Music in the Round has enjoyed a variety of homes since its inception in 1972, including Montsalvat (its first), the Werribee Mansion, and the Abbotsford Convent, where it relocated in 1977 and was staged for nine years. After a massive seven-year community campaign to save the convent from a developer who planned to demolish many heritage buildings and build 289 apartments, Music in the Round returned in 2014, ten years after the establishment of the Abbotsford Convent Foundation (ACF). The sprawling site is administrated by the ACF as an arts precinct that is home to over one hundred studios, two galleries, cafes, a radio station, a school, and glorious green parklands. The Abbotsford Convent, which dates from the 1880s, was added to the National Heritage Register in 2017.

Ensemble Liaison at Abbotsford ConventEnsemble Liaison at Abbotsford Convent. Photo © Anne Moffat

Not surprisingly given this history, there is a palpable sense of community ownership and a buzz of relaxed excitement among the attendees of the packed opening session of Music in the Round in the North Magdalen Laundry building. Newly saved from dilapidation and still sporting distressed walls, its massive ceilings feature large vertical skylights that let in an abundance of light; occasional glimpses of sun are soon swallowed by a cold, rainy return to winter. As Ensemble Liaison open the first of four sessions for the day, it quickly becomes apparent that this large former laundry, where thousands of underprivileged girls laboured over many decades, has fabulous acoustics, surprisingly rich and warm for such an abundance of hard surfaces and possessing a presence perfect for chamber music.

Artistic Director Chris Howlett noted in his opening remarks that this year’s programs made a conscious effort to include composers who were living, Australian, or female – fitting then, that a work by Elena Kats-Chernin (who is all three!) was chosen by Ensemble Liaison to open the day. Her Ballade is a carnival of a piece that dances deftly through a range of genres. Notable also was Desaparecido, specially commissioned from young Australian composer Nicholas Marks, which received its world premiere performance. Other highlights included Liaison’s own arrangement for cello, clarinet and piano of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which, being based on the piano reduction of the orchestral score, was a dazzling showpiece for pianist Timothy Young and an enthusiastically-received hit with the audience.

Music in the Round at Abbotsford Convent. Photo © Anne Moffat

In the smaller Industrial School room, Chris Howlett returned to the stage (this time with cello) joined by Elizabeth Sellars (violin) and Chris Cartlidge (viola) to perform two string trios. Beethoven’s terrific Op. 9 No 3 in C minor was preceded by a fascinating work from a young Miriam Hyde, begun in her late teens shortly before departing with a scholarship to study for three years in London at the Royal College of Music. Although Hyde is now most commonly associated with the many AMEB studies and exercises she penned, her extensive body of compositions is increasingly receiving a well-deserved resurrection. Her String Trio is buoyant but intense, with lovely interweaving melodic lines in the opening section, moving into a contemplative second movement and a soaring, anguished Largo. The Presto finale is a lively, confident and emphatic statement, concluding an incredibly sophisticated achievement for a teenager from Adelaide in the early 1930s in which development in harmonic complexity is already discernible. Extraordinarily, there is apparently no recording of this work in existence.

After a delicious and beautifully presented communal lunch at long tables that encouraged conversation with strangers, more delights awaited. Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) composed De Profundis in 1978 for the bayan, a Russian chromatic button accordion. Based on the penitential Psalm 130 (“From the depths I have called you, O Lord”) and an expression of Gubaidulina’s deep religiosity, De Profundis maximises the accordion’s sonic capacity to produce subterranean rumblings, earthly human breaths and yearnings for upward heavenly transcendence with some truly hypnotic moments. It’s unlikely that this work is performed often in Australia and it was an honour to witness it in the hands of Scottish accordion virtuoso James Crabb. His rendition of New York experimentalist John Zorn’s Roadrunner was a surprising complement to De Profundis – a tribute to the frenetic Looney Tunes cartoon music of Carl Stalling, Roadrunner also utilised a bewildering array of extended of techniques to wrest a plethora of sounds from the instrument.

Abbotsford ConventIan Munro and Jacqueline Porter at Abbotsford Convent. Photo © Anne Moffat

Back to the North Magdalen Laundry for the mid-afternoon finale – a recital of art song from pianist Ian Munro and soprano Jacqueline Porter focusing heavily on the songs of renowned Australian composer and organist Calvin Bowman. Rippling silvery cascades emanated from Munro’s fingertips as Porter’s immediately captivating presence and rich, powerful delivery effortlessly filled the sonorous space as a gloomy, overcast sky and heavy rain set in. Love, night and sheep were among the themes in Bowman’s songs, which, while firmly rooted in the lieder tradition, are simultaneously modern and fresh. They sat comfortably alongside three Schubert songs that included a particularly mesmerising (and weather appropriate) Auf dem Wasser zu singen. An enthusiastic audience extracted an encore of two extra songs, concluding a great day of music with a uniformly excellent standard of performances. These were staged in interesting, unusual historical surrounds and complemented by exciting repertoire choices that eschewed conservatism and lazy ease.