Left – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
In the hills behind Byron Bay there nestles a slightly self-consciously pretty town called Bangalow. You know, one main street, half the shops boutiques and the other half cafes. It also posesses a hall much superior to the usual Australian village hall – high-ceilinged, pressed metal all round – which has mercifully not been renovated by acoustic experts and so preserves its splendid natural acoustics. This hall is the locus of the annual Bangalow Music Festival, founded 15 years ago and run by the Southern Cross Soloists. This is a group of seven musicians: soprano, flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello, and piano.
The Festival is centred around chamber music. Since there exists not one piece of music scored for this particular combination of players, they play many arrangements (their current arranger is John Rotar), break up into smaller groups, and team up with very distinguished musicians from far and near. From nearest came the two string quartets, the Orava, based on the Gold Coast, and the Armilla, based in Brisbane. From further afield came the baritone Teddy Tahu-Rhodes and pianist Kristian Chong, and from Israel the violinist Ilya Konovalov. On the final day the group is expanded to become a chamber orchestra, very ably directed in this case by Christopher Dragon. This makes for a thoroughly delightful and unusual set of concerts, of which they manage to perform 9 in the course of the weekend.
The arrangements range from expansions of piano music, such as Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, to contractions of orchestral music, such as de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, both performed in the opening concert of the festival. On the whole the expansions worked better than the contractions. The transparency of Debussy’s original was preserved in Rotar’s sympathetic arrangement, and the instrumentation, often hinted at in the piano version, added a delightful and delicate set of colours. On the other hand, the attempt to render the scoring of Mahler’s Rückertlieder for a small chamber group, to support Teddy Tahu Rhodes powerfully compelling rendering of the songs, fell a little short, especially of the warm bed of string sound Mahler loved.
There were lovely cameo solos – Kristin Chong’s Rachmaninov Preludes were taut yet poetic, and I was so glad to hear two capriccios by Dall’Abaco for solo cello, persuasively played by Patrick Murphy, and very much under the influence of Anna Magdalena’s solo suites (the ones commonly attributed to JS Bach). It is always a pleasure to hear Tania Frazer’s oboe, and Ysolt Clark gave Kirchner’s interesting Lamento d’Orfeo for horn a strong performance. And then there was the ridiculously virtuosic playing of Ilya Konovalov in Waxman’s extraordinary fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen. (I think Carmen must be the most-arranged opera of the whole nineteenth century.) He played the staggeringly difficult passages with complete sang-froid, as if he played such music every day while reading his mail. I missed the concert called Faster, Higher, Stronger, though I heard from other festival-goers that Damien Beaumont’s narration gave the Liszt, Paganini, Ysaÿe, and other technically astounding pieces an urbane and humorous context. Which I was glad to hear, because my personal aesthetic puts classical music at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum to Olympic sport.
On the last day of the festival Alex Raineri gave a gentle, persuasive, and beautiful account of Mozart’s great C major piano concerto, K 467 (inexplicably dismissed as “humorous…pianistic fun and games” by the unacknowledged writer of the program notes). Alex is one of the many wonderful musicians taking part in this festival who are under 30. Lina Andonovska, the young flautist in the Southern Cross Soloists who replaces the gorgeous Emma Scholl, demonstrated her verve and versatility in a range of interesting pieces, of which perhaps the most impressive was Connesson’s Techno Parade, a piece which despite its alarming title had neither the deadening beat nor the electronic textures of techno music. Every member of the two string quartets is in their twenties, and the prevailing impression from all of them was not of brilliant musicians at the start of their careers, but rather of a whole new way of interacting with music and audience, one redolent of passionate engagement and intensity, yet without a trace of any of the arrogance often associated with previous generations of young players. It left me very optimistic for the future of classical music here in Australia.
The concert at the golden section, as it were, of the series of nine, the sixth, was called Heart and Soul. The name was apt – it contained the single most wonderful performance of the entire festival, of what to me was the single greatest piece in the program – Schubert’s profound exploration of all aspects of death, his D minor string quartet. The Orava quartet, of which I have been a devoted follower since first hearing them last year at the 2015 Bangalow Festival, showed with this performance that they have arrived, not merely on the international scene, but somewhere near its apex. I have known and loved this quartet for 60 years, and I have never heard a better performance of it. From the uncompromising non-vibrato of the opening phrase to the ineffable sweeties of the close of the slow movement; from the commitment to every note in the score to the tightness of the ensemble playing, which made the whole even greater than the sum of its brilliant parts; from the deep seriousness with which they approached the piece to the risks they successfully took with the terrifying textures of the tarantella finale – this was a complete performance, of one of the towering works in the entire string quartet genre. No-one who heard this performance will ever forget it.
It was a shame that Margaret Schindler could not be at this festival for family reasons. I always look forward to her warm interpretations and her engaging presence. Strangely, the person who compiled the program may have intuited her eventual absence – although every other musician was accorded a photo in the body of the program, hers did not appear. But even in Margaret’s absence this festival shone, in a welcome, gimmick-free celebration of really good music.
Southern Cross Soloists
2016 Bangalow Music Festival
Venue: A&I Hall | St Kevin's Church, Bangalow NSW
Dates: 12 – 14 August 2016