Left – Orava Quartet
The Bangalow Music Festival, jewel of the classical music calendar of the Northern Rivers of NSW, has just had its 18th incarnation. The beautiful village in which it takes place, nestled in the hills behind Byron Bay, boasts an Arts and Industries Hall, which, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that acoustic experts have never darkened its doors, serves as an ideal venue for chamber music. Founded by Paul Dean, supported by the Southern Cross Soloists, and curated by Tania Frazer, the Festival brings yearly delight not only to the large and enthusiastic audience for classical music of these parts, but also to a considerable following from Brisbane who take a weekend off to revel in its feast of music.
The first of its 9 concerts, on the Friday night, was a sort of curtain-raiser, introducing most of the performers who were to occupy the stage over the coming weekend. In previous years this function had been taken by the Festival Prelude concert on the Thursday night, but this year that night was devoted to “emerging stars” of the region, no doubt in emulation of the Byron Music Society’s successful “Rising Stars” concert held every November.
Friday’s concert opened with Alex Ranieri’s eloquently understated rendering of the two Chopin preludes in F# major and minor. A more concise and poetic opening could not be imagined. It was like a small, high window opening slightly to reveal the beauties in store over the weekend. It was followed by Karin Schaupp, one of Australia’s greatest classical guitarists, and flautist Lina Andonovska playing a movement from Piazzola’s Histoire du Tango, another restrained piece with the smoke of the café through it. Then the New Zealand Chamber Soloists, special guests of the Festival, performed a Trio by Rachmaninov. Written when he was 19, it has all the promise and shortcomings you might expect of a student work. The Orava Quartet, who I would now describe as Australia’s foremost string quartet, then gave an exquisite account of the opening movements of Ross Edwards’ String Quartet.
These pieces, small-scale in different ways, were then succeeded by a vast burst of sound in the form of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. Here the Southern Cross Soloists, considerably augmented by other performers in the Festival, raised the roof with this lighthearted but immensely engaging work, in an arrangement by John Rotar which demonstrated Rotar’s skill in pitting the wind “soloists’ against the “orchestra” of the strings and piano. Especially captivating was Alex Miller’s horn playing, the horn being the instrument to which Strauss gives the task of embodying the protagonist’s character.
After a brief pause, the second concert followed immediately. Rotar’s arrangement of three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn was stunningly sung by Xenia Puskars Thomas. Thomas truly acts while she sings, and her performance of Das irdische Leben left not a dry eye in the house.
The final work on the evening was Osvaldo Golijov’s extraordinary Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. For this, the wonderful Orava Quartet was joined by Ashley Smith, a virtuoso clarinettist of the first rank. He drew sounds out of the three clarinets he played that defied belief during this long, profound, mystical piece. It’s strange, compelling music, and the audience was riveted for its entire 40-minute duration.
That remark prompts me to comment with appreciation on the fact that throughout the weekend there were so many pieces performed complete. In the past the Festival has sometimes presented single movements from multi-movement works, and although of course this has been a practice over the centuries of concert-giving, the public here truly welcomed the opportunity to immerse themselves in whole long works.
After this program I was looking forward to the spread and champagne of the usual Festival Welcome, but without the pizazz and panache of Margaret Curtis it was slightly subdued affair.
For various reasons I was unable to attend more than 2 of the concerts of the weekend itself, but these sustained the excellence of the opening night. Andonovska and Ranieri gave a fluent and exciting account of Prokoviev’s Flute sonata, and Ranieri was joined by Tania Frazer and bassoonist Adam Mikulicz for Poulenc’s quirky, questioning, neo-classical Trio. In between, Ashley Smith did some more ridiculously crazy things with his clarinet. Then I heard the New Zealand Chamber Soloists play Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio. The prevailing impression I had from this performance was the deep unanimity of expression which comes from their many years of playing together. This was chamber music in the highest sense of the words. They then played Corybas, a trio by their close friend John Psathas, a leading New Zealand composer of Greek origin. Corybas is an immensely powerful work, transporting the listener to Crete with its strange 15/8 time signature which is used to body forth an obsessive rhythm, hypnotic yet unpredictable, but redolent of Cretan dance.
What a treat the Bangalow festival is. I’m already looking forward to 2020!
Southern Cross Soloists present
18th Bangalow Music Festival
Venue: (Various) Bangalow NSW
Dates: 8 – 11 August 2019