by Bobby Singh on tabla and Sarangan Sriranganathan on sitar and vocals. It’s a tight and coherent mix of notated and improvised music which holds the Sound Shell audience rapt as it tests the impressive chops of everyone on stage.

***

“Don’t you think it looks wonderful on her?”

Elena Kats-Chernin, Four Winds Easter FestivalElena Kats-Chernin at the Four Winds Festival. Photo © David Rogers

It’s Saturday night in the Windsong Pavilion and composer Elena Kats-Chernin is holding court, alongside diminutive saxophonist Christina Leonard, who is dressed in a sequinned black jacket, looking slightly sheepish. She’s just shared a story with us about how she forgot to pack her blacks – the musician’s stock uniform – and how Kats-Chernin (who is rarely seen in anything other than black) came to her rescue. “I have blacks for both of us!” The audience is delighted. Not just by Leonard’s utterly spectacular performance, but also by the artists’ generous insights into their everyday lives. It feels like we’re all old friends now.

***

Sunday afternoon, and it’s time for Beethoven in the Bush, a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto which brings together the Australian String Quartet, the Arcadia Winds, the Enigma Quartet, students from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) and a sprinkling of other ring-ins, along with soloist Stefan Vladar, who conducts from the piano.

Stefan Vladar at the Four Winds Festival. Photo © David Rogers

It’s three o’clock and, after its long arc across the Four Winds festival site at Barraga Bay, the sun is close to sinking over the crest of the hill. As the temperature drops and the light softens a flock of rosellas squabbles over where to roost and a frog sets up a tentative riff. It’s all part of the sonic landscape of this unique concert setting. Beethoven would surely have included bell birds and lorikeet calls in the orchestration if he’d been able to hear them.

***

The Four Winds Festival, which until now has blown into Bermagui every second Easter, is back twelve months early as the organisation makes its transition from a biennial event to an annual festival. In 2019 its current artistic director, accordionist James Crabb, has assembled musicians of many ages and many traditions, and blended them together to make something much more than the sum of its parts. This is not in itself a new approach: Four Winds has always deployed a strategic mix of international and local, young and old, traditional and new. This year, however, Crabb has brought the disparate ingredients together in a particularly potent brew in a bid to broaden the appeal of the expanded festival without watering it down.

Collaboration is essential: two leading musicians from India’s classical tradition jam with the saxophonists, but also take part in a new Ross Edwards composition, the haunting Tyalgum Mantras. Composer and vocalist Lisa Young crackles with energy as she whips up a motley crew of youth singers, representatives from the local Yuin community and international soloists into ecstatic song. Dame Emma Kirkby gives masterclasses to two young singers, then stays to listen to the rest of the festival and swap stories of her musical life with a devoted crowd.

Over the course of three decades, the Four Winds Festival has built a committed and highly discerning audience, many of them making a special trip from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and beyond. Not only are they willing to brave the holiday weekend traffic, but they come prepared to sit in a field for two days, listening to whatever the artistic director decides to throw at them. It’s always offered a fair dose of classical music, performed at the highest levels, but over the years audiences have also sat through experimental soundscapes, minimalist hymns, subversive film scores and unlikely combinations of instruments and traditions. That’s what Four Winds is all about.

Four WindsJames Crabb, Lisa Young and young singers at the Four Winds Festival. Photo © Warren Purnell

Crabb is part of the team which is transforming Four Winds from a biennial two-day music binge to an organisation with a year round presence in the area. Or, as he puts it, “more than just this fancy Easter festival where the townies come in.”

Four Winds has always been involved with the local community, recruiting an enthusiastic army of volunteers, showcasing the region’s spectacular food and drink, boosting the small businesses and, most importantly, taking music into schools and youth groups. Until now, however, they’ve been too busy making music to shout about it.

“We made a booklet last year which was the first time many people knew we did other work,” says Crabb. “They had no idea.”

They know much more now. The first Four Winds youth festival took place last November, and this year the organisation has committed to putting music practitioners into six primary schools, with the help of Musica Viva and the NSW State Government.

“It’s a huge step and commitment. Any money that we do make goes straight into that and we have to rely on grants,” says Crabb. “It’s a struggle. The arts is always a struggle. But it’s a worthwhile struggle!”

Crabb is based in Sydney and makes the six hour drive down the coast to Bermagui every couple of weeks. (He would fly, but one of the airlines which fly to Moruya, the closest airport, declines to take his accordion on board.) He takes a hands-on approach to Four Winds’ work in schools, partly because he enjoys it, and partly because finding experienced music educators in the region can be difficult. But developing a more sustainable local arts ecology is what the new initiatives are all about.

“We know we’ve got to build audiences. Audience development is always there in live music making, everywhere. You can’t just sit back and think you’ve done it all. Just like a musician. A creative musician can’t just sit back and say they know it all know, just rest on that. We’re always learning and evolving. That keeps things fresh.”

“We want to sustain what we’re doing here, well into future, well after I have gone and the Board have gone. We want to have something in place that can survive all the elements.”

***

Easter Sunday night. At the Bermagui Surf Club locals, tourists and festival goers are chowing down on food made by the local cooking school and waiting for the music to begin. The makeshift stage is looking crowded: Malumba, a local folk band, is orchestrating the final night jam, where all-comers are invited to join in. Malumba’s violinist, Dan Efraemson, is looking a little stressed: he wouldn’t normally expect this many violinists at their regular gig in Tilba, let alone an improvising bassoonist. He lines us up round a few microphones, explains the repeats and da capos, then gives a nod to the drummer. We’re off. The Four Winds All-Stars, featuring piano, bass, drums, James Crabb on accordion, and a quartet of string players from ANAM (plus a rather rusty music writer from Limelight) breaking out some wicked tunes.

We finish amidst roars and hoots of approval. Big smiles all round.

“That worked better than I expected,” says Efraemson, and invites the next posse of guests to come and play.

But for the NSW licensing laws, this could go on all night. Instead, we all go home at 10pm, and many of us blow-ins will be on the road early the next morning. It’s good to know that, with Four Winds on the job, the music won’t stop.