Queensland (“finally!” some would say) put on its iconic best weather for the second Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival. The nights were cool – good for sleeping – and the days were sunny, warm and welcoming. Although the Festival is modest, with just four concerts and a pre-concert conversation over one weekend, it certainly is punching above its weight, complementing the beautiful weather with a captivating and diverse program, and feature-packed locations.

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One of the Community Engagement concerts at the Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival, 2022. Photo © Barry Alsop Eyes Wide Open Images

By way of a kind of “preview”, held a few days before, and catering for staff and patients in hospital, as well as staff and residents in aged care – and their families – who would not otherwise be able to get to concerts, the festival came to them. Presented on 14 June in collaboration with Wishlist, two superb, free recitals, each offering the same program, were given by pianist, Francis Atkins, a Masters student at the Queensland Conservatorium, and violinist, Julia Hill, a former Concertmaster of the Australian Youth Orchestra.

I attended the hospital performance, with some in the audience seated nearby, and others, necessarily transitory, standing a little way off. Others just passed by or even had all-important work-related conversations in the background. Even so, these two artists were utterly unfazed by the passing parade, their concentration unwavering, never distracted. And all those sounds and movements did not detract from the enjoyment of their thoughtful and masterful interpretations of a varied one-hour program covering Satie to Rachmaninov to Gershwin, and more.

It seemed eminently fitting that Atkins and Hill would be playing a beautifully read performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending as a young, smiling family happened to amble past the gathering – dad, with young child in tow, pushing a wheelchair and mum cradling a tiny newborn, excited to be on their way home.

The main program began on 17 June in Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. There is much going for this popular region with Maleny and other towns, like Montville, perched high on the escarpment and offering spectacular views across farmland and villages to the Pacific Ocean on one side, and breathtaking vistas of the verdant valleys and mountains, including the Glasshouse Mountains, on the other.

Catering exceptionally well for tourists, the hinterland boasts a plentiful and wide variety of accommodation options, along with antique shops, art and craft galleries and museums, wineries and lots of tempting cafes, restaurants, pubs and taverns. In Maleny, there’s even Maleny Lane, literally a lane-turned-dining enclave lined with street food stalls offering international food.

For the more adventurous, there are plenty of country drives through the undulating landscape, as well as walks, including the 54-kilometre “Great Walk”, with its challenging steep climbs rewarded by pristine bushland, vocal wildlife, and stunning views.

The Night Parrot

The Night Parrot, Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival, 2022. Photo © Barry Alsop Eyes Wide Open Images

The Maleny Community Hall was the venue for the first concert, titled The Night Parrot, (also the title of the main work in the program) preceded by a fascinating scene-setting pre-concert conversation about the main work, held in the CWA meeting room next door.

Both were presented in collaboration with the Maleny Arts Council. The council’s co-project manager, Claire Booth, a former QSO CEO, facilitated the conversation with the composer of The Night Parrot, Jessica Wells, along with the video designer Craig Wilkinson and Ken Cross (a self-styled “twitcher”) from Birdlife Australia.

The Maleny Community Hall has occupied its site for over 110 years, with the current building constructed in 1955 after the original burnt down in 1951. The Hall boasts state-of-the-art technical elements for both theatre and film, but its large-scale entry door is its “jewel in the crown”. An impressive piece of art, it comprises a beautiful, polished timber construction featuring carvings of tree trunks emulating the bush.

The capacity audience in this 250-seat hall was buzzing in anticipation of the 90-minute concert, themed on birds, seemingly of just about every feather, which was enabled by an Australian Government grant of $22,000 made last year through Regional Arts Australia.

Their buzzing anticipation was rewarded amply with a warm welcome from the traditional custodians, the Jinibara, and their coastal neighbours, the Kabi Kabi, followed by performances in the first half of half a dozen songs by a local ensemble of six women, Sirin Vocal Ensemble.

