Above – Louise Johnson. Cover – Goldner String Quartet. Photos – Keith Saunders

2024 sees the fourth iteration of the Blackheath Music Festival, and the third which I have been lucky enough to attend. Its format is a series of chamber music concerts, nine this year, held over three days in Phillips Hall. This, a local community hall with what the Goldner Quartet described as a surprisingly good acoustic, is at one end of Wentworth Avenue, which at this time of year presents one of Australia's most spectacular riot of autumn colours. Curated by Catherine Harker, with the assistance of a delightful team of volunteers, the Festival has built up such a reputation in the course of these four years that, for the first time, this year’s festival is virtually sold out.

When the audience filed into the hall for the first concert, they were greeted by a veritable forest of harps, colourfully lit, populating the stage. What a way to start a festival, I thought! In the course of the next hour, Louise Johnson, for many years principal harpist in the SSO, played all ten of these instruments during her presentation, The Harp's Journey.

My piano teacher, Peter Feuchtwanger, gave his students a set of exercises which have been described as exercises for the instrument as much as for the player. The Harp's Journey reminded me of this. In order to show off the capabilities of each harp, Louise Johnson had also to show off her own prodigious abilities as a player.

There is nothing she can't do with a harp. From the hand held instruments, copies of very ancient harps, through the charm of different mechanisms evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries, to the vast and varied sonorities of the modern double harp, she made us understand the different capacities of each instrument with the aplomb and sureness of a great chef cooking a 10-course banquet.

And it was all done with a dry sense of humour that engaged the audience and never let them go. "That’s an acquired taste"  she said of the particularly nasal sound of one of the earlier harps; and: "if someone says to me 'I didn't like the electric harp' I tell them, "I dont care!". She finished by demonstrating some of the things she'd been asked to do by some recent composers while she was with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – things like stroking the strings with a milk frother, slapping them with a spatula, or putting blu-tack on the strings, and said perhaps that's why she left the orchestra...

I, for one, very much did like what she did with the electric harp. She played one of her own improvisations, as if to give free rein to things she can do with a harp that she hadn't yet had an opportunity to display. Structured like a 12 bar blues, it involved tape loops, though nothing pre-recorded, and its climax was the self-effacing moment when she got up and left the tape to take over, doing a little dance – look, no hands!

The Harp's Journey was at the same time the journey of the evolution of the noble instrument played by King David, and an invitation into Louise Johnson's own journey. To hear anyone so at one with their instrument is a rare privilege and delight. The audience rose to their feet as one as she finished.

I was unable to attend the second concert, in which Tamara Cislovska and Elena Kats-Chernin played piano duets, but I was told it was hugely successful.

The third concert was opened by a smoking ceremony and welcome to country given by Uncle Chris, a local Dharug man. He explained that the Dharug word for welcome, narana, means "sit with us". Far beyond his engagingly respectful welcome I saw for the first time a truly unnerving parallel. Not many Australians have, I think, thought of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the same breath as Britain's invasion of Australia – I certainly hadn't. But while there are of course countless dissimilarities between these two processes, one thing struck me. Both Russia and Britain used their invasions as a means of doing two things – acquiring territory and getting rid of convicts.

From this welcome we moved into Beethoven’s contemplation of Kant – the starry sky above and the moral law within – embodied in his string quartet in E minor, op 59 no. 2. The Goldner Quartet have been together, with an unchanged personnel, for thirty years, and they have announced that this year is their last. So there was something valedictory about their performance of this work, one which has always been a favourite of mine. The complex thought processes of the first movement, composed under the shadow of Napoleon's war, were profoundly understood by this doyen of Australian string quartets. Then the chorale-like meditation of the slow movement, the agitation of the scherzo, and the irrepressible yet somehow troubled ebullience of the finale, were all played with a polish and verve born of long acquaintance of the music and of each other.

After that, Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile seemed particularly thin on the ground, but then we had some real fun.

For this final, 30th, year of their work together the Goldner Quartet asked 30 composers to write a variation each on the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th. Those invited were mostly established composers from Sydney, but included a few from further afield, as well as five students from the Sydney Con. (These latter acquitted themselves impressively in the company of their more illustrious peers.) The result was a patchwork of every conceivable mood, from Ross Edwards' and Nigel Westlake's folk dances, through quirkiness, playfulness and parody, to the deep pessimism of Brett Dean's “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. The set of variations has become known by the sobriquet "The Goldner Variations", inviting comparison with Bach's magnificent tribute to his wife's beautiful aria, the Goldbergs. But as the Goldners completely lack any semblance of a contrapunctus (no-one learns counterpoint nowadays in Australian conservatoria) they reminded me much more of Beethoven’s own set of 32 variations written at the same time as the 9th symphony, the Diabellis. Just like the Goldner Quartet, the composer Diabelli wrote to a great number of composers living in Vienna asking each for a variation on a theme even simpler than the Ode to Joy. Schubert was amongst them, duly contributing a minore (something missing from the relentless D major of the Goldners) by return of post. But Beethoven was bitten by the idea, and wrote an entire set himself.

The Goldners, as a whole, encapsulated the joy of string quartet playing, one of the most recherché genres in the Western musical canon. It was a splendid finish to an evening, and to 30 years of being Australia's leading string quartet.

Event details

Blackheath Chamber Music Festival 2024
Day 1

Curator/Director Catherine Harker

Venue: Phillips Hall | 41 Gardiner Crescent Blackheath NSW
Dates: 19 – 21 April 2024
Bookings: www.mountainproductions.com.au

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