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Journey to the East, back in the Cathedral next day, almost belonged to a different festival: small ensembles playing modern, mostly delicate, music to a small audience (a pity it was so small; perhaps people stayed away because they knew none of the music at all) in a resonant acoustic. It opened with Somei Satoh's Birds in Warped Time, Ami Hakuno's piano rippling along under Chris Latham's serenely floating violin. They were joined on stage by Ian Brunskill, percussion, and Riley Lee, shakuhachi, for Toru's Mist by English composer Gavin Bryars. The composer calls it 'a kind of memorial to Toru Takemitsu ... whose ability to reconcile (so-called) Eastern and Western sensibilities produced a subtle and moving synthesis,' and it is an apt memorial indeed, an equally successful synthesis from the European side infused with the ritualistic formality (and some of the textures) of Japanese gagaku.

Cowell's Set of Five, following immediately, suffered by the proximity. It sounded like a first fumbling attempt to incorporate percussion and Asian aesthetics into the European tradition; ground-breaking at the time, perhaps, but no longer deserving the attention of any except scholars.

Audience members find their seats in St James Cathedral for 'Journey to the East'. Photo © 2006 Malcolm Tattersall
Audience members find their seats in St James Cathedral for 'Journey to the East'. Photo © 2006 Malcolm Tattersall

The interval gave the stage managers enough time to set up the Winterschool musicians for the Suite for Violin and String Orchestra by Lou Harrison. About ten young string players supported by Max McBride (bass) and Marshall McGuire (harp) and conducted by Graeme Jennings backed Ian Swensen in the Australian première of this sumptuous work. It began life as a short item for violin and gamelan which grew to dance suite length and formed, as Chris Latham says, an unlikely link between Indonesian and baroque European music. The transcription from gamelan to string orchestra nearly twenty years later brings out the European side of its ancestry but the Indonesian elements are still prominent.

The last evening concert, on Saturday, took us to a new venue -- really new: it was the first event in the Performance Space of the Riverway Arts Centre which opened this weekend on the banks of Ross River. The community precinct includes an art gallery, an outdoor amphitheatre and a pair of large swimming lagoons. The Performance Space, a black multi-purpose shoebox with raked seating for about 350 patrons, is a very welcome addition to the city's arts infrastructure.

The programme promised a Bruch Octet, Golijov's Last Round (in memory of Astor Piazzolla) and the Mendelssohn Octet Op 20. The Bruch did not materialise -- a victim of 'scheduling difficulties' -- and was replaced by a probably-unique performance of Bach's D minor Partita for Violin in which the Chaconne was accompanied by didgeridu. I will say only that Lara St John's conception of the work polarised audience opinion more sharply than anything else in the festival. After that, Golijov was challenging but exciting and Mendelssohn simply pleasurable, Ian Swensen and his cohorts urging each other on to dazzling achievements in the last two movements.

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Copyright © 11 July 2006 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia


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