After a hiatus of two years, the new artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Jack Liebeck, finally was able to deliver his first program and the festival’s 32nd. The ten days kicked off with a concert that was the hallmark of all that is to come. It was an interesting program of all sorts of music styles and ensembles. Indeed it was a very classy variety concert.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music 2022 Opening © Andrew Rankin

There was a palpable air of excitement and anticipation as the capacity audience of more than 1,000 gathered for the festival’s opening night, and this concert certainly lived up to expectation. There was one disappointment, however. Soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham was to open the concert with the world premiere of her work Nginda Ngarrini Bi Ngya, in collaboration with the Goldner String Quartet, but she had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

So, it was on to Darius Milhaud’s ballet score La Création du monde, Op. 81b. Violinists Elizabeth Layton and Natsuko Yoshimoto, cellist Trish Dean, clarinettist Paul Dean and pianist Daniel de Borah took their audience on a jazzy adventure through the five movements. At first glance, such a work might seem a little incongruous with a chamber music festival, but Milhaud’s writing and the ensemble’s playing not only gave the audience a taste of things to come over the next ten days, but also gave the work such an energised performance, it placed the work firmly and squarely in the context of the festival’s programming.

There were strong American influences in the work, but mainly that of Gershwin. There many hints of his more serious works and even suggestions of Porgy and Bess. Gershwin’s unmistakable harmonies and motifs were right through the piece. That, mixed with Milhaud’s obvious love of the jazz idiom, created a very entertaining show-opener, notwithstanding the absence of the programmed one.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music 2022 Opening © Andrew Rankin

A larger ensemble then assembled for Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante in E flat – after the Sinfonia Concertante K.364. The beginning few phrases were a little stilted, but it soon settled into a very cohesive whole, delivering superbly on Mozart’s sublime music.

Then came something right out of left field, as the concert MC – ABC Classic’s Damien Beaumont – entreated the audience to go online to the festival website and nominate their “Hall of Fame” chamber music piece.  Next year’s program will come from those nominations.

Soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean, had always thought there was more than opera and Lieder available to fine music singers. So she has expanded her repertoire to include some popular songs. For this concert she presented two, both accompanied at the piano by Kristian Chong.

The first was from Cole Porter’s 1935 musical, Jubilee, his Begin the Beguine, for which the artists gave all the passion needed for this most romantic of dances.

Beaumont also talked about artist’s “Guilty Pleasures”, which is a feature of the whole festival program. Betts-Dean’s guilty pleasure is Frank Loesser’s The Inchworm, introduced by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film, Hans Christian Andersen. Betts-Dean’s performance resonated strongly with most in the audience, with many singing along either in their minds or under their breaths.

Continuing with the slightly quirky, flautist Alison Mitchell, oboist Emmanuel Cassimatis, clarinettist Paul Dean, bassoonist David Mitchell, and French horn player Peter Luff presented Luciano Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, a four-movement work about animals and underlying messages of  impure motives, plain naivety, tired exasperations, and pointless battles. The ensemble painted the pictures vividly.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music 2022 Opening © Andrew Rankin

Thankfully, the Goldner String Quartet finally got to the stage to play Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks’ String Quartet No 3, the ‘Christmas Quartet’ from 1995. As the nickname suggests, it is a piece in four movements, inspired by “the idea of Christmas and the promise of peace”. But this work never resolves, so peace, while perhaps remaining possible, never really comes.

The ensemble gave the work their signature intelligent and empathetic interpretation, handling the complexities – and there are many – with sheer musicianship and clarity. It truly was a marvellous performance.

Concluding the concert was Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux: Grand Zoological Fantasy, for which a larger ensemble gathered, led and directed from the violin by Elizabeth Layton. Damien Beaumont had contrived a very humorous narration and presented it brilliantly.

The performance was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek way to finish the concert, although I have never quite been able to figure out why pianists practising their scales fit into the zoological realm.

The audience was, of course, delighted with this most well-known of Saint-Saëns’ output, and their smiling faces augured well for the remainder of this most celebrated and remarkable festival.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is being held in Townsville until 7 August.

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