The Canberra International Music Festival

It is a brave festival director who hangs an entire festival on the music that was mostly composed in the first quarter of the 20th Century. This was a somewhat sparse period for notable compositions, and one in which so many composers, in the disillusionment that surrounded the “Great” War, composed for themselves rather than for their audiences. But Artistic Director of the 20th Canberra International Music Festival, Christopher Latham is certainly brave. 

Latham presented a program of music that could please, enthuse, titillate, amaze and challenge the most hardened of concert goers. He had also amassed an impressive line-up of local and international talent to perform it (such as the Song Company and Roland Peelman, The Uppsala Chamber Soloists and Nils-Erik Sparf, the Wallfisch Band and Elizabeth Wallfisch, The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble, and an array of local and internationally known instrumentalists and singers.) 

Furthermore, as administrator, visionary, musicologist, violinist, communicator, conductor (to some extent) and all round thoroughly decent bloke, he has capped this his sixth and final such festival as a remarkable educational, enlightening and enjoyable feast of new, as well as well known music. I counted no less than 56 Australian premieres amongst the works performed, and an amazing 14 world premieres as well.

Not every work presented was relished by all. After all, if composers start to go all introspective (and who could blame them when the world seemed to be dissolving into chaos) rather than trying to please their listeners, they are going to lose some fans! But a festival such as this is the ideal – and perhaps the only viable vehicle to bring such works to an audience. People are not going to rush out under other circumstances to a concert of unknown works by unknown, obscure composers who only produced a few works because they were shot before they were 24 years old.

On a personal note (if you will pardon the expression), the highlights for me, in the 22 concerts I was privileged to be able to attend over the ten days of the festival included:

• The idiotic chaos of war clearly demonstrated in Heinrich Biber’s Battalia op. 61  in which all the nationalities involved sing their national songs at once
• The gut-wrenching lullaby  sung by a mother who accompanied her son and a group of children on their way to the gas chamber
• The busy and florid yet gentle string trio  of Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916)– an Australian  composer, Olympic (1908) gold medallist rower, twice wounded at Gallipoli and awarded the DSC, killed at the Somme in 1916
• The astounding performance by Daniel de Borah of Prokofiev’s extraordinary  Piano Sonata #7 : War Sonata 1939-42
• The beautifully mellow sound of the Duduk : an Armenian woodwind instrument capable of the most hypnotic and delicate sounds
• The magnificent Magnificat  by J S Bach, sung beautifully by the augmented Song Company, with the mellowness of the Wallfisch Band on original instruments, and the speed and vigour of rubbery, spidery conductor Roland Peelman’s direction
• The very virtuoso playing by Anna McMichael of the extremely difficult Solo Violin Sonata op. 11 No 6  by Paul Hindemith from 1917-18
• The beautifully apposite conjunction of music and architecture as we walked through the neatly conceived courtyard of ANU’s University House, as players from Canberra Festival Brass improvised simultaneously from the several stair wells adjoining it
• Then the equally remarkable match of music with art as Elena Kats-Chernin and Tamara –Anna Cislowska described each of Leonard French’s extraordinary series of paintings, The Journey on the walls of the Great Hall, in a new work by Kats-Chernin for piano four hands: Promenade
• The four hands of Bengt Forsberg and Adam Cook on two pianos playing the shattering La Valse by Ravel
• More music meets architecture in the extraordinary setting of Canberra’s new Nishi Building, where the group “Uncut Percussion” demonstrated the extent of the possibilities of marimbas in a lobby and stair case totally lined with random wood planks
• The gorgeous Mozart Requiem by an impressive ensemble (Wallfisch Band, Song Company plus…): a mellow, well blended, clearly enunciated performance
• A-capella songs rolling around the beautiful spaciousness of the High Court Building
• The absolutely gut-wrenching demonstration of the stupidity and futility of war in the re-creation of the “Christmas Truce” in 1914 when opposing troops ignored the war and celebrated Christmas peace together for a day
• Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (and I’m not a chamber music aficionado)
• Taking my grandsons to hear a live performance of Prokoffiev’s Peter and the Wolf
• The fabulous Requiem for mankind, by Johannes Brahms, now called A German Requiem (or in this performance,  An Australian Requiem because is was a re- creation of the first Australian performances, in English, and on period instruments)
• And finally, in his introduction to one of the concerts, the words of the Czech Ambassador to Australia, noting that the composers represented in the concert and indeed, in the whole the festival, wrote in times of extraordinary disillusionment and hardship of war: “… it is now our duty to ensure that the composers of our generation and beyond find inspiration for their compositions other than from war.

Altogether a remarkable festival. The 2015 Canberra International Music Festival will be presented from May 1-10, 2015, and conceived and directed by Roland Peelman.


Peter Bleby attended the Canberra International Music Festival as a guest of the Canberra Times


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