In her first festival as Artistic Director, the singer-songwriter focuses on social change, empowerment and the human voice.

The Queensland Music Festival has announced its 2017 programme, a sprawling festival that reaches right across the state and will feature guest artists including Kate Ceberano, Montaigne, Isaiah, Lior, Steve Kilbey, David Hobson, Elena Kats-Chernin and Manu Delago. The festival is singer-songwriter Katie Noonan’s first as Artistic Director, whose programme focuses on social change, empowerment and the human voice.

“The overarching theme that I wanted to explore is very much about empowering Queenslanders to realise the power of their own voice, and that everyone who can talk, can sing,” Noonan tells Limelight. “Basically, find your voice. Whether that be your compositional voice or your actual singing voice. And also celebrating the incredibly diverse and world-class musicians that come from this part of the world.”

“We’ve come a long way in the last few decades, so a lot of the works are celebrating people that have gone on to international careers – really just instilling a sense of pride in who we are and what we do.”

Katie Noonan, Queensland Music FestivalQueensland Music Festival Artistic Director Katie Noonan

For Noonan, music also has a powerful social purpose. “I believe that art has a responsibility to comment on the orders of the day, exploring themes that reflect us as a society, as we are at the moment,” she says. “One programme [You’re The Voice] focuses on domestic and family violence, another one, Sanctuary, explores themes of seeking asylum and seeking safety. Another programme is entirely female musicians and all about empowering the female composing voice. I found out that only 21% of APRA members are women, which is an alarming statistic that I thought festivals like the Queensland Music Festival should try to address. Overall, I always want to make sure that there’s gender equality reflected in the programming and also including our incredible Indigenous musicians.”

For a state as vast as Queensland, the geographic space presents a challenge for programming. “We are everywhere, from the Cape to Cunnamulla, in over 45 locations in three weeks with over 100 events, so it is huge,” Noonan says. “Basically it’s a festival three-and-a-half times the size of Victoria and it’s the largest music festival in terms of landmass in the world. The geographic footprint is pretty hectic.”

Louise King, Queensland Music FestivalCellist Louise King performs in Bach to Bush as part of the Queensland Music Festival

Noonan and the festival have come up with inventive ways to work around the challenges posed by distance, including flying tours. Cellist Louise King will feature in a series of concerts titled Bach to Bush, with percussionist John Morrison – who’s also a pilot. “They have their own light aircraft and they fly to Boonah, Goondiwindi, Cunnamulla, Quilpie, Bedourie, Charleville, Barcaldine, Longreach and Warwick,” Noonan explains. “Essentially that is the most effective way to do it, because if you were driving it would take four months.”

“We’ve been focusing on the Isaac region, which is west of Mackay,” Noonan says. “We’ve got a brand-new music theatre spectacular in the town of Moranbah on July 28 and 29, and that will be the culmination of 18 months of on-ground community consultation in six towns, Nebo, Clermont, Dysart, Moranbah, Middlemount, and Glenden. That has been literally tens of thousands of K’s of driving over the last 18 months.”

“For me it’s been a real privilege to explore the west. It’s a part of Queensland that generally isn’t on the touring circuit,” she says. “One of my first tours up the coast was with Midnight Oil and The Whitlams – so Gladstone, Rockie, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns, all those towns I’ve played a lot – but west, I’d never even been to Mount Isa!”

The events across the regions have been the result of extensive consultation. “I think the thing QMF does unlike anyone else is that we’re informed by the community,” Noonan explains. “We go in and talk. For example, The Power Within was written entirely for and about the people of the Isaac Region and it stars over 250 people from there. They are the cast and they are the story and they are the musicians. That’s seriously beautiful and empowering.”

Other highlights of the festival include Opera Queensland’s Opera at Jimbour, “where eight, nine thousand people show up to Jimbour House west of Dalby and have a beautiful day at the opera. This year we have wonderful, popular tenor David Hobson joining us and Roland Peelman will be conducting the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, stars of Opera Queensland and Toowoomba Community Chorus. They’re doing The Merry Widow – that’s going to be awesome.”

