Canberra International Music Festival Opening Weekend
Fitters’ Workshop, Canberra
April 27 – 29, 2018

The official program of the 24th Canberra International Music Festival lists nearly two dozen events spread over ten days. With as many more unofficial events, a kind of Fringe is beginning to emerge as well. On the basis of six events over the first weekend, this year’s CIMF continues to build on its previous strengths and uniquely positioned character.

As autumn slips fitfully into winter, can there be a better place for a festival largely devoted to chamber music than Canberra, with its brisk evenings and crisp sunny days ablaze in the foliage of Fall? The city – with its surrounding mountains and beckoning lake, its national institutions and imposing monuments – provides a near perfect backdrop for a program that engenders contemplation and reflection on the state of the world and humanity in general.

And so it is that a program which, on paper, appears to resist themes is beginning to yield ideas and strands which are emerging in quite subtle and satisfying ways. Last year’s CIMF was an easy sell, with its red hammer-and-sickle logo almost screaming the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Beyond that, it focussed on composers who revolutionised the course of musical history. This year’s theme, Returns, is more elusive to identify and market. Like the motorist attempting to negotiate Canberra’s notorious circles, this CIMF presents beginnings, then traces them round various cultures and eras, in circles. It looks at the fusions of folk and art musics, at the way composers have returned to the past (“old wine in new bottles”) and at the slow, almost indiscernible progress of the Seasons.

This is Roland Peelman’s fourth season as CIMF’s Artistic Director. Over the 20 years he directed The Song Company, his programs were renowned for their intelligence and breadth of planning and high level of performance. Those same qualities, along with abundant and infectious enthusiasm, he has brought to Canberra. Systematically and strategically, he is building on the hard work and accomplishments of his predecessors, Nicole Canham and Christopher Latham. Old timers with long memories recall the Musica Viva Canberra festivals a half-century ago. Another ‘return’.

Canberra International Music Festival, CIMFWilliam Barton and Ned McGowan performing in the Opening Gala concert at the 2018 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

The Opening Gala concert on Friday evening was, frankly, a strange affair. The first half of the program was a kind of pot-pourri sampling of artists who would appear in the days ahead. It opened with a short improvisation between didgeridoo master William Barton, a favourite presence at recent festivals, and a new-comer, Ned McGowan, playing that rare piece of plumbing, the contrabass flute. Already, a meeting of cultures and eras, a return to a distinctive CIMF theme.

Tim Fain, hot property from New York’s new music scene, contributed a Chaconne from a solo violin Partita written for him by Philip Glass, those familiar Glass patterns mingling with those of Old Father Bach. A local children’s choir, the Turner Trebles and Vocal Fry, negotiated the lyrical lines of Peter Sculthorpe’s Autumn Song. Hearing McGowan play Anne Boyd’s familiar flute piece Goldfish Through Summer Rain three octaves lower than usual was a refreshing surprise, as were the jigs spun out by Susanna Borsch and Adrian Brown, on recorders and concertinas.

Brenda Gifford wrote the ‘Beaver Blaze’ commission for the 2018 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

‘Back in 2007, Betty Beaver, the well-known artist and gallery owner, as well as amateur cellist, launched a novel idea, commissioning a work to open each festival. This year, the ‘Beaver Blaze’ commissioned Brenda Gifford, the first Indigenous composer to be commissioned by the festival. Her Gambambaragais a suite a several movements for didgeridoo, small ensemble and children’s voices. Again, it depicts the seasons, separated by sections based on bardju (footprints) outlining her personal journey as a Yuin woman with strong ties to the NSW South Coast. Over 20 minutes, it is an appealing and immediately engaging work, symbolic on many levels.

The second half of the program was devoted to duets and arias from Handel’s operas, a showcase for countertenor Tobias Cole and mezzo-soprano Kate Howden. It also afforded the first opportunity to experience the brilliant Sydney-based ensemble, the Bach Akademie Australia, directed by violinist Madeleine Easton. For many, this was 40 minutes of welcome delight, with its period style performance and pitch (A415) resounding gloriously in the generous acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop.

Saturday morning woke to an hour of recorder-concertina music which transported elements of the rambunctious National Folk Festival to the concert hall. It would have been good to have experienced this infectious music in the context of the Kingston Markets the following day.

