The Huntington Estate Music Festival at Mudgee will come to an end after 30 years, Huntington Estate winery announced today. The festival of food, wine and chamber music, which was established in 1989 by Bob and Wendy Roberts, along with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, will close its doors forever following its 30th anniversary festival in November.

Huntington Estate Music FestivalHuntington Estate Music Festival. Photo: supplied

Since 2006 the Festival has been presented by the Stevens family, with Carl Vine as Artistic Director and Musica Viva Australia providing the artistic content. For Nicky Stevens, the Festival’s CEO and General Manager of the Winery, the decision to end the Festival was one of “self-preservation”.

“It was an agonising decision to make, to be honest, and it still feels like a very emotional one. It’s very hard, but in the end we had to prioritise family and sanity, really, and the wine business,” she tells Limelight. “This is a big and complicated business – we grow our own grapes, we make our own wine, we bottle it, we sell it direct, we have 12 full-time employees. It’s a complex organisation to run and that, with a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, is quite a plateful on its own, and to add in the festival – it just became too hard.”

“An event of this stature and duration requires weeks of intensive preparation, as our barrel hall is transformed into a concert hall; the packing shed into an art gallery, and the grounds into a restaurant and bar,” Tim Stevens, Huntington’s Chief Winemaker said in a statement. “Presenting ten concerts across eight days is exhilarating but exhausting for all concerned. Running a small business is already more than a full-time job, and we have taken the decision that the grapes, the wine, our young children and staff must come first.”

“It’s devastating really, but we really wanted to go out on a high and to put everything we have into one glorious last hurrah,” Nicky Stevens tells Limelight. “I’m going to be devastated to not see the people all the time – we’ve got this wonderful relationship with Musica Viva, with the ABC, with incredible musicians.”

Stevens will also miss the audiences, some of whom have been coming to the winery for 30 years (or more, for those who attended musical events prior to the festival in its current form) and a number of whom she see pop up in the Australia Day Honours. “You see members of our audience being featured who are just these wonderfully kind, empathetic, interesting, dynamic, passionate but down to earth people, who are achieving incredible things in the real world,” she says. “They come to our place and spend a week with us of music and food and wine – and that’s been really a special thing.”

From its early days with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and friends, the Festival has featured artists from viola da gambist Jordi Savall and members of his Hespèrion XXI to violinists Ray Chen and Anthony Marwood, as well as Australian debuts from the likes of violinist Alina Ibragimova, the Danish Quartet, Imani Winds and clarinettist Sebastian Manz. Australia’s finest chamber musicians have been a fixture, including the Goldner String Quartet, as well as musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music. The Festival has also been the site of numerous world premieres by Australian composers.

“I’ll never forget things like seeing a young Ray Chen in 2010, on stage just dazzling with his virtuosity, or seeing Alina Ibragimova – Carl has this extraordinary ability to pick a young star and he’s just done it repeatedly,” Stevens says. “There’s been some real magical moments there.”

For Stevens, seeing emerging musicians work with well-established professionals has also been a pleasure, such as in 2014 when Ray Chen and Dene Olding took to the stage with musicians from ANAM, before playing a duet themselves. “That was pretty amazing, to see Dene and Ray at such different points in their career but both extraordinary musicians, just sparking off each other on stage,” she says. “That was pretty special.”

The Festival has long been an important milestone in the musical calendar, and between the atmosphere, the friendships and the music, the Festival will no doubt be missed by musicians and audiences alike. “I’ll never forget the way it feels to walk down the driveway on the first night,” Stevens says. “You see everything looks beautiful and the lights are in the trees and there’s people everywhere and there’s this enormous sense of pride to be creating this wonderful event.”

Huntington Estate Music FestivalHuntington Estate Music Festival. Photo: supplied

Stevens’ focus is now on the Festival’s finale in November, which will feature Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, French harpist Isabelle Moretti, Ukrainian violist Maxim Rysanov, the Australian String Quartet, tenor Andrew Goodwin, pianists Aura Go and Ian Munro, former Musica Viva FutureMakers Arcadia Winds as well as the Goldner Quartet and Trio Marvin – who won the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.

“Devising musical content for the last Huntington Festival ever has been a daunting prospect,” Artistic Director of the Festival, Carl Vine said. “In the end I had to let the magic of this unparalleled event speak for itself, and concentrated simply on assembling a stellar collection of chamber musicians from around the world and compiling the most interesting, satisfying and surprising repertoire I could find.”

Huntington Estate will continue its association with music beyond 2019, including as wine sponsor of Musica Viva, Opera Australia Foundation and Omega Ensemble. “We’ll also continue to work to bring chamber music and music in general to Mudgee,” Stevens says, citing the success of a recent project – funded by the Huntington audience – that has seen musicians like Dene Olding and Irina Morozova from the Goldners, clarinettist Catherine McCorkill and saxophonist and music educator Mark Walton teach in Mudgee over the last few years. “We’ve had people from all around Australia coming to work with our local young musicians, and we will continue to promote and develop music in the community.”

And while the Festival will come to an end, the winery certainly won’t remain silent. “We hope to host music in the winery on a smaller scale. Not the bigger-than-Ben Hur, over-ten-days, event that we do now, but, say, a weekend concert with some of our musical friends might be a lovely thing for us to do in the future,” Stevens says.

“Right now, we’re focussing everything we’ve got on making 2019 a fitting tribute, an appropriate send off, for such a significant event – and containing our emotions – celebrating it, and being able to say goodbye to everybody,” Stevens says. “But after that, we will look at what we can do. Music’s in our blood, it’s part of the DNA of Huntington, and over the 13 years that our family has been doing it, it’s seeped through our pores as well.”

The 30th and final Huntington Estate Music Festival takes place in Mudgee November 20 – 24, with the Opening Weekend running November 16 – 17. Tickets go on sale March 1