The Canberra International Music Festival has announced its 2020 season, with a strong focus on Indigenous voices. The Festival will open with a brand new work by composer and Yuin woman Brenda Gifford, based on the elements bagan, miriwa, ngadjung and ganji (earth, wind, water and fire in Yuin language), and the Festival will feature First Nations artists including the Tiwi Island Strong Women, didgeridoo virtuoso and composer William Barton, “dreamtime opera diva” Delmae Barton, Yolŋu songman Daniel Wilfred, Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr artist Eric Avery, and drummer and rapper DOBBY.
Brenda Gifford. Photo © Marissa McDowell
“Nothing is more important at this point in time than giving Indigenous musicians a voice and a presence on the concert stage,” Artistic Director Roland Peelman told Limelight. “Not because the classic concert stage is the only one that matters, but because it has been the privilege of white Western audiences for too long. We have to stop pretending it is too hard, or too delicate, or too fraught to bring our Indigenous brothers and sisters inside the fold. It’s time to take this seriously. And, importantly, it is crucial to engage with them, collaborate, learn about their language.”
Vocal music is a thread running through next year’s Festival – the theme of which is Giving VOICE – and the choral centrepiece will be a performance of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, by the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra and Sydney Chamber Choir, in tribute to beloved conductor and music educator Richard Gill. “Richard was Artistic Director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra for several years, and as such had a regular presence here in the early 2000s. At the time, the significance of his crusade wasn’t always well understood,” Peelman said.
Gill was a guest at the Canberra International Music Festival in 2017, conducting Rachmaninov and taking part in the music education forum. “My personal encounters with Richard go back much further though and were usually held in some funny kind of German,” Peelman said. “I remember how fondly he always spoke of the Viennese classics. So, while our memory of him is still fresh, it made sense to pay tribute to this extraordinary man with music that he cherished, played by his brainchild, the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Haydn’s Creation is a timeless work that encapsulates the depth of our humanity, all the things that were so dear to Richard. We want this to be the most fitting tribute: performed by period specialists with the best cast we could assemble in the Southern hemisphere!”
New music will also feature strongly in the Festival, with no fewer than 10 world premieres on the program. In addition to performing the new work by Gifford, the Australian Art Orchestra will launch a new international collaboration with Sam Amidon (they will also perform the Australian premiere of Sarah Hennies’ audio-visual work on the transgender voice, Contralto) while a new work by percussionist Bree van Reyk celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Australian Botanic Gardens and the opening of the new Banksia Garden, and Moya Henderson marks 50 years of the National Carillon. The Flinders Quartet will give the world premiere of Katy Abbott’s Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender, inspired by the 2000 letters sent to Nauru by well-wishers only to be returned unopened, and a follow up to her award-winning Hidden Thoughts 1. And that, of course, is just the beginning.
“If you bear in mind that the festival consists of well over 50 events, 10 becomes a rather modest number I would argue,” Peelman says. “But the fact is that we have gathered around the festival in Canberra an ever growing group of people who are enthusiastic about the value of fostering new work – whether it be by established or emerging composers. The audience literally buys into our endeavours and that has a very positive effect on the presentation of new work within the festival, their understanding what is involved in that process, and its resonance beyond the festival. Everyone has something at stake! And in doing so we all make a contribution to the future health of music making in Australia.”
“The range of new work in the festival reflects our overall priorities: creating opportunities for Indigenous musicians, promoting women composers and emerging voices while offering our audience an interesting range of stylistic choices that are representative of what is happening around the world,” Peelman said. “In other words, we don’t take a hard-line aesthetic approach but value the diversity of taste, opinion and choice. The common factor is our commitment to quality, which includes creating the best possible context for new work to be heard and appreciated.”
Opening the day before the Festival’s official Opening Gala, and playing across the Friday and Saturday of the opening weekend, Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera will be performing Kate Neal’s Permission to Speak. Neal is Composer-in-Residence in 2020, and will bring “a bit of Melbourne grime and grit!” to the Festival, Peelman said. “I have personally followed Kate’s development for about twenty years and always loved that signature rhythmic energy leaping at you. I would describe her music as being built around the notion of ‘muscular gesture’.”
“By working with visual artists, animators and directors, Kate found a way of refining that gesture and in the process of doing so empowering musicians to a bigger performing platform. It’s gutsy stuff I think, very direct and wouldn’t exist without a genuine commitment to working with other people,” he said.
As for Permission to Speak: “That work is a wonderful example of how the fragile form of a cappella quartet can be turned into something powerful yet understated.”
Peelman will also mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth at next year’s Festival, with a series of morning Breakfast for Beethoven concerts – appropriate given the composer’s penchant for coffee – featuring various artists across five days of the Festival.
International guests at the Festival will include American countertenor Reginald Mobley, New Zealand baritone James Ioelu, Korean jazz singer Sunny Kim, the Van Kuijk Quartet from France, Netherlands-based Japanese fortepianist Keiko Shichijo, Korean pianist Edwin Sungpil Kim, and Netherlands-based American composer and flautist Ned McGowan. They will join a swathe of Australian artists, including Canberra-based choirs including the Woden Valley Youth Choir, students from ANU School of Music, Luminescence Children’s Choir and Clarion.
“Next year’s festival is about what makes us human,” Peelman said. “Nothing is more human than our voice. Our ability to speak, sing and make music with our body remains an eternal source of mystery and magic to me. The 2020 Festival is a celebration of that magic.”
The Canberra International Music Festival runs May 1 – 10