One of the most important of Australia’s regional festivals, the Bangalow Music Festival is held annually over a period of three days in August. The town of Bangalow, self-conscious without being pretentious, and its surrounding gorgeous countryside, nests the Festival within the Northern Rivers general area, one which is becoming increasingly conscious of the rich wealth of classical musicians among its own inhabitants. Into this fertile environment the Southern Cross Soloists, based in Brisbane and run by the brilliant and energetic oboist Tania Frazer, injects an annual dose of 9 predominantly chamber music concerts, performed not only by the Soloists themselves, but also by an expanding galaxy of guest artists, all of them of international renown and many actually based overseas. The whole festival is conducted in a spirit of informality, which is however never at variance with the professionalism of the performances.
The program was like a kaleidoscope of pieces of music ranging from Mozart and Boccherini to contemporary Australian composers William Barton (who also performed, with unique virtuosity and also deep intensity, the didgeridu) and Gordon Hamilton. No composer was represented more than twice, apart from Bach and Vivaldi, to whom the final concert was devoted. The advantage of this kaleidoscopic approach to programming was that most of the concerts presented a rich variety of musical offerings. The disadvantage was that we were rarely allowed to hear a whole work – we heard three of the six songs from Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été, two movements of Max Bruch’s quartet, and only one movement of Mendelssohn’s F minor quartet and Pujol’s Tangata de agosto. These truncations became almost a bereavement with one of the finest performances of the Festival, pianist Daniel de Borah’s unbelievably complex and subtle evocation of an orchestra in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suite; of which he played only three of its ten sections.
The standard of performance was at a uniformly high level throughout the Festival. Although there were so many artists on display, Tania’s kaleidoscope ensured that each of them would play at several of the concerts, so the audience heard them play in many different styles, which was extremely interesting. What were my highlights?
My favourite note – the high F# in the first phrase of Reviens, reviens in Margaret Schindler’s performance of Les nuits d’été; quite other-worldly control in this perfectly graded, endless diminuendo. Closely followed by the vocal cry at the start of William Barton’s Birdsong at Dusk. My favourite phrase – in the middle of the Andantino of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Fantasia for guitar and piano, a phrase of singing legato which I thought completely impossible of the guitar. Karin Schaupp, who played this and several other pieces of chamber music during the weekend, is one of very few guitarists anywhere who possess that magic that all good pianists also need, an ability to convince their audience that their plucked instrument (or struck, in the case of the piano) can play a true legato. My moment of greatest revelation – Emma Sholl’s performance of Syrinx by Debussy. In a much more passionate and playful interpretation than the more normal permanent dreaminess, I could hear Pan chasing the unwilling nymph until she became a reed – and I heard the last six notes of the piece, famously a whole-tone scale, as the actual construction by Pan of the six tubes which form the pan-pipes from this reed. Her ornamentation in Vivaldi’s Goldfish was also entrancing.
Most bewitching virtuosity – Alexandra Flood’s Laughing aria from Johann Strauss’ Fledermaus. She is an astonishingly versatile, astonishingly beautiful, and astonishingly young Australian soprano currently perfecting her studies in Munich, and equally at home with coloratura and the lyricism demanded by the other Strauss, whose entirely different waltz, the song Ich schwebe, Flood sang later in the festival.
My most frightening experience – the very first piece in the Festival, an arrangement by John Rotar of Ravel’s La valse, played by all the Southern Cross Soloists, in which Ravel’s anyway alarming depiction of the decay of the Austrian Empire was made downright terrifying by the dominance of very low piano writing and snarling brass over the strings, represented here by just one violin and one cello.
Moment when the tears came – the closing bars of Piers Lane’s performance of the first of the two nocturnes op 27 (Chopin), when it melts into C# major. (He also produced the second-most frightening moment in the Festival, the brutal military march in Rachmaninov’s G minor prelude.) The Chopin was played in what was perhaps the most coherent piece of programming in the Festival, a concert devoted to Schubert, Chopin and the Italians they admired, Rossini and Bellini. Wonderful to hear clarinettist Ashley Smith play the Shepherd on the Rock with Flood, and then, immediately afterwards, the horn player Ysolt Clarke in Auf dem Strom with Lewis; all to Piers Lane’s urbane and sensitive accompaniment.
