“A world of music” was the title of the opening concert of the Canberra International Music Festival, and this is indeed what audiences got in the Fitters’ Workshop – an eclectic concert of music and musicians from home and abroad.
Starting and finishing at home, the concert was bookended with works by Australian composer Robert Davidson. Following Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes Shea’s welcome to country, Beaver Blaze – an annual tribute to Canberra arts and music stalwart Betty Beaver – opened musical proceedings. This year’s offering was a collaboration between Davidson and didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton, setting the poem White Australia from Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s second volume of verse The Dawn is at Hand. (This isn’t the first time Noonuccal’s poems have been set – Malcolm Williamson drew on the same volume for his Choral Symphony.)
William Barton and Luminescence Chamber Singers in the opening concert of the Canberra International Music Festival. Photos © Peter Hislop
Distant flickers of didgeridoo emerged from behind the audience before settling into a throaty drone as Barton processed down the aisle and up onto the stage. The didgeridoo was soon joined by a wordless “ah” intoned by bass Clive Birch, the two parts interweaving as Barton added his own vocals, beating harmonics against his drone. Birch’s delivery of Noonuccal’s lyrics was haunting, the texture austere and in the lines “The best of every race/Should here find welcome place;/The colour of his face/is no man’s test of worth” were accompanied simply by breaths of wind echoing through the didgeridoo. The Luminescence Chamber Singers filled out the sound, first pulsing then driving forward with CIMF Artistic Director Roland Peelman conducting, before the texture faded back to lonely bass and didgeridoo.
At the other end of the concert, Davidson’s 1999 composition Landscape – inspired by Queensland’s Glasshouse Mountains – saw Barton joined by guitarist Minh Le Hoang and Venezuela’s Simón Bolílvar Quartet, with Peelman directing Baroque-style from the harpsichord. Shifting, repetitious figures painted a vast, wild landscape, the roiling textures coloured by soft cries from the didgeridoo and dusted with the metallic glitter of the harpsichord in a performance that capped off the evening with a final, bright crescendo.
Pianist Lisa Moore
The first half of the concert showcased two of the Festival’s guest artists: Australian pianist Lisa Moore and Canadian violinist Alexandre da Costa. Moore’s set was a beautifully conceived and sensitively performed recital in miniature. She brought a light, tripping sound to the Prelude of JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No 24 in B minor (BWV 689), her tone clean and lightly detached. She approached the Fugue with a sense of measured stateliness, allowing the musical tension to build organically through the accumulating layers, using any extra weight judiciously and effectively to highlight passages and moments. She brought a mysterious, fluttering sparkle to Schumann’s Bird of Prophet while Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece No 4 – opening with a percussive beating of keys in the high register – built a textural mass of sound, by turns shimmering, throbbing and thundering.
Alexandre da Costa and Roland Peelman
Canadian violinist Alexandre da Costa, decked out in a sparkling black jacket, was joined on stage by Peelman at the piano. Da Costa’s sound cut through the mood of Peelman’s plaintive piano opening in Tomaso Antonio Vitali’s Chaconne with a shining, confident lustre. From the bold entry, however, the intensity never dropped, and what followed was an over-charged performance in which a lack of delicate moments and breathing space meant the violinist, blazing over the anxiously repeating ground bass, had nowhere to go in the climaxes. The ensemble sat uneasily at times and while there was a potency to da Costa’s sliding double-stops – and despite Peelman’s attempts to introduce a lighter touch at times – the high-intensity delivery left the performance lacking in nuance, and ultimately, unsatisfying.
Da Costa’s impassioned, vibrato-heavy approach was more effective in the dramatic Montagues and Capulets music from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and Lensky’s pining aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. But it was in Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Manuel de Falla’s Danse espagnole (not de Falla’s title) from the opera La Vida Breve that the violinist really shone. With bow bouncing off the strings, pizzicati popping, and a steely, biting tone, da Costa dispatched the dance with such energy and fierce technique that he more than won the audience over.
Da Costa welcomed the audience back after interval with the Australian premiere of Yangko (named for a type of folk dance from northern China) for violin and two percussionists by Chinese composer Chen Yi. Soft, sibilant vocal percussion sounds drove the rhythm, the light texture giving way to hand percussion and drum as da Costa weaved melodies overhead, full of snappy violin slides and trills.
The Simón Bolívar Quartet
But the highlight of the concert was the Simón Bolílvar Quartet. Created from within the Fundación Musical Simón Bolivar – the El Sistema programme – the group gave a breathtaking performance of Shostakovich’s Quartet No 8, written “in memory of victims of fascism and war”. The ensemble recorded this quartet for a Deutsche Grammophon disc released in 2013, but it was far more powerful, and far more exciting live.
The slow fugue of the first movement – based on the DSCH motif (Shostakovich’s initials) that pervades the quartet – opened with a subtle warmth, cellist Aimon Mata unspooling the first of the ominously tranquil lines. The ensemble’s sound was immediately striking, the musicians producing a smooth, dark texture that swelled in magically shaped phrases. Mata’s cello seemed to fill the room with its body and depth in the Largo, while first violin Alejandro Carreño blazed into the manic opening of the Allegro Molto – taken at breakneck speed – his technique immaculate and sound full. The quartet moved as one beast – the blisteringly fast outpouring of notes moving seamlessly from player to player with dramatic shifts of dynamic crisp enough to give the audience whiplash. Ismel Campos’ viola had an exquisite bronzed tone in the unsettling waltz of the Allegretto, the bristly march theme from Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto (composed the year before) making a strident appearance. Second violin Boris Suárez’s sound was bright and lyrical as he traced clear lines over the slow moving chords of the fourth movement, which is jolted by jagged accents. But there was a fullness to the ensemble’s sound in even the most raucous moments of Shostakovich’s writing. At the end of the eerily tranquil final movement, the last notes hung in the air, suspended right on the border between sound and silence.
In A World of Music the Canberra International Music Festival has hit the ground running, and there is plenty of exciting music to come. But if you hear nothing else, the Simón Bolílvar Quartet – with their rich, complex sound, spot-on ensemble work and enthralling musicality – is absolutely not to be missed.
The Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra, until May 7.