Where am I this week? Why, I’m on Stradbroke Island, Queensland. Four hours’ drive north from Grafton, and a comfortable 45-minute ferry ride across rippleless waters …
Why? Because the Stradbroke Island Chamber Music Festival is taking place. And my pal, Paul, is taking part.
The support team is comfortably holed up in the Samarinda Holiday Apartments, we have dined on superior fish and chips, and have just returned from the first concert. And what a delightful concert! My chamber music concert-going, in recent years, has been largely centred on Berlin. Big, important city full of international artists. And I’ve seen some lovely stuff, and some, I must admit, not so lovely. And stayed away from quite a lot because of unimaginative programming.
So, Stradbroke Island, Qd? I knew it was going to be A.O.K the moment I saw the list of pieces to be played … and so it proved, tonight. We had Bridge and Bloch, we had Chausson and a Polish-Russian by the name of Weinberg of whom I had never heard, we had an 18th century Dutch dilettante and we had a surprise too.
And for artists? Well, they came from far and yon, from Scotland and Germany to France and various parts of Australia: 3 violins, 2 cellos, 1 viola, 2 pianos … this little corner of the country was treated to some really superlative playing.
The concert tonight had a real ’village hall’ feel to it, which was normal because it was held at the Lookout Point Community Hall. Which just happens to have the most amazing accoustics. And which has glass walls which open up, so that the artists are virtually playing in the open air. And the audience doesn’t stifle, as in too many German venues. Great place for a concert.
But the music. About which there was no ‘village hall’ at all. Every piece was fascinating. Of course, we all have different tastes, but for me the triumph of the night was the Frank Bridge piano quintet (Rachel Smith, Sophie Rowell, Caroline Henbest, Louise King, Liam Viney). I know Bridge only from a couple of his songs, which I used to sing half a century ago: I didn’t know he wrote such lovely, lush, Frenchy music … this piece was a treat. The Chausson, too, was delicious: a poème for solo violin (Cyril Garac) and piano quartet. It soared and ran the gamut … great, sensual, stirring stuff. Then, in contrast, there was the sternly sombre and deeply characteristic From Jewish Life of Ernest Bloch, for cello (Eric de Wit) and piano (Paul Hankinson). Bloch uses the deepest tones of the cello in this work … as a (former) bass singer, I immediately felt affinity with those gloriously unhurried low notes. And there is something grand about overtly Jewish music.
The Weinberg I found rather wispy and wandering, rather striving for effects, which didn’t make it any the less interesting and the cute cello duets by the Dutch dilettante perhaps sat a bit uneasily in the middle of a concert of 20th century music, but it was all intriguing, and made for a splendid night at the ‘music house’.
And the surprise? Well, it was a real surprise. A piece by the Australian composer Paul Stanhope had been scheduled, but it was canned in favour of a piece by a bundle of much younger little Australians. As part of the Festival, the artists visit the local school and work with the 7-12 year old pupils. This year, Paul decided to get them to write a school song, incorporating the sounds and sentiments of their lives on the Island. The result was a superb surprise, and the children’s performance, accompanied by every instrument that everyone could (just) play, a great success. So the organisers decided to put the piece on the first night’s programme, where, performed by the 16 youngsters who were able to come out at night (alas, without their drums and trombones), it went down a treat. The audience cheered them to the hilt. And the children are so proud of ‘their’ song.
So, the festival is launched. The braver amongst us (not I) will get up tomorrow for breakfast and Bach. I’ll be on board at 2pm for Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Songs for Sea and Sky’ and the Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’, and after time off for recovery, an evening concert of tango music … Sunday, we have Haydn and Dvorak for morning tea and at 2 o’clock .. I’ll be there for them all. A Festival feast of music…