After half a year of hard work and rounds of verbal promises, the doors to the Civic Theatre reopened in time for the annual Australian Festival of Chamber Music, despite the major flooding that shook the entire town of Townsville earlier this year. The opening night concert, titled Creations, kicked off the festival with five culturally and ethnically diverse works, that had the audiences reeling in pleasure.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicAura Go and Lotte Betts-Dean. Photo Supplied. 

Opening the concert in pure darkness, and beautifully priming the evening to come, was Eric Coates’ light and short, but brilliantly bright and youthful Bird Songs at Eventide, pianist Aura Go and mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean already on stage when the lights went up. The opening light, bird-like flourishes in the higher registers of the piano coupled effectively with Betts-Dean’s powerful but subtle voice. Her tone, without excessive vibrato, carried across the delicacy and exotic nature of the work

At its conclusion, host for the festival, former ABC Classic announcer Christopher Lawrence, chatted to the audience whilst the stage managers wheeled in Ruth Wall’s harp for the next work, Recur. Graham Fitkin not only wrote the piece for Wall, but the two got married a few weeks prior to the festival. It is hard to describe the experience this work induced – it is definitely one that must be experienced live. It began with a four-note cell plucked by members of the Goldner String Quartet and then passed to the harp. The cell, as the title of the work suggests, recurred continuously throughout, each time with a slight variation or extension, with the harp creating a call and response and effectively turning the form into a Rondo. It was as if one was being unravelled by the consistently repetitive motivic cell or conversely, being layered up one by one after each repetitive cycle. Combined with the more rhythmically oriented bass section of viola and cello, the work teased audiences into thinking every consecutive climax would resolve, but each time leaving audiences closer to the edge of their seats having been fooled once more. It evolved into a melodious, lyrical middle section, which still retained the four-note motif, which Wall continued to pick up after each unresolved climax. The magical effect this had was the very real and visceral sensation of being caught in a spiral illusion.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicGoldner String Quartet and Ruth Wall. Photo Supplied. 

After that mentally consuming work, Lawrence came back on stage humouring the audience with “including the composer, everyone in that piece was a couple!” returning the atmosphere into one of buoyant lightness, in preparation for Françaix’s Dixtuor for Wind and String Quintet, a humorous, creative and powerfully narrative work. Dixtuor, the French equivalent for decet, was split into two factions – string quintet and wind quintet, facing each other like a stand-off in a semi-circle formation, while the arrangement exemplified the childish vibe of the four-movement story. The first movement began with a slow introduction as both parties serenaded each other, or conversely showed off their prowess, like two dance troupes meeting each other on the streets of New York, or Europe in the 1960s/70s. The melody was passed from oboe to clarinet then to flute with the bassoon and french horn as support, effectively creating a conversation between the wind members. Once the section opened into a major key, the two quintets collaborated with each other, the bass counterparts of each family – horn, bassoon, double bass and cello, accompanying their higher counterparts – violins, viola, flute, oboe, and clarinet creating a festivity of dance and party. Breathing and phrasing were impeccably well timed and communicated. Had balance of the flute’s higher registers, particularly in denser textured sections, been more apparent and clean, it would have been flawless.

Refreshed from intermission, the most exciting piece of the evening for me personally (due, perhaps, in part to the work’s cultural heritage) began. Wu Man on the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute, and Johannes Moser on a 1694 Andrea Guarneri cello serenaded the audience with a stunningly amalgamated tone colour between the two vastly contrasting instruments. Bright Sheng’s Three songs for Violoncello and Pipa, originally written for Yo-Yo Ma and Man, was quirky in both sound and character, and both players re-enacted the exotic, quirky and traditional elements of Sheng’s piece with an added touch of classical colour and flavour.

Man further emulated traditional elements in her colourful traditional attire – turquoise, green stockings and a yellow, flowery top, contrasting greatly and humorously with Moser’s classic black attire. A rather repetitive main melody, often stated first in the cello – performed with an almost lazy ease as Moser slid up to notes – was then supported by the pipa’s similarly carefree but rhythmic oscillations. The three movements were formatted in typical classical sonata style – fast-slow-fast – but utilised great percussive extended techniques, particularly in the rhythm-heavy third movement where both instruments alternated wood-slapping moments to support the main line.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicWu Man and Johannes Moser. Photo Supplied. 

What can one say about Fauré when his music always, without fail, speaks for itself? Spurred on by Lawrence describing Fauré as the “love of her life” of Artistic Director Kathryn Stott, Stott on piano, violinist Yura Lee, violist Jennifer Stumm and cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic brought the opening night of the AFCM to a fine climactic end, doing justice to the immensely challenging, powerful and dynamic G Minor Piano Quartet.

It began with semiquaver ostinato-like runs as a motor rhythm in both hands of the piano, and perfect rhythmic unison between the three string instruments to drive the piece forward. Combined with Lee’s powerful and simultaneously delicate tone, the marrying of the strings’ tone colour and articulation with the piano created a performance of amazing depth and intensity. The only unfortunate downside to a beautifully executed finale was the occasional imbalance in the cello’s bass and lower piano registers against the extraordinarily powerful higher registers of the piano and strings. Clarity of lower piano registers were lost against its brighter upper end. However, such tiny details took very little away from an altogether marvellous night.

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