Townsville Civic Theatre
August 6, 2015

At its most rudimentary level, music – like all sound – is a simple matter of physics and biology: a wave of gaseous molecules ricocheting across a space, find their way to our ears which then funnel signals to our brain. Of course that’s far from the end of the story. Somewhere in the unfathomable complexity of our cerebral circuitry, our minds transform these mere perceptions of noises through the ineffable prism of our emotions, but perhaps what’s even more extraordinary is how music can specifically target a particular sentiment in a way that is unanimously implicit. The hope and optimism of a major key; the sprightly energy of an allegro; the sorrow and pain of minor tonalities; the unsettling anger of dissonance and the satisfying relief of a harmonic resolution. Perhaps more than any other artistic expression, music is capable of communicating with unparalleled immediacy the visceral spectrum of human feeling in a way that is, somehow, universally understood. Whether or not Artistic Director Piers Lane was conscious of it, his programme of Mozartian classicism and Russian romanticism offered a fascinating study of music’s ability to conjure emotion and ensnare the senses.

Russian 20th Century Neoclassical composer Alfred Schnittke’s Hymnus II, performed by double bassist Rohan Dasika and cellist Julian Smiles, is a gentle, eloquent yet deceptively technical work that floats in a harmonic hinterland between hope and desolation. Plaintive chords gradually emerge, beginning in the subterranean murk of the double bass’ lowest register, yet any overarching allegiance to either major or minor tonality shifts enigmatically. As we wrestle with the emotional conclusion this must suggest, Schinttke introduces a simple ascending scale on the natural harmonic series, which in its untempered modality mysteriously refuses to fit with either character. Thought provoking and beautiful in its graceful simplicity, this was a subtly nuanced but perhaps overly insular account by Dasika and Smiles.


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Two ensemble works by Mozart gave a glimpse of another facet of the emotional riches music is able to inspire: the musician’s joy of performance. Firstly the Oboe Quartet in F major arranged with uncanny success by the Australian queen of classical saxophone, Amy Dickson. One of the most elating aspects of a festival such as the AFCM is the opportunity to see collections of world-class soloists brought together to perform, and with violinist Jack Liebeck, violist Hartmut Rohde and cellist Julian Smiles joining Dickson, this was music making on an extraordinarily high level – a fact that clearly wasn’t lost on the performers who were all conspicuously delighted to be playing together. Dickson has elevated the saxophone from a gimmicky, occasional cross-over visitor to classical music, to a legitimate and highly credible addition to any classical ensemble, and this performance, underpinned by Dickson’s unshakable technical powers, brimmed with classical authenticity.

Performing Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds was another AFCM super-group featuring pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska, oboist Nicholas Daniel, clarinettist Michael Collins, Horn player Ben Jacks and Bassoonist Matthew Wilkie. It goes without saying that an ensemble made up of such peerless artists delivered a spectacular rendering of this piece, exquisite in its refinement and detail, but one of the most exciting things about this particular performance was the visible affection and ease of communication shared by these musicians. Such unrestrained joy for music making by performers at the height of their powers is the very essence of why live performance is so rewarding for an audience, and testament to why the AFCM is such a vitally important cultural institution in Australia.

After the elegance and classical perfection of Mozart, we entered a far more intense emotional realm as the Goldner String Quartet joined by AFCM Artistic Director Piers Lane journeyed into the colossal, dark, turbulent world of the Piano Quintet in G minor by Sergey Taneyev, a work that this line up have previously recorded on an excellent Hyperion release. Taneyev is a sadly neglected composer, born in Russian in the mid-19th Century in an in-between generation after the early Romantic pioneers Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov (both teachers of Taneyev’s) but before the fully fledged Romanticism of Rachmaninov and Scriabin. His music crackles with the promise of an artistic liberation that had begun to tap into the extremities of human feeling on an immense scale, but as many of the great musical innovators who were his contemporaries opted to express this using the broader colouristic opportunities and dramatic potential of opera, ballet and symphonic works, chamber music, which Taneyev devoted a considerable amount of effort to writing, is all too easily overshadowed.

The Goldner’s are one of the great doyens of Australian chamber music who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and Lane is a pianist of international repute and superb skill, but such are the demands of this music that it requires musicians of this stratospheric quality if it is to have even the slightest hope of communicating the breadth and magnitude of its epic terrain. Holding nothing back, this was a performance of incredible commitment, each performer offering every last ounce of expressive ability to deliver an awe inspiring performance. This was far from flawless playing, but it didn’t matter: the ferocity and sincerity of the performance blazed so persuasively that it was impossible to feel anything but total exhilaration. The emotional scope of this music is vast, but for me the most compelling aspect of this account was the sheer level of devotion displayed by these extraordinary performers. They gave Taneyev’s score everything they had, pushing themselves to breaking point: a remarkable demonstration of faith in the worth and power of this music.


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