One of the longer-lasting of Australia’s regional festivals, the annual weekend of chamber music concerts offered by the Southern Cross Soloists, along with many other marvellous musicians, has been a focal point of classical music performance in the Northern Rivers since its inception in 2001. The artistic director, oboist Tania Frazer, puts together a kaleidoscope of concerts culminating in a performance by the Bangalow Festival Orchestra, which this year consisted of the full complement of players for Beethoven’s first symphony, which filled the stage of the local Arts and Industries Hall to bursting.

The Festival consists of nine main concerts, all preceded by a Prelude Concert, which includes musicians from the Northern Rivers, a Schools concert, and a Kaffekonzert at Zentfeld’s place – well, you’d call it a cellar door if it was wine. I missed that one this year, as it is held simultaneously with the Schools concert, to which I took my 6-year-old daughter. It’s held in Bangalow’s beautiful, spacious, sparkling though mercifully un-renovated A&I Hall, which has a friendly vibe and a great acoustic. The Festival attracts its audience from all over Eastern Australia, but principally from Brisbane, and of course the grateful local population.

The main attraction of the Festival is quite simply the outstanding excellence of its performers. All of its performers. There really wasn’t a weak link. The guest artists this year included the principal horn from the SSO, Ben Jacks, and the concertmaster of the Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra (South Korea), Paul Kim, both of them players at the summit of their profession. On the first evening Paul Kim, lovably unassuming on stage, demonstrated his staggering virtuosity in an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso (better known in its original piano solo form), and Ben Jacks tossed off the formidable Saint-Saens Morceau de Concert as if it was child’s play. Then both players were absorbed into the chamber music concerts, replacing the Southern Cross Soloists’ Alan Smith and Ysolt Clark, unavailable because of commitments with the Queensland Philharmonic.

The star guest singer this year was one of Australia’s leading coloratura sopranos, Sara Macliver. During the Festival she showed that she can sing just about anything. Her home territory, as it were, is Baroque, and on the final day she sang two Handel arias, ornamenting the exciting “Da tempesto” with almost unbelievable bravura, and also joined Margaret Schindler in three gorgeous Purcell duets. But the staggeringly versatile Sara also sang Strauss’ Four last songs, normally sung by singers with vast lungs and chocolatey lower registers like Barbara Hendricks, and for which Sara’s voice, agile and silvery, might be thought less well suited. Yet, accompanied as it was by a chamber ensemble, her performance revealed some of the exquisite detail of the songs which is often swamped in a welter of viscous orchestral sound. She also sang the solo in Górecki’s 3rd symphony, so movingly that there was not a dry eye in the house.

She also sang three not-so-classical pieces, Summertime and Wade in the Water, which are good songs, and Over the Rainbow, which is not. When a good singer sings stuff like that, I (being a real snob) think that she’s wasted. But when a truly great singer sings it, it’s magic anyway, and for the moment one completely forgets the musical clichés and is absorbed into a world where all judgement falls away, lost in what Keats called “soft amaze”. Sara Macliver’s is such a one.

The other remarkable guest artist, whose charismatic presence, like his didgeridoo playing, underpinned much of the Festival, was William Barton, that great ambassador for the connecting of Indigenous and Western classical music. He played in the otherwise unremarkable string quartet From Ubirr, by Peter Sculthorpe, and in a string quartet of his own. Every now and then, unpredictably, he breaks into song, and his voice seems to come from the depths of the earth. In the Schools Concert which preceded the Festival, he taught a packed hall of children to improvise a piece with an array of sounds, in crescendo and diminuendo, riveting their attention on him and keeping them in perfect control. The Prelude Concert, which takes place the night before the Festival proper opens, finished with the premiere of a piece commissioned by the Festival, for which he had collaborated with his mother Delma Barton in writing the text, and with film composer Joseph Twist in writing the music. The text is about a vision of indigenous and white people making an Australian nation unified by the Dreaming. Despite my personal impression of Twist’s contribution to the music, which seemed to me inappropriately to transplant musical clichés of imperialist triumphalism onto the Bartons’ text, the performance, by Barton, the Southern Cross Soloists, members of the local choir Vox Caldera, and conducted by Christopher Dragon, was a great success.