Unaccompanied in all but the last song, their lovely harmonies, rich tone, true pitch and pure vocal lines took the audience on a journey through many musical styles, from traditional spiritual, through ancient Georgian chant, Gaelic and Pagan folk songs and even Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

The second half featured the Acacia Quartet and soprano Morgan England-Jones, who presented an equally diverse program of bird-themed works by Australian composers, John Spence, Colin Brumby, Alfred Hill, Alan Tregaskis and Sally Whitwell. All the works, except Whitwell’s, were arranged for voice and string quartet. Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending also crept into the program, getting its second airing at the festival, this time arranged for string quartet.

The ensemble’s assured and graceful performances of these engaging works led beautifully into the headline work, Jessica Wells’ The Night Parrot. This was the work’s third performance, all of them given in Queensland.

The Night Parrot, an elusive nocturnal Australian native, described by Ken Cross as “like a fat little budgie” was thought extinct for close to a century due to hunting and collecting for Victorian English upper-class collectors. Miraculously, it survived and now is growing in numbers in Spinifex Country, in a reserve in outback Queensland.

The Night Parrot tells the story, in sung and spoken word, of this intriguing and mysterious little bird. Wells’ father, Jeff, had undertaken extensive research on the bird’s history and habitat and wrote a poem in the style of a bush ballad. Wells set the poetry to music.

Wells’ composition is in 11 short movements and is evocative of the outback and the highs and lows the species has experienced over the past 130 years. But even under the more disturbing elements, the music arouses hope for the bird’s future, especially exclaimed in its calls, which Wells has captured superbly in her writing.

The audience was held spellbound throughout by the ensemble’s sensitive interpretation, enhanced even more by stunning video art, created by Craig Wilkinson to illustrate each movement. A sustained standing ovation was the reward for the composer, lyricist, video designer and musicians. The Night Parrot surely will become an icon of the Australian music canon and find its way into concert programs around the country and overseas.

I was unable to attend the Long Table Lunch, held the next day, but it is worth mentioning, as it saw festivalgoers heading back up into the hinterland at Maleny, just a leisurely 40-minute drive from the heart of Mooloolaba. The program described the three-hour extravaganza thus: “Putting the ‘feast’ back into festival, the Long Table Lunch [brought] together the culinary and performing arts, combining delicious produce from the Sunshine Coast region with the captivating music of [vocalist] Melissa Western and [violinist] Shenzo Gregorio.”

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Guillaume and Mizusa Wang performing at the Sunset Series, Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival, 2022. Photo © Barry Alsop Eyes Wide Open Images

Although the Sunshine Coast did not turn on one of its more spectacular sunsets, the 13th-floor private penthouse venue at Maroochydore for the concert titled Sunset Salon did offer stunning views, through soaring two-storey windows, of the coastline across to Point Cartwright, the imposing headland at the mouth of the Mooloolah River.

Sunset Salon was devised to take chamber music back to its roots, with intimate audiences in drawing rooms. Powdered wigs aside, the 40-strong audience was treated to drinks beforehand, and refreshments after the concert. In between, four musicians gave a memorable concert, again featuring a wide range of composers.

The concert began with Chris Williams playing a short piece for solo didgeridoo. The deep-toned resonant instrument produced some thrilling sounds at the lips of this virtuoso performer. But, in a programming sense, it was a little out of context with the rest of the first half of the concert.

Reminiscing chamber music traditions, cellist Guillaume Wang and pianist Mizusa (“Mimi”) Wang, gave lovely gentle accounts of music by the likes of Scriabin, Villa-Lobos and Debussy, and even Charlie Chaplin. Guillaume’s thoughtful playing drew liquid-smooth tones from his beautiful instrument. It is no wonder he is sought after the world over.

Guillaume and Williams opened the second half of the concert with Ross Edwards’ Water Spirit Song. Originally intended for Koto, but later arranged for a variety of solo and ensemble instruments, this one bought the serene Japanese influences right back to Australia.

Two items by Wang with husband cellist, Kejia Wang (Guillaume is their son) preceded the finale – and show-stopper – by Williams and Guillaume, the Lamentatio, by living Italian composer, Giovanni Sollima. Written for solo cello, the slow lament at the beginning soon gives way to a frenetic, virtuosic, driving rhythm, eventually fading out to nothing. Williams’ didgeridoo fitted the themes perfectly, even as he, towards the end and still playing, left the performance space, disappeared down a hallway and up a flight of stairs to an upstairs internal balcony just in time for the final notes. Whoops and whistles and a standing ovation were the result.

