★★★★☆ An engaging soirée Française underneath the Southern Cross.

A&I Hall, Bangalow
August 14, 2015

A stellar line-up of international artists has – along with audiences from around the country – made the pilgrimage to this year’s Bangalow Music Festival. This opening concert of the festival was about French things. Creative Director (and resident oboist) Tania Frazer has a tendency to programme by theme, with blithe disregard for continuity of ensemble. This results in both exciting and ‘bitsy’ programming. If I had attended one concert only, I think it would have felt fragmented. But by seeing a suite of concerts across the festival, there is a consistency. It is also a welcome and recurring feature of Frazer’s programming to hear unfamiliar works from known (or unknown) composers.

John Rotar’s arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse was true to the original and ingeniously preserved the backbone of the music. It didn’t sound exactly like Ravel’s chamber music: the process of reducing complex and sumptuous orchestration to one or two representative instruments of each section results in a somewhat square version of the piece. It was still great fun to listen to, and the players of Southern Cross Soloists pulled it off with all the grotesque satire needed for Ravel’s sideways look at an Austrian dance forever tarnished by Nazism.

Three of Hector Berlioz’s songs from Les Nuits d’Éte were less sparkling as compositions, but well performed. Berlioz and Schubert were alive at the same time, and Berlioz was right to quip “I am no Schubert.” Margaret Schindler and the band payed attention to the shades of emotion in the text. Karin Schaupp and Emma Sholl performed Jaques Ibert’s Entre’acte, for guitar and flute, one of his best-known works and a flamenco-inspired piece with swirling dance-like rhythms. Sholl shapes phrases in a most musical way and Schaupp gives every moment of the music a new and interesting colour or personality.

A highlight of this concert was Piers Lane and Patrick Murphy’s interpretation of Fauré’s Élégie Op. 24 for cello and piano. Lane’s command of piano dynamics is breathtaking. It was exciting to hear clearly differentiated levels in dynamic, for example, during the first theme – the cello melody is foremost, sitting on a soft bed of left hand bass, and a very fleeting, almost inaudible right hand accompanies. Murphy’s tone was very flexible and sensitive with perfect intonation.

This year’s festival features a small armada of excellent young performers and 22-year-old pianist Alex Raineri was the star of this programme – and perhaps the festival. He plays with expressive virtuosity – both as soloist and in an ensemble setting. No doubt this is informed by his considerable body of work with Kupka’s Piano, an ensemble noted for their dedication to modernist music (usually with excruciatingly demanding piano parts!) In the final work – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (arranged by John Rotar) he shone as a soloist of superb virtuosic skill and musicality, leaving the audience with an audible buzz. Rotar’s arrangement was rather good: Gerswhin composed the thing before studying with Nadia Boulanger, and so the original orchestration hadn’t reached the dazzling heights of An American in Paris.