2014 Bangalow Music FestivalThe Bangalow Music Festival is probably, with the Tyalgum Festival, one of the two highlights of the classical music year in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. Founded in 2001 by the Southern Cross Soloists, the festival attracts musicians from Australia and overseas, and delights the large appetite for classical music among residents in this region, as well as visitors from all over Australia. It presents a program of 10 concerts over a weekend, mainly in the Arts and Industries Hall in Bangalow, an appropriate choice of venue both on account of its name (Bangalow's only conspicuous industry is tourism) and, much more importantly, because, not having been designed by an acoustics expert, it has an absolutely first-rate acoustic for music. Bangalow itself, for those of our readers who don't know northern NSW, is an attractive small town in the hinterland of Byron Bay, with plenty of good eateries and a cosy pub, so coming for the whole weekend is more than worthwhile.

The Southern Cross Soloists (SCS) still form the backbone of the program, and the festival is directed by their wonderful oboist Tania Frazer. The whole weekend was moderated by the delightfully informal approach to the audience for which the SCS are famous. (So, in the first concert, for example, while Paul Dean ran offstage to fetch a new reed for his clarinet, the rest of the ensemble lamented publicly how most of them were afflicted by the current round of flu.) This informality effortlessly breaks down the barrier between the gods on the stage and the generous humans in the audience, and is particularly felicitous when players and audience are thrown together for a whole weekend.

The program mixed standard repertory from the 19th century with music from the 20th century, (and the 21st,) in a way which privileged neither, so that Matthew Hindson rubs shoulders with Brahms, and Mendelssohn with cool jazz, on equal terms. No composer from any era was represented by more than 2 compositions. The SCS are not about the 19th century, as Musica Viva was for example, nor are they about contemporary music, as for example Halcyon is. They are simply about ensemble music. And they play wonderfully.

The Silver Garburg Piano Duo, an Israeli duo now based in Berlin, have been regular performers at the Festival, and returned this year to give us another demonstration of their astonishing unanimity. Apparently they practice 6 hours a day – and always together! It shows. They played the first version of Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole, a piece better known in its flamboyant orchestral version, and Gil Garburg and Sivan Silver's rendering gave us almost as much tonal variation as an orchestra. It's an interesting piece. I suspect that the Habañera movement is based on the same piece that Debussy heard, that finds its way into his Soirée en Grenade.

The English violinists Jack Liebeck and Victoria Sayles joined other string players in a performance of Schönberg's sextet, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), in which they vied with each other as to who could play with more transcendental expressivity in the transfigured section at the end of the piece. I've never been so riveted by this piece. Jack Liebeck also played the Brahms violin concerto, with a full orchestra somehow packed onto the stage of the A&I Hall, in a performance that was up there with David Oistrakh or Ginette Neveu.

Margaret Schindler, the soprano in SCS, appeared frequently, with an ever more interesting choice of songs, beginning with Mussorgsky's Nursery songs (in Russian – they sound a lot less domestic in that language!) and finishing with John Adams' orchestral arrangement of five songs by Charles Ives. Although sitting rather low in her register, her suave, persuasive, velvety tone sent these beautiful arrangements over the audience like a soft cloud. In between these two appearances she teamed up with Lecia Robertson to sing a piece for cheer-leaders where they dressed up as Barbie dolls, called "What's That Spell?'' (I first thought this referred to magic, but during the performance realised it meant What does that spell?). This was a deliberately tasteless, kitsch, but well-written piece of nonsense by the American composer Michael Daugherty which variously amused and annoyed the audience.

Talking of magic, the performance closest to this was undoubtedly Emma Sholl's remarkable flute solo, Ian Clarke's The Great Train Race. Almost none of the notes of this piece sound like you expect a flute to sound. Multiphonics, jet whistles, singing into the instrument, note-bending – it was unbelievable. And she made the flute sound like several trains. Surely I am exaggerating. But no, I heard several audience members say exactly that.

And yet, music is a strange thing. The other almost magical moment was at the opposite end of the technical spectrum. Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel, for violin and harp, involves nothing but a slow Eb major scale from the violin, played in simple mirror formations against an equally simple harp part – a few very deep notes and some high ones. Sophie Rowell's performance, with Jessica Fotinos on harp, made time stop absolutely still.

For me, and for a good few others (one gets to talk a lot to the audience in the breaks of such a festival), the high point of this brilliant and diverse festival was Dreams and prayers of Isaac the Blind, by the Argentinian-American composer Osvaldo Golijov. Isaac the Blind was a 13th century Provençal Kabbalistic mystic who believed that everything in the world was produced by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The piece is based on elements of the liturgy for the Sabbath in juxtaposition with Klesmer. Magnificently performed by Paul Dean, playing various clarinets with the White Halo ensemble as the string quartet, it was mesmerising from start to finish. In the course of almost 40 minutes, it takes you inside the entire history of the Jewish race – the passion, the elation, the terror, it's all there.

In an laudable effort to diversify the Festival's offerings, the program included a concert by the jazz ensemble Trichotomy. I like many forms of jazz, but I found their brand of very cool, very repetitive music, using singers to vocalise as one might in the shower after a busy day, at best somewhat soporific, and at worst – well, coming as it did just after the staggeringly expressive Golijov piece, it could have been a restful contrast, but I thought it sounded like little more than background music.

There are two unusual aspects of the festival, both aimed at the fostering of classical music outside the core of the Festival. One is the competition run by the Southern Cross Soloists for a chamber music ensemble, the winner of which presents a concert in the festival. This year the ensemble chosen was the Armilla Quartet (a name derived interestingly from the work of Italo Calvino). They gave a creditable account of an early Mozart string quartet, and a spirited performance of Elena Kats-Chernin's motoric Fast Blue Village. They were joined by various members of the SCS for the rest of their program – Emma Sholl and Jessica Fotinos, both exquisite on flute and harp for Jolivet's Chant de Linos, Patrick Murphy for everyone's favourite, the Schubert C major quintet, and Tania Frazer, most movingly, for Adam-Farrero's Homage to Lorca.

The other unusual feature of the festival is that it is preceded by a Festival Prelude concert, in which various performers from the Festival give an amuse-bouche taken from the main Festival program, interspersed with performances by local musicians. This constitutes a very real engagement with the local community. Since I was (am) one of those local musicians I feel somewhat inhibited to review the concert, but I am nonetheless constrained to reflect the view of the audience that the stand-out performance from the local contingent was Lecia Robertson's intensely moving account of Isolde's Liebestod, from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Yes. There are musicians in our local community who perform across Australia and internationally, and Lecia is one of them.

It is of course impossible to review each performance even in the scanty detail I have given in this overview of the Bangalow Festival – after all, there were 10 concerts, all except one without interval, and most of them fascinating in so many different ways. It is a testament to the way the performers kept the audience on a high that the non-appearance of the great soprano Lisa Gasteen, though disappointing at the time, was submerged by the momentum of the succession of excellent concerts to the extent that it was little discussed in the succeeding days. I hope I've given some impression of the scale of the achievement, the originality of programming, and the brilliance of many of the performances of this Festival. For me it was a real privilege to attend it.

2014 Bangalow Music Festival

Dates: August 14-17 2014

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