Question: how do you hold an international festival when you can’t import any international talent? Last year, barely six weeks before its opening event, the Canberra International Music Festival had to be abandoned due to pandemic-related constraints on travel and audience size. Several years earlier, in 2015, that genial, multi-talented/faceted maestro Roland Peelman had been appointed Artistic Director of the CIMF. Clearly, when faced with putting a program together for 2021, all of Peelman’s imagination and inventive daring was challenged to the fore.

Opening Gala, Canberra International Music Festival. Photograph © Peter Hislop

Last week the front page of The Canberra Times declared that this year’s festival, its 25th, was “not on a level playing field”.

True in some respects, but not so in others. Adjustments have had to be made. Most of the concerts will be happening in the Fitters’ Workshop on the Kingston Foreshore (never my favourite venue, as readers of my reports from previous years will recall). At the same time, there are still events in other locations: the National Gallery, the National Botanic Gardens, the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, and various embassies. The duration of each program has been slimmed down to around 60 minutes. Audiences in the Fitters’ Workshop are topped at 200, less than half of the CIMF’s normal attendance, laid out in a now all-too-familiar staggered seating arrangement. Each event is heard twice and each repetition is separated by an hour or more. Even before curtain-up, many of the 22 programs (multiply most by two) were already sold-out.

CIMF’s ‘theme’ for the 2021 is simply “Vienna”. This provides ample scope for the First Viennese School (Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven) and even the occasional nod to the Second Viennese School fathered by Mahler (the softer side of Schoenberg mainly, but where are Berg and Webern?). Between those pillars are healthy doses of contemporary Australian music and Indigenous musics from several cultures, all unrelated to Vienna. With some research more local connections could have been made, the Tasmanian composer Helgart Mahler, for instance. Again, heritage Australian music is by-passed; this is odd when its principal repository, the National Library, is barely a 10-minute walk from the Fitters’ Workshop.

On paper, the CIMF programs look like a strangely unblended mix of style and ideas. No more so than in the Opening Gala concert, a program bearing the catch-all title The Elements.

It was an inspired stroke to have this event open with First Light, an introductory piece created by the duo of William Barton (didgeridoo) and Veronique Serret (violin). Barton is a great favourite of CIMF audiences and the gentle interplay of his signature wind sounds and Serret’s ethereal violin harmonics created five minutes of sonic calm.

Veronique Serret and William Barton perform First Light at the Opening Gala, Canberra International Music Festival. Photograph © Peter Hislop

This mood was dispelled by Edward Neeman’s account of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 11 in A, with its famous closing movement, the Rondo alla Turca. In recent years, Canberra has achieved international fame as a centre of early keyboard music, with Mozart cycles, amongst others, by Geoffrey Lancaster and Mike Lee, showcasing the collection of ANU’s historic keyboards. Neeman’s histrionic performance – Mozart edited by Busoni? – was delivered on a booming Bösendorfer, akin to using a cannon to shoot quail. Historically informed performances should figure more prominently in the CIMF ethos, especially given the welcome restoration of good relations with ANU Music.

Similar thoughts discoloured the performance of Beethoven’s Three Equali for Four Trombones. Despite the distinguished line-up of players, the performance was hardly impeccable, with imperfections in tuning and entries. Nonetheless, with the quartet placed in the centre of the hall, its fulsome noise impressed the near-capacity audience handsomely.

It was good to observe that the two recent Australian works on the program fared much better and left a more salutary impression.

Since 2007, each CIMF program has been launched with a performance of a short new work in honour of Betty Beaver (1924-2020), a steadfast supporter of the arts in Canberra. Throughout this year’s festival, Kate Neal’s fanfare Beaver Blaze is being given its premiere performances by the Golden Gate Brass Quintet. Lasting barely three minutes, it is a blazing bobby-dazzler of a piece and the young players delivered it with pizazz and panache, ensuring that it will take its place in the burgeoning Australian literature for brass quintet.

Brenda Gifford on stage after the performance of her work Djiribawal at the Opening Gala, Canberra International Music Festival. Photograph © Peter Hislop

In recent years, Brenda Gifford’s works have been appearing more frequently in concert programs in Canberra and Sydney. A Yuin woman from the NSW South Coast, she is currently First Nations Composer-in-Residence with Ensemble Offspring as well as pursuing a Master of Music degree with Liza Lim at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music as part of the Composing Women program.  Her latest work Djiribawal was commissioned by CIMF in 2020 and received its first performance on this program.

Just on 27 minutes, it is large in aspiration and scope, scored for some 13 players, including key improvising musicians from the always amazing Australian Art Orchestra, as well as eight string players with William Barton acting as a kind of ‘master of ceremonies’ on his didgeridoos. The Yuin title refers to the four elements of nature. Together these elements constitute a suite of four individual movements, separate but not entirely unconnected: Bagan (earth), Miriwa (sky), Ngadjung (water) and Ganji (fire).

There were many highlights in the performance, not least was the singing of boy treble James Hodgson in Yuin language, and the sheer energy and vitality of lead AAO players on piano, drum kit, double bass and flugelhorn.

Gifford’s music is abundant in its wealth of colours, textures and rhythms, its contemporary language still underpinned by her origins as a jazz pianist and saxophone player. Over time, she will achieve more light and shade in her orchestration, as well as variation in structural intensity. For the moment, she shows confidence in her blending of diverse cultural elements. Already we can see her as a distinctive and unique voice in our musical landscape, one that will surely develop and impress with each new composition.

At a fraction over an hour, this Opening Gala program delivered works of markedly different styles and varying performance standards. Like all really good festivals, CIMF never fails to deliver surprises and points of discussion and dissension. Given everything that has been stacked against festivals since the pandemic’s curtain came down in March 2020 (and a goodly number seem to have disappeared already), the remarkable thing is that, even in reduced and modified form in 2021, the Canberra International Music Festival has survived at all.

The Canberra International Music Festival runs until 9 May

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