The challenge of reviewing a music festival is daunting: so many concerts, so many players. And then of course there’s so much wine and fellowship – not conducive to reasoned debate and scholarship. But then your correspondent has always left the learned discussions to the experts. Here you will get the personal reflections of a dilettante. FWIW, if you will.
Last Sunday saw the end of the 29thHuntington Estate Music Festival. Its illustrious past embraces the Australian Chamber Orchestra years, and then the Musica Viva era. Different in so many ways but one thing has remained constant: an intensely personal touch which leaves the audiences and musicians with a feeling of friendship and family which is particularly special. This year was no different.
The cold winds tried to cool the spirits this year. But musical and personal communication warmed the Barrel Room such that mere climate became irrelevant. Don’t stop the music!.
There were two particular threads to this year’s festival: a focus on English composers of the 20thcentury (Britten, Bliss, Bridge, Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Grainger) and a concentration on woodwinds, with clarinettist Sebastian Manz and oboist Juliana Koch performing a wide range of works. Of the two, Sebastian Manz was the performer with personality and strength who drove the high levels of excitement which we have come to expect from good music festivals. This is not to demean Koch, a fine oboist who performed with precision and care. Just she was less exciting a performer. Australian composers, both living and dead also received attention with Carl Vine allowing himself a brace of his own works, along with Roger Smalley, Nigel Westlake and Stuart Greenbaum. If the purists prefer to claim internationalist Percy Grainger as Australian, then he can be included here too. There is more on the two young Australian composers later. One of them is female which will hardly allay the concerns of those who demand more women composers in their programming. There were no other female composers featured during the festival. I suspect the happy audience didn’t notice.
The highlights of the festival were too numerous to detail, but some warrant particular mention. Amongst the necessary “tops of the pops” standards were the Weber Clarinet Quintet where Manz was joined by the Goldner String Quartet. While always a crowd pleaser, in this work Manz delivered a revelatory reading which owed much to his skills communicating new clarinet sounds and sensibilities to a, sometimes, jaded audience. (Did we really need “Death and the Maiden” again?) It was as if hearing Weber’s work for the first time. Manz, who as a young student was strongly influenced by Benny Goodman’s melding of classical and jazz, has clearly embraced the jazz idiom and incorporates it into his own, personal, interpretations. Then, later, it was educational to hear his Mozart Clarinet Quintet, again with the Goldner. It was a clear and precise rendition, without mannerisms, a performance which could not offend the most puritanical of musicologist. At most Manz allowed himself a couple of finely crafted ornaments in the slow movement. This was pure joy. Was the influence of Sabine Meyer on show? Perhaps. She taught Manz free for a year in his formative youth.
It would be remiss not to mention the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and String Orchestra by Alexandre Tansman, a Polish composer who lived mostly in Paris in the first half of the 20th Century. In this work a chamber orchestra of strings from the Australian National Academy of Music joined with Manz and Koch to deliver a resounding and joyful performance which displayed the soloists’ skill in both duet and conversation, as well as wild delight. Festival music at its best.
Artistic Director Carl Vine, whose final Huntington Festival will be in November 2019, programmed two premieres by young Australian composers. The first, “Interwoven”, a string quartet by Elizabeth Younan was a moving work in which differing musical ideas are interwoven to form a complex whole. The composer says the work finishes with a “rush of joy and hope”. The Orava Quartet delivered this with convincing style.
The second premiere, a string octet by Harry Sdraulig, was equally impressive. While an integrated work, there were elements of conversation, or interaction, between the two quartets which suggested to your correspondent that the players should better have been opposed rather than integrated as is the common practice for the better known octets. The work has some beautiful lyrical elements and wonderful moments for viola. It is a fine addition to the limited string octet repertoire, although not quite on the scale of those which are often selected as the big work to end events. It is salutary to observe that Musica Viva has been instrumental in encouraging the composition of at least three string octets, the others being from Jakub Jankowski and Nicole Murphy.
Soprano Taryn Fiebig played an important role at the festival. Her Schumann “Liederkreis” Op 39 was quite delightful, although could have been even better had her diction carried the German text through the hall. A German text alongside the English translation would have helped the audience. Similarly, the beautiful concept of Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs”, based on snippets written by medieval monks and nuns in the margins of religious manuscripts, would have been greatly enhanced had the audience been provided a text to illuminate their enjoyment. In the event a fine work was reduced to indifference. Taryn Fiebig’s unprogrammed intervention in which she accompanied herself on cello was also less than successful. She rendered three arias which lacked form and style, works which she clearly knew well, but failed to embrace while having to play her own accompaniment. Perhaps had she selected works written specifically for singing cellist this segment may have worked better (Gramata Cellam from Peteris Vasks, or Uluru Song from Martin Wesley-Smith come to mind).
Pianists were in abundance of course with Jayson Gillham, Amir Farid and Musica Viva Future Maker Aura Go all contributing to the overall program. Particularly noteworthy were Gillham’s performances of works by Stuart Greenbaum and Percy Grainger. Pure enjoyment. Amir Farid’s playing of the complex piano part in the Frank Bridge Piano Quintet, along with the Orava Quartet, was impeccable with fine articulation and sensitivity. He is a wonderful chamber musician.
There was of course much more. A musical feast accompanied by a feast of food and wine, delivered by a family with whom, over the years, many attendees have formed a fine bond. It is worth the drive to Mudgee. And next year will be the thirtieth anniversary, Carl Vine’s last as Artistic Director. Perhaps a good reason to come along?
Note: Artists for 2019 include: The Australian String Quartet; Arcadia Winds; Ian Munro; Goldner String Quartet and a world-famous violist. Further details to be announced.