Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Townsville, July/ August 2016

by Jennifer Bryce


I am at present enjoying the 26th Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM), directed, for the tenth time, by Australian pianist Piers Lane. It’s the first time I’ve attended. A group of seemingly well-to-do, mainly retirees has taken over Townsville for a week and a half and I sometimes stand back and realise that I’m a part of this privileged bunch. Townsville is suffering considerably from the closure of Queensland Nickel – houses and businesses are up for sale and there’s a grim contrast between the vibrant tourist dining on Palmer Street (where we are staying) and desolate closed-down shops and overgrown abandoned building lots.

To the music: we didn’t take a package, and it hasn’t been possible to attend the whole program, so I will mention what were for me the highlights. On the opening night it was Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet – the glistening top line played by visiting English violinist Tasmin Little and, at the other end, beautifully subtle double bass playing from Kirsty McCahon. Some days later, in a ‘Conversations’ session, Kirsty spoke about her double bass, which is female – her concerns about ‘her’ being subjected to sudden changes in temperature and being manhandled by airline workers. A musician’s relationship with their instrument is intimate. It was the brilliance and crispness of the performance that kept running through my head until the next night, when we heard the Mendelssohn Octet.

On the second night we also heard the first of several pieces by guest composer Paul Stanhope, from Sydney – a setting of three poems by Frederico Garcia Lorca; Song of the Moon, Madrigals and Song of the Seven Maidens. The soprano, Valda Wilson, was joined by violin, ‘cello and piano. Very sensual music – I liked the final song the best – vital and rhythmic, apparently achieved by cross rhythms clustered in sevens.

On the Sunday night, instead of gathering at the Civic Theatre, there was a ‘crawl’. Programs were given at three smaller venues (very suitable for chamber music) and the audience, divided into three groups, walked to each venue in turn. This meant that the performers had to play their programs three times in the one evening. I felt particularly sorry for the Goldner Quartet, who had to play Beethoven’s final string quartet (Opus 135) three times – a taxing work to play even once. Their chairs, in the Masonic Hall, looked rather uncomfortable. We were fortunate to be in the first group – the performance was fresh and lively. We then proceeded to the art gallery to hear a Trio for flute, oboe and piano by 20th Century British composer Madeline Dring and a Serenade written in the late 19th Century by Emil Hartmann, performed by the established chamber group Ensemble Liaison. I was bowled over by Bridget Bolliger’s flute playing in the Dring – such a clear, true, tone. Later we heard that her favoured flute is undergoing serious repairs in Japan and she had been playing her present flute for only a week: a good workman never blames his or her tools, and I expect Bridget could make anything sound brilliant. In this program, though, I was made aware of the difference between the playing of a group of world-class soloists joining together for chamber music and an established group. The playing of the Dring was masterful, but with the established group Ensemble Liaison playing Hartmann there was a blending – a kind of coexistence – so that the clarinet, ‘cello and piano were as one. The third part of the ‘crawl’ wasn’t really chamber music but dance (performed by Dance North) to Elena Kats-Chernin’s music inspired by Picasso’s Three Dancers. Kats-Chernin said that her music was to be danced to, as well as existing as a concert piece.

On the Monday evening we were privileged to hear the performance of Andrey Gugnin, who had just won the Sydney International Piano Competition. Since winning the competition, Gugnin had flown to Switzerland on the previous Thursday, performed there on the Saturday evening and flown back to Australia – and there he was in his crisp white shirt, ready to perform for us. For me, the most outstanding part of this concert was his performance, with Tasmin Little, of Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata. I know it intimately, but I’ve never before heard such a lively, dramatic performance. We are reminded that the piano’s role in this sonata is equal to the violin – not a mere accompaniment.  The two performers were brilliant. They also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. I was riveted.

When I heard that there was to be a performance that combined Schubert’s Winterreise with readings from Antarctic explorer Scott’s diaries I expected it to come over as a bit contrived. Far from it. On the whole I didn’t bother to read the translation of the German poems of Wilhelm Muller because the music conveys the utter loneliness experienced by Scott and his dwindling party as they just didn’t make it back to base camp. It was a deeply moving performance by baritone Roderick Williams, pianist Andrew West and narrator Brendan O’Connor.

The Festival continues until Saturday, but unfortunately I have to leave before then.