Stunning end to an extraordinary festival

BY Clinton White
Appearing online 7 May 2017

Festival Finale-Canberra's Farewell to Arms, Fitters'Workshop, Sunday 7 May 6:30pm

 The Combined Festival Artists. Photo by Peter Hislop   

The Combined Festival Artists. Photo by Peter Hislop


A near-capacity audience was in, waiting in anticipation for this grand finale to the Canberra International Music Festival.

Three works were programmed, starting with Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Minor, op 59 no 2. It’s nicknamed “Razumovsky”, after the Count, who sponsored the world’s first professional string quartet and commissioned three suitably challenging works for it.

Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar String Quartet gave a nice account of the quite long work, in four movements. They played all the notes with well-defined expression and precision, but overall it lacked personality and spirit. In the last movement, marked presto, there was a loss of tonal clarity and the first violin had the occasional high-note pitch problem.

After the first interval, a totally contrasting piece was given its world premiere. Written by Hong Kong-based composer, Hing-yan Chan, “Double Happiness” is a charming, witty and humorous programmatic piece about the gastronomic traditions of a Hong Kong wedding. There’s everything from the whole roast suckling pig (signifying the bride’s virginity), to the winter-melon ring stuffed with whole scallop (signifying the curious presence of the groom’s ex-girlfriend).

 Roland Peelman conducting The Combined Festival Artists. Photo by Peter Hislop   

Roland Peelman conducting The Combined Festival Artists. Photo by Peter Hislop


Narrated by William Yang, the mainly western instruments created some quite convincing far-eastern sounds. The only traditional instrument was the sheng, a sort of mouth organ with pipes, played by Loo Sze-Wang. Roland Peelman conducted the piece in flamboyant style and precision, producing some fascinating sounds in this highly entertaining performance. The composer liked it, too.

The third offering was the work of Chinese-Australian composer, Julian Yu. He had taken Mussorgsky’s programmatic work, “Pictures at an Exhibition” and put it into a completely new light. Yu’s reworking was nothing short of brilliant, bringing it right up to date. Instead of promenading through a dimly-lit, musty and stuffy museum gallery, we might be doing the rounds of a light-filled exhibition of contemporary art. Yu has given the original, sometimes-ponderous, composition new freshness and vitality, packed full of vibrant new colours.

Peelman conducted an orchestra he called The Combined Festival Artists through this fantastic piece. He obviously had studied the score assiduously, for he knew its every detail and his conducting and the orchestra’s response showed it. Without doubt, this was a world-class performance. Even from the very back of the Fitters’ Workshop, the sound was beautifully balanced and dynamics brilliantly controlled, encircling the hushed audience from beginning to end.

A standing ovation, which continued until all the musicians had exited via the long centre aisle, was the reward for what was a stunning end to an extraordinary festival.