Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Townsville Civic Theatre
August 2, 2018

There was a celebratory air to Gypsies, Pipers and Dukes, which capped off the seventh day of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville. Delving into folk music’s influence on ‘art’ music, this was a wide-ranging and joyous mingling of musical cultures in a program packed with festival flair.

Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and double bassist Kees Boersma kicked off proceedings with British composer Roxanna Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia. Panufnik – who has a new commission at this year’s Last Night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall in September – wrote Hora Bessarabia as a solo violin piece for the 2016 Menuhin Competition (it’s inspired by Yehudi Menuhin’s love of Eastern European Gypsy music). This new version, which received its Australian premiere last night, includes a double bass part, fleshing out the piece’s range with some low-register muscle. While Sitkovetsky and Boersma were whisper quiet in the opening, the music soon unfurled in chant-like melodies, eventually reaching a climax of foot-stamping energy, Boersma’s bass propelling the music under Sitkovetsky’s fierce fiddling.

AFCM, Australian Festival of Chamber MusicTine Thing Helseth and Timothy Young at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (whom the AFCM audiences have dubbed ‘The Barefoot Trumpeter’ for her habit of performing without shoes) joined Artistic Director Kathryn Stott on stage for another competition piece, George Enescu’s Légende, penned for the Paris Conservatoire’s annual instrumental competition. Helseth and Stott have toured and recorded together and there was an easy camaraderie to their performance, Helseth finding subtlety and lyricism – not to mention crisp articulation and fleet virtuosity – in Enescu’s writing, the work culminating in a haunting passage for muted trumpet.

Stott was then joined by British baritone Roderick Williams in four folk song arrangements by Percy Grainger, bringing a melancholy beauty to The Pretty Maid Milkin’ her Cow and Six Dukes went afishin’ before a shattering Willow Willow (setting Desdemona’s lament in Othello) was offset by the lighter British Waterside – The Jolly Sailor.

Bringing the first half of the concert to a close was Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2006 work Ritmos Anchinos, written for the Silk Road ensemble, with this new arrangement (swapping out Chinese pipa for guitar) making its world premiere. Sheng player Wu Tong joined guitarist Karin Schaupp and the Goldner String Quartet on stage for the work, which draws on Frank’s Peruvian Native American and Chinese heritage. The first movement, Harawi para Colquipocro is inspired by an indigenous mountain song, the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ with a clear, penetrating timbre) weaving above strummed textures from the strings. Schaupp’s refined guitar playing in this work was a highlight – the instrument often breaking off as a solo voice – while the rhythmic, aggressive final movement (inspired by the Kachampa combat dance), reached its climax in bouncing bows and hard accents punched out by the sheng.

The second half of the concert featured another Australian premiere, violinist and composer Pavel Fisher leading a quartet (with Sitkovetsky, violist Lars Anders Tomter and cellist István Várdai) in his third String Quartet, titled Mad Piper. Named for its first movement – which was inspired by Scottish piper Bill Millin who led his unit into battle at Normandy armed only with his bagpipes – Fischer’s quartet, drawing on Czech, Bulgarian and Romanian folk music, brimmed with wild energy, the boisterous soloing from each of the quartet members, over Várdai’s driving cello, more ‘rock band’ than ‘string quartet’. The finale, Ursari, was a barnstorming frenzy of string-slapping cello and furious fiddling, the violist swapping his instrument for a pen beaten against the music stand.

Following the quartet, Helseth returned to the stage, this time with pianist Timothy Young and a trio of trumpeters – Norwegian Sebastian Haukås, and Justin Kennedy and Aaron Passfield from the 1RAR Band – whose muted instruments haloed her sound in Gregory Pascuzzi’s Meditation on a Scottish Hymn Tune (Amazing Grace). Helseth’s clear lines (over Young’s sensitively rendered piano part) conjured an atmosphere of reflection, but while the arrival of Daniel Strutt on bagpipes at the back of the auditorium – the trumpeters now arrayed around the theatre – created a more enveloping sonic experience, the reflective mood was lost as the audience twisted in their seats to view the uniformed piper.

The concert’s finale saw violinist Dene Olding join British clarinettist Julian Bliss and British pianist Katya Apekisheva in Bartók’s Contrasts, written at the behest of jazz clarinet legend Benny Goodman. Bliss’s fluid virtuosity was on display here in the cascading clarinet runs, against Olding’s polished flair and Apekisheva’s powerful energy. Olding led the final dance of the night, launching into the fast Sebes movement with raw open strings.

Gypsies, Pipers and Dukes was a lavish feast of styles and sounds, perfect fare for a festival, where audiences are keen to taste something new and exciting. While the two and a half hour concert’s momentum flagged a little in the second half, I don’t think anybody left the theatre unsated – and judging by the audience’s enthusiasm, Fischer’s Mad Piper was the hit of the night.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is in Townsville until August 5