Civic Theatre, Townsville
July 31, 2016

There’s a strong smell of the celebratory in the Townsville air for this year 25th anniversary of Australia’s biggest annual chamber music bash. It’s the indefatigable General Manager Sue Hackett’s last year and Artistic Director Piers Lane seems determined to play her out in style by assembling the most extraordinarily impressive line up of musicians from home and abroad. Flicking through the nine-day programme and  looking at the diverse ensembles put together on the stage on opening night, all I could think was, “bloody hell, that’s Michael Collins, there’s Jack Liebeck, and there’s Amy Dickson,” not to mention the likes of oboist Nicholas Daniel who chatted to me over an interval drink and Polish pianist Piotr Andersewski who’s on tomorrow night. The list of biogs is a veritable who’s who of Australian classical music royalty from Dene Olding to Li-Wei Qin; from William Barton to Eugene Ughetti.

The opening concert was a perfect tasting plate of things to come. Opening with Mendelssohn’s amiable Sextet, one of those sunny chamber works across whose face no cloud is permitted to pass, it received a thoroughly charming reading from Jack Liebeck on violin, Hartmut Rohde and David Harding on violas, Louise Hopkins on cello and Rohan Dasika on bass. With its almost ridiculously busy piano part, presumably written for the composer himself to play (unless it was intended for his worst enemy), a dexterous Piers Lane was kept on his toes (or should one say fingers?) throughout.

The sunshine was followed by a plunge into the febrile night of turn of the century Vienna courtesy of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) played by the Camerata of St. John’s. Opening low on violas and cellos and building superbly, it was a rewardingly impressionistic reading of a nocturnal masterpiece, the wind soughing in the trees and the atmosphere ripe with those passions that hover just below the surface only to emerge under the cover of night. The moment two thirds of the way through where things unexpectedly brighten brought some lovely sul ponticello work and was graced by a nifty solo from titular leader Brendan Joyce. What impressed most, however, was the way the group cohered in this complex work without ever appearing to have an obvious leader. At times the beautifully lead, sonorous viola section seemed in charge, at others the ethereal high violins. And despite the apparent youth of the group – the average age would appear to be somewhere in the mid-20s – the reading had a terrific maturity about it.

Walton’s sparkling Façade was one of the fruits of the working-class composer’s down-on-his-uppers stint as live in lodger with the fabulously eccentric Sitwells. A setting of texts by the famously angular-featured, patrician poetess Edith, Walton’s dazzlingly detailed orchestrations veer from pastiche to parody, the British equivalent of the jazz-age experimentation of the likes of Ravel and Schulhoff. Set for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello and percussion, each movement is a micro-miracle in itself, a series of polished musical jewels that strung together can make a delightful suite even without the words. You would be hard pressed to hear a finer rendition of the music than care of nimble Scottish-born flautist Lorna McGhee, a cheeky Michael Collins on clarinets, Amy Dickson on mellow, subtle sax, Tristram Williams (impressively sensitive) on trumpet, Li-Wei Qin a richly characterful cello and Eugene Ughetti sporting an array of highly entertaining percussion. Each player held their own with numerous felicitious touches, while melding into an ensemble so tight you’d believe they’d been together for years. Wielding the baton (for a change), Dene Olding helmed them in style with judicious tempi and plenty of room for musical fun and games.

The poems are fearsomely difficult to pull off (unless you have circular breathing or are the likes of Sitwell and Pears, or even better Timothy West and Preunella Scales), and unfortunately the two speakers were not in the same league as the musicians. Gerry Connolly, who seemed sadly unfamiliar with the texts, struggled to keep in time and fluffed the patter sections. Rainer Hersch managed a little better in the sense that he’d bothered to learn a phrase here or there, but his voice lacked support and so he dropped words. Hirsch attempted to characterise (something that Sitwell herself always proscribed), Connolly did not. Both could have done with facing the audience instead of heads down in their books.

It was left to the easily overlooked briefest item on the menu to provide the unexpected highlight of the second half: two Scottish folk songs set for accordion and violin by British folk-meister Matt Seattle. In a few minutes of utterly compelling playing, Scottish accordionist James Crabb and Singapore-born violinist Ike See reduced me and many others to a pulp with a heart-stopping performance. Seattle’s scorings are perfectly formed sets of variations, the music buiilding in complexity – challenging, but never feeling overly contrived. See’s convincingly idiomatic violin (and I presume he has no Scottish heritage whatsover?) was all sliding notes and swirls. His pitch-perfect fiddle melded seamlessly with Crabb’s sublime playing, the older man leaning in towards the younger to ensure they joined in perfect communion. It’s rare that I cry at music these days, but I confess the opening Mary Scott, Flower of Yarrow left me a complete mess. Magic was most definitely in the air. The subsequent ‘strathspey’, Cuckold Come Out of the Amrey, with Crabb beating out a tattoo on the top and sides of his instrument was a joyous, toe-tapping triumph.

I suppose that all goes to show how less can be more and it’s best to expect the unexpected. All of which bodes well for a programme over the coming days that includes the old, the new, the familiar and the strange. A fine start to what looks likely to be a very special festival.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music continues until August 8.