Castlemaine State Festival director Glyn Roberts has certainly got his work cut out for him. The logistics of staging a festival – especially one with such a long and august tradition as the CSF – are made even more challenging during a pandemic.

Goldner String QuartetThe Goldner String Quartet. Photo supplied

Factors that influence the programming of a regional arts festival include the geography of the region, the audience – both locals and visitors – and the available venues. This year saw the introduction of a novel constraint – international and potential state border closures – that proved both a curse and a blessing.

With local literary talent of the calibre of Helen Garner and Cate Kennedy, no one’s complaining about parochialism. And the ban on international travel works both ways: internationally renowned soprano Cathy-Di Zhang has forged her entire career overseas but, like many Australians, has spent most of the past year baking sourdough at home. This year is Castlemaine’s chance to get to know her.

And, thanks to low rates of infection in both states, the Victoria-New South Wales border remained open long enough to let the acclaimed Goldner String Quartet slip into Castlemaine for two well-attended performances, the second of which was part of the Salon series.

In past years, the intimate Salon series took place in a series of private homes, but COVID-induced caution necessitated a change of venue to the Garden Room of Buda Historic House and Garden. The new venue did nothing to detract from audience enjoyment with its light and airy space overlooking the gracious gardens of Buda. The intermittent flocks of passing cockatoos added a local flavour: the kind of intrusion that adds to the charm of a regional festival.

Quartet leader Dene Olding described the one-hour program as a ‘musical tasting’ – a showcase of possibilities – rather than the standard couple of full-length string quartets. The selection was tailored for a general audience: accessible works, many of which were written in the past 25 years.

Olding introduced each piece and provided insights into its genesis. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue – a ‘very un-Mozart-like’ composition – was written in response to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Turina’s Oracion del Toro (The Bullfighter’s Prayer) juxtaposed the hubbub of the crowd with the tranquillity of the chapel where the toreadors went to pray before each bullfight.

Australian composers were well represented with Elena Kats-Chernin’s Peggy’s Minute Rag and Slicked Back Tango, Ross Edward’s Ecstatic Dance for violin and cello, and the premiere performance of Matthew Hindson’s Andante Amoroso, written specifically for Olding and his wife, violist Irina Morozova. The program was rounded out with the Nocturne and Finale from Borodin’s String Quartet No 2.

An absolute highlight for this reviewer was the thrill of having Matthew Hindson in the audience for the debut of his work. It’s not every day you get to interview a composer, made even more special by the fact that it was the first time Hindson had heard his piece – a ‘love song’ for viola and violin – performed.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” he said. “You are analysing, anticipating what comes next and asking yourself if the next section is going to work.”

He was justifiably delighted with the result. Olding had asked for a beautiful viola melody for his wife to play, and their performance delivered in spades the ‘emotional lyricism’ that comes from musicians playing a piece specifically written for them.

The Goldner String Quartet has been around for over a quarter of a century and still retains its four founding members: Olding, Morozova, violinist Dimity Hall and cellist Julian Smiles. Their friendly banter added to the relaxed atmosphere of this sold-out smorgasbord of music for strings and their performances reflected the familiarity, competence and harmony generated by such a longstanding association.

Castlemaine State Festival runs until 4 April

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