Attending a concert some time ago by The Griffyn Ensemble, at which the audience sat at tables, I saw the Belgian-born musician and conductor Roland Peelman looking a little lost. I invited him to join our table. Grateful, he sat down. We chatted a little. I especially enjoyed listening to his gentle Flemish accent. It was great to learn a little about the man who is just too busy to pause.

Roland Peelman

Which is why this book is such a valuable way of getting to know the man who, amongst the many achievements along his life journey, is at the helm, as director, of his sixth Canberra International Music Festival, and spent 25 years leading the internationally acclaimed vocal ensemble The Song Company.

At less than 100 pages, the book is not a blow-by-blow in-depth biography of Roland Peelman. And it’s not in a narrative form that needs to be read cover to cover. Indeed, the book is a large format, hardback coffee table publication with photographs by Anthony Browell that beautifully capture their moments, along with others from times past that illustrate Peelman’s life.

As a coffee table book, it can be picked up any time for a browse through, just to feel the energy of the photos, or to read a chapter or two to reveal Peelman – where he came from, how he came to migrate to Australia with his wife and two small children in 1984, the struggles when another two offspring came along, and his extraordinary career and successes since.

It talks about Peelman’s willingness always to go the extra mile, his strategic approach to the Canberra International Music Festival, his management style, and his seemingly limitless world-wide network of friends, colleagues and other contacts.

When he took over as conductor of the Hunter Symphony Orchestra in 1990, it was only a matter of months after the devastating earthquake that shook Newcastle to its foundations. The orchestra’s manager suggested a fundraiser and Peelman immediately called Richard Bonynge and Dame Joan Sutherland, for whom he had been a repetiteur. They, and a cast of other opera stars, came to Newcastle and gave a concert that was a “huge success”.

Roland Peelman conductingRoland Peelman conducting. Photo © Anthony Browell

It also reveals his impatience, particularly with political nonsense. Studying in Belgium, he labelled as troglodytes those who engaged in “the linguistic rivalries between the French speaking and Flemish speaking communities”. And the “financial problems and internecine arguments amongst the board” of the Hunter Symphony Orchestra led to his “frustrated resignation” as its conductor in 1997, “followed within a year by [the orchestra’s] demise”.

But, despite the book’s coffee table format, it is so beautifully written that the reader is easily seduced and becomes engrossed in the comings and goings of a man we all would like to get to know better. Before you know it, the easy, magazine style of writing has drawn you to the end of the book, and your glass of wine. You consider it almost obligatory to pour another glass and flip once more through the photos to put it all in context.

An especially valuable and engaging embellishment, peppered through the book, is a series of testimonials from people like Bev Clarke, chair of the Canberra International Music Festival board, Belgian composer and close friend, Frank Nuyts, Song Company member of 12 years, Anna Fraser, Indigenous musician and composer, Brenda Gifford, Australian composers, Elena Kats-Chernin and Ross Edwards and many others. These testimonials give thoughtful third person insights into the man who is passionate about Australian music, women composers, Indigenous culture and the technicolour social fabric that makes up how we live as Australians.

If you see Roland Peelman in the street and can’t catch up to his fast walk/slow run pace – literally and figuratively – don’t worry, he might just be lost. But in this book, Roland Peelman, you can make him pause sufficiently, if only figuratively, to learn more about “this visionary artistic guy whom everyone loves.”

Anthony Browell and Antony Jeffrey’s Roland Peelman launches on 1 May and will be available for sale at the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival, which runs 30 April to 9 May

Limelight is giving away one copy of Roland Peelman. Enter online by 16 May for your chance to win.

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