Escaping the southern winters and heading north to tropical climes can be made even more enjoyable by attending the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, in Townsville, North Queensland.

This year is the festival’s 32nd. Over its more than three decades, the AFCM has built an enviable international reputation for quality music played by the best performers, from both Australia and overseas. This year, more than 30 of Australia’s finest musicians are featured, something of a boon to them, given the events and uncertainties of the last couple of years. And how glad they are to be performing in front of live audiences again! However, the continuing uncertainties around the world have made it virtually impossible to secure overseas artists this year.

But this has not deterred the dedicated patrons, with many concerts and events sold out and a buzz of excitement pervading the friendly and relaxed ambience.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music, opening concert, 2022. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Briton, Jack Liebeck, has been performing at the festival since 2007. This year, as well as performing frequently, is his first as Artistic Director. He has put together a program that is innovative, engaging, and challenging. And he has some interesting ideas for the future. He has even invited this year’s patrons to nominate their ‘Hall of Fame’ chamber music piece. Some may find their way into next year’s program.

Liebeck tells me that he wants to build more local interest in and awareness of the festival, including engaging schools, developing a fringe festival (the start of which is this year’s Festival Garden), and giving strong prominence to Australian artists, while, at the same time, including some of the best artists from overseas.

He also wants to present repertoire that is forgotten or ignored, but, he says, “deserves an airing”.

Liebeck says that this also applies to artists. He says he will not be afraid to ask them to play material that might not necessarily sit comfortably with them, but will challenge them to broaden their horizons.

He says that, when audiences and artists trust the Artistic Director, “it is impossible not to like high quality chamber music performance.” I suspect Liebeck is already a long way down the road to achieving both elements of that trust.

The programming for 2022 is remarkable for its diversity. There are the well-known pieces by the well-known European composers and a good smattering of Australian compositions, including 25 who wrote variations on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for the Goldner String Quartet’s 25th anniversary, which coincided with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, in 2020.

There are quirky pieces, like Luciano Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, and Robert Constable’s Silent Film music. Liebeck has also achieved a good balance of music from across the centuries, stretching from the present day all the way back to the origins, now traditions, of chamber music.

A particularly interesting ‘quirk’ is Guilty Pleasures. Here, Liebeck has asked musicians to nominate their musical guilty pleasures. This reveals a lot about them, as well as presenting some wonderful arrangements of pieces like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (cellist, Trish Dean), or Frank Loesser’s The Inch Worm (soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean), or Andy Dejarlis’ The Cat Scratch Reel (violinist, Brigid Coleridge).

Lotte Betts-Dean and Daniel de Borah at the Governor’s Gala, Australian Festival of Chamber Music 2022. Photo © Andrew Rankin

This year’s composer in residence is Liebeck’s good friend, Paul Dean. Dean is generous as both a performer and a personality at the festival, with no less than six of his established works being performed. As well, two compositions receive their world premieres: his contribution to the Goldner Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’, and his monumental Concerto for Small Orchestra.

Well-established in past years, the program component Conversations continues and is a crowd favourite. Here, quite large audiences enjoy listening to musicians bantering with each other about all sorts of topics from the personal, to the hilarious, to the serious, to the music, and even hidden talents. This year’s Conversations are anchored ably by ABC Classic presenter, Damien Beaumont, and Liebeck himself.

Destined also to be a festival tradition is AFCM Illuminates, a series of high-quality, interesting lectures about subjects not necessarily associated directly with music. There’s Einstein’s Universe, presented by Professor Brian Foster from Oxford University, or Sea Conservation, presented by Dr Naomi Gardiner from James Cook University (JCU is a foundation sponsor of the festival).

But each one does have a musical twist. Indeed, an entire concert is dedicated to the musical loves of Einstein, himself an accomplished violinist. And there are some obvious musical choices – and surprises – for the concert titled Oceans 13: Music out of the Blue.

Then there’s the Winterschool, which, as the excellent program booklet says, “provides an unforgettable education experience for young musicians [to access] some of the world’s leading artists for lessons, masterclasses, mentoring, networking and performance opportunities”.

Concert venues are just as interesting as the concerts themselves. Townsville’s Civic Theatre seats over 1,000 and boasts an excellent acoustic for every seat in the house. The Pavilion at the Casino is a flexible space for concerts and conversations. St James Cathedral is vast and lofty, constructed almost entirely from red house bricks and featuring a soaring timber roof, mosaics, stained glass and a very nice reverberation that enhances the music. There is a four-manual pipe organ to the side above the choir stalls.

Even the off-shore islands get concerts, with an afternoon trip to Orpheus Island and an after-festival party on Magnetic Island.

This year also sees the birth of a future fringe festival. The Festival Garden, adorned with light displays and sculptures, offers a packed program of free concerts and special events. There are many music choices from music of the 45RPM records era, to jazz and blues, to music of First Australians and even a high tea with Australia’s culinary icon, Maggie Beer.

Maggie Beer Jack Liebeck

Maggie Beer and Jack Liebeck at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, 2022. Photo © Josh Ryder

Beer tells me that she was “brought up on music”. When she cooks, she plays opera or torch singers, like Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald, “really loud”.

And she has some interesting things to say about music and food generally. She says that music in restaurants “should be music – not musak” and that it should “reflect the restaurant theme and be an extension of the person who owns the restaurant”. Beer says that “choosing the right music in restaurants is an art in itself”.

Her view on live music in restaurants is an interesting one. She says live music creates “opposing areas of the arts”, and is “not fair to the chef”. The patron, she says, “should be free to focus on the culinary art that creates the reason they are there: the dining experience”. She adds that live music is not really fair to the musicians either, because it “just becomes background music”.

Of course, no festival could happen without back room support. There is an active and enthusiastic board, chaired by recently-appointed Mary Jo Capps, as well as an admin team, stage crews and an army of volunteers, whose happy, smiling faces are ready to assist with anything patrons might need. This even extends to transport, so patrons and artists alike can move around the festival venues easily. It is flexible and always available with a fleet of cars, vans and coaches.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music does, indeed, sound like paradise.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville continues until 7 August.

Clinton White was flown to Townsville to report on the festival by the Australian Festival of Chamber Music.

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