The festival will also feature the world premieres of new works, including a work dedicated to John Curro, who started the Queensland Youth Orchestra 50 years ago. “I wanted to commission a concerto that was all about John and his incredibly commitment to orchestral players,” Noonan says. “He has mentored thousands and thousands of musicians over his 50-year tenure as conductor.”

Manu DelagoPercussionist Manu Delago. Photo © Mirko De Nicolo

“It’s going to feature Austrian percussionist Manu Delago, who is amazing. He plays the hang, which is a relatively new [percussion] instrument – it’s only about 10 years old. He plays with Björk and is an incredibly musician and composer himself. We’re also going to be doing the Australian premiere of his Concertino Grosso, which was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago.”

Another big premiere at the festival will be a piece written by Joe Chindamo, a concerto for oboist Diana Doherty and her husband Alexandre Oguey (who can often be seen playing side by side in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra). “Diana is such a success story from Brisbane and she has gone on to become an internationally renowned instrumentalist. This is a piece called Sanctuary, a welcoming safe-haven of music exploring the themes of searching for refuge and searching for belonging. That’s going to be very, very beautiful – and also the first time a piece has been written for the two of them together!”

Diana Doherty, Queensland Music FestivalOboist Diana Doherty. Photo © Christie Brewster

And there’s plenty more new music. “Paul Cassidy from the Brodsky String Quartet has written an amazing new arrangement of Elvis Costello’s haunting war song The Favourite House,” Noonan explains, while composer Elena Kats-Chernin will be artist in residence for a week at the William Robinson Gallery, writing ten pieces in response to ten works of art by Margaret Olley and William Robinson. The residency will culminate in a concert at Queensland’s Government House, featuring Noonan and the Orava Quartet. “That’s going to be a very special show,” says Noonan.

“Another really lovely programme is one called Silver Memories,” Noonan says. “Karin Schaupp and her students and a vocal ensemble from the Con will be taking music to those in aged-care facilities who aren’t able to get out to see music. I really wanted QMF to be a festival for everyone, so in the same way we go to remote regional communities, I wanted to make sure that we include programmes for our elderly who can’t get to gigs.”

The festival’s signature concert, You’re the Voice, will also transcend physical boundaries and distances. The large-scale choral event will encourage Australians from all over the country to sing John Farnham’s You’re The Voice – joining a live 2000-strong choir at Brisbane’s South Bank Piazza – as a response to domestic and family violence.

“[You’re The Voice] really is our unofficial national anthem and when you look at those lyrics through the filter of the DV story they’re just chillingly apt and empowering,” Noonan says. “We are in the midst of a domestic and family violence crisis in this country and a lot of people feel too overwhelmed to know what to do. And also this is our story, because it’s a situation that affects every Australian, whether it’s indirectly or directly. So I thought rather than observe silence, which is often what you do for the victims and survivors, let’s make noise and let’s make beautiful noise and use the power of music to bring us together – and realise that we have a voice and our voice is powerful and we can use it to promote important discourse and ask for change.”

“It’s also going to be streamed live, so anywhere in Australia at 5pm on that day you can be conducted in real time by Dr Jonathon Welch and be a part of this momentous event and know that thousands of other people around the country at the same time are singing along with you,” Noonan says. “Our patron is Dame Quentin Bryce and we’re working also with Rosie Battie and the Allison Baden-Clay Foundation and we are going to have Kate Ceberano joining us live and Isaiah, who’s just finished his Eurovision journey.”

The QMF’s launch coincides with the release of a charity single. “You don’t have to be a musician,” Noonan says, “just human, to be a part of this as an act of compassion and love. You can sing along with thousands of people, but you can also buy this single and know that every cent from sale one will go towards DV Connect through the Sony Foundation.”

The event has already struck a chord. Even before the festival’s official launch, You’re The Voice has had more than 4,000 people sign up to sing. “I’m pretty excited about that,” says Noonan. “I think that’s going to be a very beautiful event.”

The Queensland Music Festival runs across the state July 7 – 30

The Full Programme