But don’t let it be supposed that these extraordinary artists put the regular core of the Southern Cross Soloists, or their newly formed Festival String Quartet, into the shade. Apart from the duets with Sara Macliver, Margaret Schindler only sang one set, a meltingly seductive rendering of six Spanish songs, but they made me want to hear much more from her. Alex Ranieri, thoughtful and sensitive pianist as always, shone as soloist in De Falla’s bewitching Nights in the Gardens of Spain, in a surprisingly inward and reflective Pathétique sonata, and in countless pieces of chamber music throughout the Festival. He was even enlisted as a harpsichord continuo in the baroque concert, though here a specialist baroque player might have been preferable. Tania Frazer and Patrick Murphy, fabulous chamber musicians that they are, enhanced everything with their gorgeous sound and depth of feeling. The lovely flautist Emma Scholl, absent from last year’s Festival, returned to enchant us with a spell-binding performance of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune. And the clarinettist, Ashley Smith – well, there is nothing that he can’t do. His divine performance of the Mozart clarinet concerto, full of some of the most delicate sounds I’ve ever heard from a clarinet, concluded the Festival. He also played Artie Shaw’s formidably difficult concerto, showing that he was just as comfortable with jazz as classical. And there was that gem of a moment when he brought the wrong music on stage for Wade in the Water, and improvised the most astonishing passage in the riff!

I unfortunately missed the performance by the Festival Quartet of Shostakovich’s 3rd string quartet, though everyone said it was exceptional. They were, however, the core of the string sextet by Tchaikovsky, Souvenirs de Florence, certainly one of the highlights of the Festival. And I was lucky enough to hear the Meraki Quartet, a young group featured in the Stars of Tomorrow concert, play Janacek’s first quartet. They played with a committed intensity which more than did justice to Janacek’s elliptical but passionate music, and which foretold great things for this group. The Festival has a tradition of mentoring promising young players and singers, and the other “star of tomorrow” was baritone Sam Piper, a real discovery with his rich, effortless, warm, velvety rendering of Beethoven’s Adelaide and Barber’s Dover Beach.

So far I have referred to various pieces of music, rarely specifying and never commenting on the fact that in this Festival most of them are arrangements, not original versions. Some pieces are scaled down from orchestral versions, and some are scaled up from piano originals, turning them all into chamber music. I was never sure from the program which arrangements were made by the composer John Rotar, who designs them specifically for Southern Cross Soloists, which were by others, or, in the case of some pieces unfamiliar to me, whether they were arrangements at all. In these days when authenticity is a watchword, the coyness of the program in this regard is understandable, but my own view is that transcribing is a very important, indeed vital, skill, and one that has a history as long a Western music itself. I can also understand that they didn’t want to clutter up the general festival program with too much information; but this time each concert had its own little printed program, and here information concerning the arrangements would have been very welcome.

Two arrangements stand out in my memory, for opposite reasons. That of the Four Last Songs was not Rotar’s but one that was familiar to some in the audience, though not to me, and i was looking forward to hearing it. I was surprised how, despite being very sympathetic to Strauss’ contrapuntal intricacies, it completely failed to convey that valedictory effect which imbues the original, where the vast orchestra seems to mine the entire preceding century-and-a-half for its over-abundance of ideas. On the other hand, the reduction of the Prélude à l’après-midi captured something essential from the original: the evanescent, fleeting sensuality, which was not subverted by the clarity of texture resulting from the reduced forces, but rather conveyed, preciously though precariously, by all the instruments as they echoed the solo-ness of the flute.

The kaleidoscope of music included a concert where Baroque music alternated with Australian compositions. Dawn Mantras (was the arrangement Ross Edwards’?) was utterly beautiful. The baroque music suffered, though, from (the singers apart) being apparently immune to the advances in early music performance of the last 50 years. The rendering of Bach’s 5th keyboard concerto, in particular, took me back to my childhood, to performances by pre-Christopher-Hogwood ensembles such as Neville Mariner’s. If the strings had applied half of the exquisite care for detail that they used in the Mozart concerto, for example, something of the world in which this music was written might have emerged from the fog of too many strings and a modern Steinway.

The Festival concluded, as I mentioned, with a full orchestral concert, conducted by the young and extremely dynamic Christopher Dragon. I had not looked forward to Beethoven’s 1st symphony, but I was deeply impressed by this conductor’s performance – it made the work seem to have been written yesterday. The first movement, in particular, drew the audience irresistibly into Beethoven’s re-invention of the symphony, which was begun in this work. This performance, along with the Górecki and the Mozart concerto, concluded a particularly vibrant and brilliant incarnation of the Bangalow Festival. Our thanks are due (I speak here as a resident of the Northern Rivers) to all the performers, and the tireless organisers, especially Tania Frazer, of this unique event.

2017 Bangalow Festival

Venue: Various | Bangalow NSW
Dates: 18 – 20 August 2017


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