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The Journey Begins

Australian Festival of Chamber Music 2006


In its sixteenth year the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) has accreted two warm-up events. The Outback Tour took music lovers on a four day tour (June 23-27) from Townsville, North Queensland, to Cloncurry, Mount Isa and the Gulf of Carpentaria with the Fyra String Quartet, violinist Chris Latham and didgeridu player William Barton. Concerts in each location surely earned the tour its 'unique' tag. The 'Australian Chefs in the North Festival Dinner' on the Thursday evening, new this year, was a six course extravaganza catered by ten chefs from around the country.

The festival formally opened, however, in Townsville's Civic Theatre on Friday evening, 30 June. Before the music we had the customary speeches: a representative of the local indigenous people welcomed us to his ancestral lands (a recent and still slightly contentious practice in Australian civic life), the Mayor welcomed everyone to Townsville, the local parliamentarian congratulated the festival for its contribution to Australian cultural life, and the Chair of the AFCM Board welcomed the musicians and spoke briefly about changes in leadership.

The first item of the concert was, appropriately, totally Australian: a version of Sculthorpe's String Quartet No 9 to which he has recently added a didgeridu. It was performed by the Sydney-based Goldner Quartet with William Barton playing the didgeridu. I wrote last year about Sculthorpe's recent fascination with didgeridu; here is another instance. The didgeridu adds atmosphere and texture and makes the work very distinctively Australian but cannot quite join in the musical conversation. It is like an engineer among physicists, a sculptor among potters -- the subject is the same but the vocabulary is not -- but in the end the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The work itself opens in watery sunshine and builds throughout its duration to a driving finale. So does the second item, Shostakovich's Quartet No 1, Op 49. Written as a private escape from constant state harassment, it is still emotionally repressed: nothing is allowed space to develop. The stray quartet movement (Allegretto op Posth, in its Australian première) which accompanied it had something of the same atmosphere. Both were well served by the players, Lara St John and Graeme Jennings (violins), Alena Ondrisikova (viola) and Alexander Ivashkin (cello).

The first day or two of the festival can throw up performances where the players have not had quite enough time to adjust to one another or the environment, a reflection prompted by the last piece on the programme. As Brahms' first Piano Quartet progressed, the players almost visibly got to know each other better. The first movement lacked cohesion, matters improved noticeably in the second and third, and by the finale, the Hungarian romp that justifies the whole piece, they were playing as one. Together they carried the work to a exuberant conclusion and the audience to an appropriately enthusiastic response.

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Copyright © 3 July 2006 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia


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