“Study Bach,” said Johannes Brahms. “There you will find everything.” In his program for the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival, the festival’s 25th anniversary, Artistic Director Roland Peelman seems intent not only on proving Brahms correct, but taking his dictum to lengths that neither Bach nor Brahms could have imagined. Though Bach is at the centre of the Festival, if the opening concert at Canberra’s Fitters’ Workshop is anything to go by, this is no simple trotting out of classics, but a wide-ranging exploration of Bach, his legacy and resonances, that stretches from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to the Central Desert of Australia and beyond. From the opening work, a fusion of Bach’s melodies with ambient, humming dissonances that engulfed the audience from all sides, this concert set out Peelman’s far-ranging vision in spectacular fashion.

Loure, written by the festival’s composers’ collective-in-residence, Jess Green, Bree van Reyk and Nick Wales, for this year’s Beaver Blaze (a tradition of world premieres to open the festival, which started with Elena Kats-Chernin in 2007) saw accumulating pitches gather around the audience from Van Reyk, Green, Wales and violinist Veronique Serret – stationed around the venue – before they joined the musicians of period instrument ensemble Bach Akademie Australia on stage and the glittering soundscape coalesced into something more Bachian, a residual hum from the final chord left to hang in the air.

Bach Akademie Australia at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Bach Akademie Australia then took the audience to the other end of Peelman’s Bach spectrum, performing the reconstructed concerto for violin and oboe, BWV1060, with Madeleine Easton and Emma Black as soloists, and Belgian guest Korneel Bernolet directing from the harpsichord. It was no doubt as much a quirk of the Fitters’ Workshop acoustic that meant the caramel sound of Black’s oboe, despite an occasional cracked note, carried further than Easton’s violin, which nonetheless traced compelling arcs while Bernolet kept the music motoring forward. The balance was more effective, however, during the Adagio, the soloists trading melodies over pizzicato strings and harpsichord before the vibrant Allegro, muscular lower strings propelling the music forward, and Easton dispatching some brilliant violin filigree.

The concert’s first half came to a close with Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord in D Minor, BWV 1052, the sound of the harpsichord seeming to expand to fill the spotlight, Bernolet bringing an arresting intensity to the relentless drama of Bach’s sequences and the strings of quick-decay harpsichord notes corralled into drones. The Adagio in particular was achingly beautiful.

The Ntaria Choir at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Didgeridoo virtuoso and composer – and CIMF regular – William Barton drew a line from the first half of the concert to the second, his Kalkadunga Welcome played on a didgeridoo pitched to D, creating a tonal relationship with the Bach, the rhythmic intensity of his music becoming more urgent as he reached the stage after processing through the audience. This half of the concert was threaded through with an unusual connection with Bach in colonial Australia: the intersection of musical cultures that occurred at the end of the 19th-century when Lutheran missionary Carl Strehlow came to Hermannsburg in Central Australia and translated Lutheran hymns into the local Indigenous language. Thousands of years of traditional song and chant soon incorporated German choral traditions and sacred songs – an intersection of musical cultures carried on today by the Ntaria Choir, whose setting of Psalm 365 Ingkaartai, alkira ngerra (Lord, your goodness) in Western Arrarnta, after German composer August Eduard Grell, was performed with a bright, penetrating tone from behind the audience, the lower parts growing in power as the music progressed.

Just as Bach could never have imagined Lutheran chorales sung in Western Arrarnta or Pitjantjatjara, he never saw his music played on saxophone or marimba. Movements from Bach’s The Art of Fugue were interspersed with the choir, saxophone quartet sonic.art bringing plenty of energy to Contrapunctus III and Contrapunctus XIIb, the quartet’s even balance giving equal weight to each voice, and their full, sustained sound in the resolution of the third fugue almost indistinguishable from an organ stop. The three marimbists of Trio SR9 brought yet another timbre to Bach’s counterpoint, in Contrapunctus XIII. The penultimate number on the program saw Peelman bring together festival artists from across the sonic spectrum for a performance of his own arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, the saxophones taking the famous opening descent before the response came from French horn player Matias Piñeira at the back of the hall. The arrangement was very much a fun, festival piece and some brilliant colours emerged – and the audience was thrilled, giving the performance a standing ovation. Particularly effective were Serret’s violin lines – and later the marimbas – over the powerful pedal of Barton’s didgeridoo.

CIMFBach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

But it was the Ntaria Choir who had the last word. As Ngunnawal elder Wally Bell pointed out in his welcome to country, this is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and the choir wove hymns sung in both Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara through the concert’s second half, in a series of deeply felt performance, bringing the night to an end with Kaarrerrai, wurlamparinyai! (Wake, awake, for Night is Flying) after Philipp Nicolai and Bach, in Western Arrarnta, which left no audience member unmoved.

The opening concert might be over, but the music certainly isn’t. As the audience filed out of Fitters’ Workshop, the voices of the Ntaria Choir – who return on Sunday in the Barbara Blackman Festival Blessing, Bach in the Central Desert – could be heard from the venue’s makeshift green room. The exploration of Bach has just begun, and Peelman has made the scope of his ambition for the 25th-anniversary of the Canberra International Music Festival perfectly clear.

The Canberra International Music Festival takes place at venues around Canberra until May 12

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