Bendigo Chamber Music Festival has announced its 2022 program. Returning for its third year, Co-Directors Howard Penny and Chris Howlett have gathered together a superb roster of Australian musicians. Sophie Rowell, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Sulki Yu, Grace Clifford, Stephen King, Tobias Breider, Daniel de Borah, Amir Farid, Donald Nicholson, Chloe Lankshear, David Elton, Charlotte Miles and Penny and Howlett themselves will all descend upon Victoria’s fourth-largest city for five days of music making in February.
None of these performers are coming with their own established chamber groups; instead they will mix and match with each other across 16 concerts, creating unique and one-off ensembles that may never perform together again – Farid, Yu and Howlett performing Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, or Lankshear and Farid exploring Strauss and Messiaen. According to Howard Penny, that is the fun part of organising a festival like this.
“You get your little black book out, and call all these incredible people, and quite often we are able to put together incredible artists who have not yet performed together,” he enthuses. “It can be the first time they have actually encountered each other on stage. And that is fabulous fun.”
We are all due a bit of fun, I think, after two years of cancelled concerts and deferred plans. Penny, in his day job as Head of Strings at ANAM, has spent the better part of the past two years teaching music lessons on Zoom – “A universe I am not keen to inhabit terribly much in the future, to be honest,” he confesses – and is looking forward to hearing “live music from live people” again.
Incredibly, though, the Bendigo Festival has been largely untouched by the pandemic – touch wood. The first festival was held in February 2020, before COVID arrived in Australia; their second festival in early 2021 fell in that glorious pre-Delta bubble when life had returned to normal; and now, thanks to vaccines, their third festival looks like going ahead as well. Of course it hasn’t been without its tensions.
“This year, planning it was horrendous,” says Penny. “We basically planned it four times, with different artists and different programs. But we got there. And then of course literally the evening before the opening concert, Dan Andrews held a 10:30pm press conference, which is never a good thing. We had a few artists from Brisbane, and they were concerned about getting home without quarantining, and we had them on flights every single day, refreshing all of those. And then we had contingency plans as well, to keep the program going, with people in Melbourne on standby. But we got it done, and we got to the end of it. And the festival happened, so that was a huge relief. And hopefully 2022 will be smoother sailing!”
“The uncertainty has been the residual trauma from 2021. We can plan, but how much of it is actually going to happen? How much can we rely on? But it has been a relief that things have come together almost sooner, I think, than we had hoped, in terms of the borders between NSW and Victoria coming down. That kind of thing is just a huge relief.”
Although it is a shame not to be able to host international artists – the first year featured Chamber Orchestra of Europe, of which Penny has been a member since 1989, as resident artists – Penny is relishing having so many world-class Australian musicians all in the country at the same time.
“I think one of the really exciting things both for us planning, and for audiences in general in Australia, is to realise what incredible talent we have in Australia,” he says. “So it is by no means an ‘alternative’, second-best festival at all. We have all these incredible people. And that has actually been a real positive.”
“I like to plan festivals, for audiences, obviously – but also for the artists as well. I have done enough festivals in my life in various places, and that is always the fun thing: the people. But also the repertoire as well, getting to know things that aren’t necessarily part of the regular fodder of a musical year programming in the main venues.”
In addition to their concert program, Penny and Howlett have also included two special ‘Inside and Out’ conversations, where one of them discusses a subject close to their heart, assisted by festival artists performing live musical examples.
“It’s a casual chat with a handheld mic: chat, music, chat, music,” says Penny. “Just a much more intimate setting to enjoy some new information, I suppose. Sharing our interest in particular things.”
“Chris is exploring the life and works of Clara Schumann, and for me it is the Bohemian-ness of the Dvořák Sextet, which involves all kinds of things like particular dance forms, and dance rhythms, that underscore his particular language; use of string instruments, that kind of thing.”
“For me, that is a very personal thing, because the last four years that I worked with Harnoncourt at the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, we explored music of the Danube – that’s what we did each year, Dvořák, Smetana. But going back to exactly what makes Bohemian music Bohemian, and the specifics of Dvořák’s language, which is actually extraordinary, and too little explored and understood I think. So yeah, it will definitely not be a musicological chat, but it is explaining why I get excited about the DNA of these particular pieces.”
As an example, Penny mentions the furiant dance – a Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time, with frequently shifting accents – which Dvořák used in a number of his works, most notably the eighth of his Slavonic Dances, and also in his Sextet. Smetana deploys a furiant in The Bartered Bride too, which Penny has first-hand (or should that be ‘first foot’?) experience with.
“It was part of the staged version of The Bartered Bride that we did with Harnoncourt,” says Penny. “He had got a professor of historical Czech dance from Prague – she was a small, wiry woman who was unbelievably intense, and she had brought the dances, and she was telling Harnoncourt what type of tempo this particular polka had to have. She ran the room, it was great. And the whole orchestra spent the afternoon dancing historical polka, just to get the rhythms in our feet.”
But yes, there is a furiant in The Bartered Bride, and to see what it actually means – nothing to do with ‘fury’, which of course we have in the back of our brain. But no, it is a very specific village dance, and what it is all about. So yeah, things like that I find fascinating.
The other special thing about the festival is, of course, the venue itself. It’s clear talking to Penny that Bendigo is a very special place in his heart, and that the festival has been totally embraced by the city even after only two editions.
“Bendigo has been just fantastic,” says Penny. “The City of Bendigo initiated the conversation – we had had Bendigo weekends at the Sanguine Festival for a few years before that, and the city approached us and asked whether we would be interested in trying to create a bigger event, over five days. And they have been fabulous in their support.”
“And the connection to the town has been brilliant. Of course everyone benefits – there are hotels, and restaurants, and shops and boutiques – and everyone is just really excited for each iteration now.”
“Bendigo is such an amazing place, with these fabulous venues. We have selected the venues to be all within walking distance, so you can get from one to the other reasonably easily. And especially our interstate visitors, so they get a feeling for Bendigo rather than just another venue.”
“And because the festival is all so concentrated in a small area of the city, there are all these teal lanyards walking around, so we are having conversations with the audiences all the time – and that’s exactly how we want it. Everyone is involved, and everyone is getting excited about something, or talking about something they have just heard. It’s just great.”
Howlett and Penny have also worked hard to engage with the local community, to make the festival something that establishes firm roots in the city, rather than just blowing in and out every year.
“We have masterclasses by festival artists for local musicians, as well,” says Penny. “And then of course – we were snookered last year, we just couldn’t do it because of COVID – but in our first year we had around 40 incursions into schools in the greater Bendigo area over the course of the year. And this is where Chris has been phenomenal, he did a lot of research and targeted specifically those schools that don’t have a music program, and those in less advantaged socio-economic areas, as well. So we are really trying to do something that counts.”
“We want to contribute to Bendigo as much as enjoy Bendigo.”
Tickets to the 2022 Bendigo Chamber Music Festival are on sale now. Visit the website or call (03) 5434 6100.