A few hours later, a full-house greeted the first of two Debussy-Chopin programs by Roger Woodward. The once-notorious wunderkind of the avant garde is now revered elder statesman; at 75, he is as vital and essential as ever. Listening to his playing recalled Woodward’s formative lessons with Zbigniew Drzewiecki at the Chopin Academy in Warsaw a half-century ago. I could not recall such deliberative and magisterial pianism since Arthur Rubenstein’s recitals here in June 1964. Just put on a YouTube clip of Rubenstein and Woodward’s lineage and own legacy becomes immediately clear. After two encores and an ovation, his second recital on Tuesday evening will surely be a sell-out.

Canberra International Music Festival, CIMFThe Seven Harp Ensemble at the 2018 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Saturday evening’s concert invited closer inspection of the theme of the Seasons. The truly extraordinary Tim Fain was the violin soloist in an exhilarating rendition of Max Richter’s re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by a pickup band of string players. For many, the first half of the concert was just as exhilarating. Several years ago, Alice Giles brought a group of her students together to form the Seven Harp Ensemble, a truly splendid septet of young ladies, resplendent in stylish evening dress. After another of Ross Edwards’s Mantras, this one featuring William Barton, there was a none-too-devilish version of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre.

Over 17 minutes, a new commission from CIMF’s composer-in-residence Mary Finsterer, Four Interludes, suggested a set of abstract images of the seasons, with echoes of minimalist euphony. All in all, it was a well wrought piece, which charmed the capacity audience and which will be a useful addition to the growing Australian repertoire of music for harp ensemble. Having thrilled with their Handel in the theatre on Friday evening, the Bach Akademie returned on Sunday morning with two cantatas, the Actus Tragicus, BWV 106 and the BWV 175, “He calls His sheep by name”. A fine quartet of singers and the authoritative continuo playing of organist Neal Peres Da Costa and cellist Daniel Yeadon resurfaced memories of those early Archiv recordings. The intervening years have seen Bach scholarship re-assessed and expanded as Madeleine Easton has illustrated in abundance in these moving performances of her Akadamie.

Braver souls than me ventured to the National Gallery for an afternoon concert in the dry acoustic of the Fairfax Theatre. Simon Tedeschi played Schubert and Brahms, and provided accompaniment for the rarely-heard melodrama by Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, in which the narrator was another elder statesman, John Bell.

Canberra International Music Festival, CIMFKeiko Shichijo and Cecilia Bernardini at the 2018 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

The weekend closed with yet more memorable performances. A Summer-sun-drenched performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, played by the young Orava Quartet joined by violist James Wannan and cellist Miles Mullin-Chivers brought the cheering audience to its feet. For some, the first half was equally satisfying: a gorgeous performance of the short Impromptu in G flat by Schubert played on the fortepiano by Keiko Shichijo followed by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op. 96. For this, she was joined by Cecilia Bernardini whose Amati violin playing reminded our ears that this music originated not in booming concert halls but in the intimacies of the classical salon. This was a musical experience of the highest order; I wished that the order of the program had been reversed.

Even from this first handful of performances, a few observations can be made. Felicitously, the microphones of ABC Classic FM were present on most occasions, ensuring that the often superlative music-making of the CIMF will be heard throughout the country. For the CIMF is now an integral and uniquely important part of the national cultural calendar, and warrants extended critical coverage in the local press, at the very least. This year’s festival featured many international visitors, particularly from The Netherlands. There seemed fewer local musicians this year. And the absence in recent years of the ANU School of Music, a longtime stalwart supporter, merits serious consideration.

All this begs the question: how will the CIMF celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2019? No doubt Peelman already has a plethora of ideas swirling in his head, but maybe the city itself could do something more substantive. It was violinist Chris Latham who ‘unearthed’ the resonant acoustic of the disused Fitters’ Workshop on the Kingston foreshore several years ago. It has since become the CIMF’s de factohome. With a capacity around 600, it is ideal for chamber music but it has been a kind of DIY operation, with a band-aid tent tacked on as an audience lobby, and so on. In a sense, Canberra doesn’t now need a hall custom-built for chamber music. It already has one, but it would be helpful to have some refurbishment: a real lobby, ticket office and artists’ rooms, a bar, a recording booth, a stage with doors and wings which would spare those poor artists the long trek to the back of the aisle. All sorely needed. The CIMF cannot continue to develop without them. In his opening speech, ACT Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay praised the CIMF fulsomely and affirmed his government’s support. Surely, then, a wonderful birthday present for CIMF would be a re-furbished Fitters’ Workshop.

Over to you, ACT government.

Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra until May 6.