Canberra International Music Festival: small-scale excellence

 Alice Giles, centre, with the Seven Harp Ensemble at the Canberra International Music Festival. Picture: Peter Hislop.

Alice Giles, centre, with the Seven Harp Ensemble at the Canberra International Music Festival. Picture: Peter Hislop.

The Australian
12:00AM May 9, 2018

Twenty-five years ago, a group of music lovers in Canberra banded together to stage a small-scale festival in embassies, small halls and their houses. This past fortnight, the Canberra International Music Festival has presented a program of astonishing breadth and high performance standards.

The statistics alone are impressive: 25 official events, about the same number of unofficial ones, more than 100 pieces of music performed by as many musicians including several from the US and Europe, and numerous premieres — all on a $600,000 budget.

For his third festival, conductor Roland Peelman constructed his program around the notion of “returns”: memories of journeys into places and music of the past, a return to themes and venues familiar in recent years.

Again, the Fitters Workshop, until recently a disbanded warehouse near the Kingston Markets, has been the CIMF’s home venue. Its crystal-clear acoustic is ideal for almost everything (except keyboard and percussion) and its 450-seat capacity perfect for a small-scale festival.

However, it was the larger-scale works that impressed many, particularly the near-authentic performances of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt and a batch of Bach cantatas, the stars of which were the Bach Akademie Australia led by Madeleine Easton. Roger Woodward gave two exhilarating concerts of Chopin and Debussy. Two string quartets, both products of the Sydney Conservatorium a decade apart, Orava and Pietra, gave splendidly fresh performances. New York-based fiddler Tim Fain drew gasps with his devilish lead in Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat and his solo role in Bernstein’s Serenade, a genuflection to Lenny in his centenary year. An hour-long concert in the Hall of Remembrance at the War Memorial seared the imagination. The most striking image and sonorous sounds came from the Seven Harp Ensemble, led by Alice Giles, on several occasions throughout the festival.

Amid the smattering of recent Australian music, several works by Mary Finsterer, this year’s composer-in-residence, afforded a rare view of the progress of a composer’s ethos across the past two decades, a journey from European-dominated modernism to Renaissance-inspired polyphony. In particular, her orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness (2009), inspired by the writings of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, drew out bleached colours and shadows in a coruscating 30-minute canvas.

Several European imports were presented in various guises. Ameri­can composer-flautist Ned Mc­Gow­an exhibited his prize piece of plumbing, the contrabass flute, and a concerto for iPad and computer sounds. Japanese fortepianist Keiko Shichijo captivated audiences with her Schubert and Beethoven. Harpist Benjamin Bagby told the medieval tale of Beowulf in the original old English. Mezzosoprano Kate Howden was the po-faced vocal narrator in a performance of Satie’s Socrate.

As it approaches its 25th year, the CIMF faces some challenges, not least the inadequacy of facilities at the Fitters Workshop, which urgently requires proper lighting, staging, artists rooms and toilets. Co-ordination of diaries would help: on two nights, scheduled concerts by the Canberra Symphony split audiences for both events. For the second year running, the Australian National University’s school of music was almost invisible, and the local Fair­fax press published no reviews.

Like many festivals, CIMF has experienced a rollercoaster ride. Its history is extraordinary, if only for its perseverance. It needs to be recorded in a book, alongside ­exhibitions, websites and revisitations of its accomplishments, notably the pieces commissioned each year.

The festival now attracts about 15 per cent of its audiences from outside the ACT region. Like the contributing national institutions, CIMF is part of the fabric of cultural tourism of our national capital. It is high time its local government responded with a birthday present worthy of the festival’s 25th anniversary.

Canberra International Music Festival, Fitters Workshop, Kingston, ACT, April 27-May 6.

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