Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Townsville Civic Theatre
August 4, 2018

After nine days of intense music making, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s Festival Farewell is a celebratory event at which (in addition to the requisite fine performances) the musicians can let their hair down a bit and have some fun. It tends to be a rather sprawling affair, which the AFCM acknowledged head on this year with the inclusion of a second interval, dividing the gala concert into three acts.

Long-time AFCM stalwarts and Quartet-in-Residence the Goldner String Quartet opened proceedings with Carl Vine’s Third String Quartet. If the musicians were feeling any festival fatigue, they didn’t show it, giving a detailed, energetic performance that was one of the highlights of the evening. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Flute Prudence Davis gave a soft-edged, delicate account of Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for flute and piano – Katya Apekisheva dispatching the formidable piano part with fleet-footed verve – before AFCM Artistic Director Kathryn Stott and Daniel de Borah took us to the first interval with a sparkling performance of Percy Grainger’s Gershwin showpiece, the Porgy and Bess Fantasy.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music, AFCMAlexander Sitkovetsky, Katya Apekisheva and István Várdai at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Clarinettist Julian Bliss led violinists Alexander Sitkovetsky and Harry Bennetts, violist Lars Anders Tomter and cellist Guy Johnston in a 1998 composition by AFCM Composer-in-Residence Julian Yu to open the middle bracket. The Lamentation of Micius takes its name from an ancient Chinese piece written for the qin – Micius lamented the dying of pure white silk, a metaphor for loss of innocence. Bliss carved out long phrases over an articulate, pizzicato accompaniment from the strings, the music becoming increasingly urgent and fragmented. Yu’s work was balanced by a tour de force performance of Ravel’s Piano Trio by Apekisheva, Sitkovetsky and cellist István Várdai, the three musicians throwing themselves into the music with an infectious zeal. From Apekisheva’s evocative opening to the trio’s rock-solid, exciting synchronicity in the virtuosic passages, this was a performance to remember.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music, AFCMWu Tong at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

The concert shifted gears for the final bracket, presenting a string of shorter works beginning with three Australian premieres – Chinese Sheng player Wu Tong performing his own wistful composition Faraway Mountain, Bliss and pianist Timothy Young giving a wild account of Paquito D’Rivera’s Benny Goodman tribute Benny @ 100 from The Cape Cod Files, and bandoneón player JP Jofre’s melancholy Como el Agua, performed by the composer with Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music, AFCMTine Thing Helseth and JP Jofre at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

From here on the party was in full force, with the Festival’s strings giving comic accounts of classical music comedian Aleksey Igudesman’s arrangements of folk songs – violinists Harry Bennetts and Pavel Fischer began with an anthem-like account of Danny Boy, before Dimity Hall kicked Bennetts offstage to join Fischer in a rocking bluegrass version of My Bonnie Flies Over the Ocean. Hall and Fischer were soon replaced by Karen Gomyo and Grace Clifford, in a playfully competitive La Cucaracha, before violists Lars Anders Tomter and Tobias Breider took on Auld Lang Syne. They in turn were chased offstage by the cello octet plucking out Pachelbel’s Canon, only to don sunglasses for an enthusiastic performance of the James Bond theme, arranged by Richard Birchall (whose eight-cello Tristan we heard the night before).

Australian Festival of Chamber Music, AFCMRoderick Williams and Siobhan Stagg at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg and British baritone Roderick Williams – who have been particular audience favourites across the Festival – began their 2017/2018 seasons with Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Covent Garden, singing the roles of Pamina and Papageno respectively. They ended their season, and the AFCM, in the same vein, with a Magic Flute Medley arranged by Williams, which saw the baritone perform Papageno’s Der Vögelfänger (as a wide-eyed tourist in shorts and backpack) before Stagg joined him for Bei Männern and then her aria Ach, ich fühl’s. The medley came to a close with a charming account of the Pa-pa-pa duet before all of the AFCM artists took the stage for Williams’ arrangement of Going Home on the slow movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

While this was a long concert, the inclusion of the extra interval kept it from dragging, and gave the event a festive, party atmosphere. Offering a taste of the wide-ranging music and diverse artists showcased across the AFCM, Magical Connections was a wonderful and entertaining finale to Kathryn Stott’s first Festival as Artistic Director, which, I think it’s safe to say, has been a resounding success.