There could not be a more captivating start to a performance than Yao Dance which not only depicted the theme of the night, Traces and Transformations, but set the tone of what was to come.

Like the Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s opening night concert, it began in complete darkness, the sound of the gong and bass drum reverberating across the theatre, before the stage lights came on at the harp and pipa’s entry, revealing pipa player Wu Man in a sultry red midi skirt, harpist Ruth Wall and percussionist Robert Oetomo. Wall began a long and lyrical melody on top of the pipa’s gently oscillating motor rhythm, supported by Oetomo’s single downbeats on the bass drum. The slow and contemplative opening section gradually transformed into a percussive and rhythmically driven dance. As one would expect from works influenced by traditional folk tunes, percussion instruments were majorly featured. Present were clapper blocks, bass drum, gong and ride cymbals. Finishing with a climactic bang, it led nicely into Mozart’s F Major Oboe Quartet.

Wu Man, Ruth Wall and Robert Oetomo. Photo © Andrew Rankin

It is likely this work’s placement was intended to be a palate cleanser. In typical Mozartian style, the work was light-hearted and filled with rapid virtuosic runs for the oboe, played by Rachel Clegg. The second movement, also adhering to early Classical form, was a slow melodic Adagio in the relative key of D Minor, before moving back into an upbeat finale. The violin matched the articulation, phrasing and tone of the oboe, however, runs were not always cleanly tapered off and Clegg’s tone bordered on being too fertile at high treble sections.

The biggest upset of the night came when, with less than two-minutes to conclusion, the theatre lights blacked out. The players continued for approximately three measures before abruptly stopping, as Clegg, incapacitated by the darkness, let out a great sigh. With the sudden return of light, the work ended to roars of appreciation and cheers of support from the audience. The host of the concert, Christopher Lawrence, delighted the audience with a comment about the frequency of “candlelight performances” in Mozart’s context, saying that the misadventure transported audiences into a “genuine period performance”.

Left to Right: Elizabeth Layton, Jennifer Stumm, Timo-Veikko Valve, Rachel Clegg. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Next up was the incredibly technical sonata Traces for piano and cello by 25-year-old Connor D’Netto, this year’s Composer in Residence. Performed by Kathryn Stott and Timo-Veikko Valve, it consisted of groovy, upbeat rhythms, unconventional chords and, occasionally, completely lunatic key changes. D’Netto is a young genius working “at the peak of his talents” as Lawrence put it. The two-movement work heavily relied on its placement of accents, and explored combinations of possible textures available in both instruments from plucking with running piano arpeggios to syncopated chords and motor rhythms with harmonics. This work of power and imagination was made even more exciting by Valve and Stott’s incredibly clean and focussed execution. However, special credit must go to Stott (AFCM’s Artistic Director), who over the opening two nights had already performed three, now four, works of immense technical difficulty and intensity.

A comical arrangement of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel lustige Streiche retitled Till Eulenspiegel, Einmal Anders! (Till Eulenspiegel, differently for once). Till Eulenspiegel means ‘Owl Mirror’ in High German, but it could also be derived from Low German meaning wipe the arse. This play on language is reflected in the music’s bouncy and inquisitive nature. Ben Jacks on the horn set up the scalic theme for his four musicians – violinist Dene Olding, clarinetist David Griffiths, bassist Roberto Carrillo-Garcia, and bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann – who essentially serenaded each other, passing the theme around, conveying the adventures of a jovial jock in a humorous and satirical manner.

Left to Right: Dene Olding, Roberto Carrillo-Garcia, Ben Jacks, Martin Kuuskman, David Griffiths. Photo © Andrew Rankin

In a dramatic turnaround after the interval, came the bassoon and piano transcription of three Schubert lieder from the song cycle Winterreise, Gute Nacht, Frühlingstraum and Die Post. All three were arranged and performed by bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann with Timothy Young on the piano. Young’s tender touch in a melancholic work, where the piano provides predominantly harmonic support, gave great dimension and backed up the not-so-dainty sound of the bassoon.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), written in the avant-garde age of expressionism where artists across the spectrum deliberately distorted lines to portray polarising emotions, was a real tour-de-force to perform, and even more so as a closing act. The single movement string sextet of approximately 30 minutes, did not conclude with a bang, but with a D Major chord at a dynamic level of PPPP held over with a fermata (pause), effectively implying perdendosi (dying away), which required all the mental energy and concentration one normally has at the start of a concert. On some level it explains why the work did not receive the cheering and applause it deserved at the end. It was also hyped up by Lawrence prior to performance, and for all the right reasons – the tightness of ensemble, the phrasing, breathing and accuracy in a truly technically difficult work with time changes and accidentals consistently throughout, was bewitching and enchanting for the entire 30 minutes.

Cellists Johannes Moser and Svetlana Bogosavljevic held the foundation of the fort strong with rich and dense sound and colours. It was a work that called on all the artilleries available in the musicians’ arsenal and quite literally, served to transfigure the listeners’ experience of the night.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music runs in Townsville until August 4. Read Limelight‘s full coverage here.

Read our new magazine online