The most sophisticated offering – Friendly persuasions, a set of 4 songs written in homage to Poulenc by the American composer Jake Heggie. We had Alexander Lewis to thank for these, songs which while neither actually quoting Poulenc (unless I am mistaken) nor departing from Heggie’s individual yet approachable musical idiom, nevertheless always seem to inhabit Poulenc’s smoky Parisian cafe world. Lewis, an Australian tenor headed for greatness in the USA, has a voice which can both compete with a large and loud ensemble, and still retain a remarkable clarity of diction informed by a complete commitment to the text of what he sings.
Having said all this, my personal favorites, apart from the Prokofiev, were Tania Frazer’s cor anglais playing in Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela – she made it sound almost like a new instrument, a plangent relative of the oboe one hadn’t heard before – and the Orava Quartet’s rendering of a piece hitherto unknown to me, a movement from Rachmaninov’s early, unfinished, string quartet. It was written as a student exercise when Rachmaninov was just 17, but the Orava played it with all the care that one would expect to give to one of the great quartets in the standard repertoire. The players are all in their twenties, but, being very gifted, and having studied for two years with no less a quartet than the Takacs, are already an outfit with formidable standards of ensemble and commitment, and well on their way to taking their place among the great string quartets. (That’s why I wanted more of their Mendelssohn.)
Each year the Festival fosters a promising young chamber music enterprise. This year, the chosen ensemble was the Geist string quartet, a group of graduate students from the Faculty of Music at Sydney University. I fancied I could discern the guiding hand of that most erudite and accomplished of string teachers, Alexander Goehr, in the refinement of phrasing, and the sense of awe in front of the fabulous repertoire which the string quartet is blessed with, in their rendering of the Max Bruch piano quintet. For this they were joined by the exciting pianist Alex Raineri (“Alex” is obviously the musician’s name of the moment), who had already given a dazzling performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Alex is the heir apparent for the position of pianist in the Southern Cross Soloists, recently vacated by Kevin Power, and a remarkable find.
This year’s most unusual guest artist was the English conductor and comedian, Rainer Hersch. More in evidence as comedian than conductor (though he directed the Festival orchestra on the final day with verve and aplomb), his amusing romp through some of the absurdities of Classical music had that combination of speed and literacy that characterizes modern British humour. Sending up classical music at a classical music festival is, however, fraught with traps. Rather like trying to send up sex in a high-class brothel (not that I have any experience of that), any humour is in danger, with its capacity for iconoclastic deflation, of reducing the desire for it. My favorite sketch was the virtuosic mondagreen of the drinking song from La Traviata (whose title character is of course a high-class courtesan) – what the words would sound like if you thought that they were being sung in English rather than Italian. On the other hand, his caricature of various aspects of conducting, an activity which even most literate musicians often do not understand well, seemed to me out of place, and only saved from bad taste by the fact that Hersch is himself a conductor, and quite a good one at that. Nonetheless, his piquancy and flair endeared him to many in the audience.
The Festival was a true feast of music. Around the many main courses Karin Schaupp’s guitar pieces were the most exquisite of sorbets, and Hersch’s comedy the most unexpected of spices. Perhaps, though, it was a feast which left the impression of there having been too many cooks. Not to take anything away from their truly wonderful performances, with Margaret Schindler in the core group, did we need more than one other singer? With Alex Raineri in the core group, did we need more than one other pianist?
Nonetheless, this year’s Bangalow Festival was an extraordinary success, and a great tribute to the organizational and musical zeal of its creators, Tania Frazer and the Southern Cross Soloists. It is a unique contribution to Australia’s musical life, and both well-patronised and enormously valued by the people of the Northern Rivers.
2015 Bangalow Music Festival
Venues: Various | Bangalow, Northern NSW
Dates: August 14 – 16, 2015