Later the same evening, it was up to the top of Buderim, originally the home of the Buderim Ginger Factory, now located a short drive north, at Yandina. The factory is a major tourist destination with lots of attractions suitable for the whole family, and, of course, the all-too-necessary ginger shop.

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Orava Quartet, Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival, 2022. Photo © Barry Alsop Eyes Wide Open Images

While there was no ginger at the Buderim War Memorial Hall, there was plenty of spice in a testosterone-charged concert by the Orava Quartet. The 90-minute performance of 20th-century works was given in the round, surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of candles and supported by imaginative theatrical lighting design.

But it was not bull-at-a-gate testosterone; it was exceptional musicality, supported by abundant energy in a demanding program, and delivered with intensity, precision and incredible teamwork.

These four young men have taken the string quartet configuration, given it better than a good shake, and thrown the boundaries away. Their performance was nothing short of brilliant, delivering an edge-of-the-seat experience for the audience. It was, without doubt, a highlight of the festival.

Of course, if there was nothing else to do on the last day of the festival and before the closing concert, one could visit Australia Zoo, or Sea Life, or the Air Museum or some of the many galleries and museums. There are also lots of produce markets to visit around the region. Even just a walk along one of the beaches and lunch in a beachside café would help to relax the soul.

The closing concert was given at the Buderim Sound Shell, in an attractive park just across the road from the Buderim War Memorial Hall. The Buderim Sound Shell is an impressive structure and was an excellent, if a little cool, venue for an engaging and moving closer.

The Sunshine Coast is home to the Kabi Kabi people, and one of their Elders, Aunty Helena Gulash, graciously agreed to join the festival’s production team as the First Nations Program Creative Director. It was she who devised and directed the closing concert, titled Singing Up Country.

She brought together a company of musicians, singers and dancers, both local and from far and wide, including WA and the Torres Strait, to present a very special and moving concert to close the festival. She chose Topology to be the support band.

Aunty Helena is wonderfully articulate and opened the concert with a short talk on how it all came about and what it set out to achieve. In essence the plan was to tell the First Nations story from the time the Europeans arrived.

The Welcome to Country was moving in itself. Far from the usual approach of a speech, or even a smoking ceremony, it was a joyous greeting in songs and dances that flung open the doors and invited the audience into, as one artist put it: “Music, songs and stories that celebrate identity”.

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Singing Up Country, Sunshine Coast Chamber Music Festival, 2022. Photo © Barry Alsop Eyes Wide Open Images

Then the many artists presented songs and stories that celebrate love, acknowledge maltreatment, including at the notorious Palm Island, and look to the future.

There was humour too. One artist – a Kabi Kabi man – explained some of the seasons of the Sunshine Coast and that, “right now”, we can expect rain. He said that low-flying black cockatoos with a special cry for the season, “warn of coming rain”. He told the audience that he saw four low-flying black cockatoos crying that special cry that very day. The audience groaned. Indeed, there was a localised shower of rain in the middle of the day and another in the early part of the evening! (We didn’t get it at the park.)

Throughout the concert there were images of First Nations art projected to the screen at the rear of the stage. They were beautiful images that enhanced every performance. And a shout-out to the sound design team. Outdoor performances are always difficult challenges for getting the sound right. This team got it right.

As a white person, I felt privileged to be invited into the personal lives of the performers, and to hear their stories and songs, many of which came from personal experience or connections, and to understand a little more of what First Nations people have gone through over the past 250 years. That privilege was driven by songs and stories that were not confrontational or accusing; they just presented the factual history and spoke of the impact in a sensitive, forgiving way, always with a steady and positive eye on the future.

I was in tears as I left that most extraordinary concert, which concluded a festival that, even over just one weekend across only a handful of concerts, created and delivered lots more than the sum of the parts. It was clear that the festival’s Artistic Director Lynne Bradley succeeded, and it was clear that the festival committee had, indeed, punched well above its weight.

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