A & I Hall, Bangalow
August 18–20, 2017

Set in the hinterland of northern NSW, a short drive from Byron Bay, the Bangalow Music Festival is now in its 16th year and is a welcome and popular addition to the cultural calendar of the region. In total nine concerts were presented over the weekend, with some intriguing and entertaining repertoire, as well as solid chamber music fare.

Echoes of the Past offered three tantalising works that were very well executed by the Southern Cross Soloists, alongside the Bangalow Festival String Quartet and Meraki Quartet.  Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations was a bold choice but a marvelous showcase for Artistic Director Tania Frazer, her oboe solo as evocative as it was lustrous and skillfully played. Pianist Alex Raineri played two pieces from Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie thoughtfully, alongside intelligent accompaniment by clarinet, cello and viola. A highlight was the string sextet’s interpretation and delivery of Tchaikovsky’s exciting Souvenir de Florence beautifully presented by all the musicians, with an exceptional first violin of Kristian Winther, under the precise and rhythmic surety of conductor, Christopher Dragon.

The final concert of the programme, A Point In Time, similarly delivered with a theme of three works that mark great musical achievements. A polished, finely crafted programme commenced with the glorious First Symphony of Beethoven, in which all the musical forces of the Festival were assembled in a chamber version that included Maestro Dragon’s energy and intensity across fine string, wind and brass playing. Followed by Gorecki’s second movement of the Symphony No 3, guest artist soprano Sara Macliver delivered her ravishing message above haunting strings. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major was joyously played by Ashley Smith, in a finely-tuned performance with excellent support from conductor and orchestra, the Adagio being a highlight.

Other concerts offered widely diverse and eclectic repertoire, the presentation requiring many different stylistic forms often producing mixed results.

Light and Sparkling was a potpourri of intriguing music from Latin American tango, Morricone film music, Gershwin’s Summertime and modern pop and jazz. Unfortunately, interpretation suffered and it failed to deliver a holistic programme. The Piazzolla offerings lacked the authenticity of Argentinian tango, without a Latin-American violin or an accordion to bring it to life. Oblivion worked best with Emma Sholl on flute as the featured instrument, giving us  a dreamy, melancholic tango. Accomplished coloratura opera soprano Sara Macliver sang repertoire that on the whole did not suit her voice. The interpretation of Somewhere over the Rainbow, with excellent accompaniment by Alex Raineri, worked best but Summertime was dull with no sense of style or the heat of summer. Her diction was unintelligible in Sting’s beautiful Fields of Gold and, due to heavy and unnecessary instrumentation, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now was poorly delivered. However, the finale, Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet, worked really well. Ashley Smith, assisted by percussion, injected an exciting jazz style with verve and requisite passion.

Beyond Nature’s Furies was an interesting concept exploring the forces of nature between baroque and contemporary Australian composers, but it was too long with many pieces that did not seem to fit the theme. A 90-minute concert that extended by 45 minutes, with audience members leaving in droves as lunch beckoned, was poor programming. Rebel’s Le Chaos was a polished well-presented opener, followed by Ross Edwards’s Dawn Mantra, a wonderful evocative work for didjeridu, hauntingly played by guest artist William Barton alongside the ethereal soprano of Sara Macliver. Barton went on to play a solo didjeridu piece, representing the land itself, which was ravishing and also returned to play Sculthorpe’s masterly Earth Cry, another highlight. Sara Macliver, doing what she does best, showed us fine coloratura in two wonderful Handel arias, Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo and Da tempeste il legno infranto from Giulio Cesare in Egitto. She also joined with Margaret Schindler in some delicious Purcell duets, the blend of voices being both creamy and warm. Other highlights included Vivaldi’s La tempesta di mare and Gluck’s fabulous Dance of the Furies, followed by the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice. Orchestra and conductor were polished with Alex Raineri extending his skills to playing continuo for the baroque pieces.

Overall the standard and level of musicianship was high but the concerts that were most successful were those offering substantial pieces of mostly European classical repertoire. When the concerts wandered into more esoteric and eclectic programming, the organisation found it hard to manage the myriad change-overs of short works, also often lacking the stylistic approach or instrumentation required for more ambitious works.

All concerts take place in the A & I Hall, a lovely old building with a large flat-floored auditorium and stage, which services the Festival well. Having one venue has logistical advantages for organisers, but it also means there is no change of scenery for the public. More could have been made of the stage in terms of production values and lighting to create atmosphere for artists and audience alike.

It is clear that the festival has settled into a comfortable format which works for the most part for its audience and the musicians themselves. But an ability to rise to a more polished level of presentation, creating a stronger festival atmosphere, and making more judicious programme choices would be welcome.