Program hits highs, with few lows

BY Vincent Plush
Appearing in print and online 8 May 2017

Canberra International Music Festival, April 27 to May 7

Canberra in the early autumn is a blaze of colour, the perfect place and time for a music festival. Twenty-five years ago a band of local music lovers formed the Pro Musica Society to present concerts in their homes, halls, embassies and institutions.

Like he Aspen Institute in Colorado, the Canberra International Music Festival is an exploration of music and ideas. it is unique among the many smaller chamber music festival in this country. It could happen only in Canberra, the repository of our heritage and the portal of our relations with the cultures of the world.

Under successive artistic directors - Nicole Canham, Christopher Latham and now Roland Peelman - Canberra's festival has moved from strength to strength. Last weekend it closed its 23rd season with more than two dozen events in 11 days.

In his 20-year stewardship of the Song Company, Peelman created programs of intellectual breadth and high performance standards. Those same qualities he has brought to his third CIMF.

Peelman's focus drew on the notion of revolution in world history and music.

The 500th anniversary of Lutheranism was observed in some uplifting performances by the Bach Akademie Australia, an impressive new Sydney-based ensemble directed by Madeleine Easton. Stirring renditions of Handel odes and Tallis-inspired music came from England. The French Revolution was represented by Mozart's French-influenced pieces performed by the youthful Van Kuijk Quartet from Paris. Rachmaninov and Shostakovich signified both sides of the Russian revolutionary divide, but where was Stravinsky? There was music also from China, principally the sunny music and personality of Chen Yi, this year's principal international composer-in-residence. Nothing, though, from the US, before or after the Trump revolution.

 Elena Kats-Chernin, left, and Tamara-Anna Cislowska. Photo by Peter Hislop

Elena Kats-Chernin, left, and Tamara-Anna Cislowska. Photo by Peter Hislop

My highlights included many local artists. The unbridled and unscripted hilarity between pianists Elena Kats-Chernin and Tamara-Anna Cislowska performing a brace of Russian Rags could earn them a place in comedy and cabaret festivals. At the National Gallery, Robert Davidson and Topology transformed prime ministerial speeches into music. The role of women in music was interrogated at the National Portrait Gallery. The revolution in education in "the Asian century" was dissected at Canberra Grammar School. At the National Museum, 19 composers created short pieces to accompany a rare showing of the Harvest of Endurance, a scroll given by China for the Bicentenary. In the glass-cathedral foyer of the new international airport, several ensembles did battle with airline announcements.

Almost all the national cultural institutions and many embassies contributed to the festival program. There were exhilarating performances from the Simon Bolivar String Quartet from cash-strapped Venezuela, and East-West fusion pieces from the Ding Yi Music Company from Singapore. Not unexpectedly, there were a few duds including the strange program of computer game music from the otherwise splendid Canberra Youth Orchestra.

Future festivals will surely address educational dimensions for its audiences, largely comprising agile retirees, thirsty for new experiences and information. The content of the program book needs to be addressed, likewise the staging of each presentation. Enhanced amenities around the Fitters Workshop are needed, and even a kind of festival club would be appreciated.

The CIMF relies on a unique but sometimes unsteady mix of government, institutional and diplomatic support, as well as an army of volunteers. But it must strive for more than mere survival.

With an estimated one in four patrons coming from outside Canberra, the festival is already a major cultural drawcard to the capital. It is now more than its brave founders could have hoped for a generation ago. It is an event of national significance: stimulating, provocative and deeply satisfying at so many levels.

Read the article online here.