The mail today contained a circular letter from Nicky Stevens of Huntington Estate Wines. Nicky, this year, bore the full load of the non musical side of the Huntington Estate Music Festival, her ever-enthusiastic husband being indisposed. Given the foul weather, there may have been some grumbles expected about logistics and feeding the multitudes. In the event she and her staff performed admirably and delivered a fine and enjoyable festival. So were there some complaints? It seems, yes. The letter states “the team at Musica Viva and I have received some concerning feedback about the musical program…” .
Given that it is virtually impossible to please even two or three music lovers gathered around Classic FM (see the discussion on Twitter about the 20th Century Top 100, for example), there will always be some muttering around festival traps. Not really worthy of mention, you would think. The audience are predominantly white anglo-saxons of a certain age and one would have thought some polite forbearance would be forthcoming. Maybe it was all expended on the weather patterns, leaving nothing for the music. The complaints must have been loud to warrant prompting a letter and accompanying survey.
Was there anything seriously wrong with the program as presented? Not in your correspondent’s view, more of which later. If there was a fault it lay entirely in the selection of artists, or in particular one ensemble. It is somewhat surprising for a presenter of the stature of Musica Viva that they can, from time to time, get their string quartet selection wrong. The Navarra was not up to scratch in 2009, the T’ang (2008?) only passable, while the Dutch quartet at the first MVA Huntington was, in somewhat hazy recollection, less than exciting. This year the selection of the Aroha Quartet from New Zealand was a particularly egregious failure. Not so much in their performances of Chinese works by Tan Dun and A Ke Jian (the quartet being three quarters Chinese New Zealand in make up), but in their playing of two standard repertoire pieces, Borodin Quartet No 2 and Beethoven’s Op 18 No 1. In his review of the festival, only part of which he attended, Roger Covell damned with faint praise, referring particularly to problems with intonation. Just as well Professor Covell did not hear the Borodin. The intonation was, in this case, nothing short of atrocious, while the quartet made nothing of the glorious melodiousness of the piece. The work, it should be noted, is generally considered to be “not very difficult”. A student quartet from the Australian National Academy of Music would have done better. One can only assume the guys at MVA had never heard the Aroha in the flesh. Perhaps they owed Chamber Music New Zealand a favour. Or just perhaps they relied on a recording of the quartet and didn’t bother to check with any of the many people in New Zealand who could have advised them appropriately.
Leaving aside the Goldner Quartet, Australia has at least three other, far better, quartets to choose from. (The Australian String Quartet was already taking part.) The problem for MVA, one must presume, is that these quartets (Flinders, Hopkins and Tin Alley) all hail from Melbourne and five players across the three quartets hold concert-master or principal positions in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or Orchestra Victoria. November is a very busy month for both orchestras, so scheduling in a festival by any of the quartets is rather difficult. Patrons can rest somewhat easy as at least two fine quartets are again programmed for 2012, in the Enso Quartet (from the USA), and the “new” Australian String Quartet. Of course the “new” ASQ has yet to perform publicly together, but the pedigrees of the new first violin (Kristian Winther) and violist (Steven King) are such that there is no real risk.
So, to the presumed programming complaints which were levelled at the MVA team. Your correspondent has some idea of the supposed issues as a result of an Ancient Mariner (or rather Wedding Guest) experience at the festival this year. Immediately after the final concert, a luncheon table had been prepared where a glass of good red wine awaited. Out of the shadows loomed the Ancient Mariner, to buttonhole your correspondent. The Ancient Mariner, one of those white anglo-saxon males of a certain age, proceeded to unburden himself: “What did you think of the programs?” “I don’t come to this festival to hear that sort of music”; “I know a lot of people who have complained already”. Like the Wedding Guest, JohnofOz had “heard the loud bassoon”, or, rather, was possessed of a great thirst (which had of course been a problem for the real Ancient Mariner). Beating his breast, he murmured that he did not have a problem with the human voice, nor with hearing Noel Coward songs on a Sunday morning, or even Roses of Picardy, when they are sung so delightfully by musicians of the calibre of the Adelaide Chamber Singers and Thomas Meglioranza.
Not said was that, when last checked, the name of the Festival was the Huntington Estate Music Festival. No mention there of “classical music” or any other limiting definition. What most patrons would expect, one would have thought, would be “good music”. Certainly that is what they got, and apart from the exception mentioned earlier, all particularly well delivered. That, surely should be enough.
The 2012 festival, it is promised, will “be weighted more towards works from earlier times”. This is a broad expanse: Elizabeathan? Baroque? Classical? Romantic? Presumably not too much of that dreadful modern stuff. One wouldn’t want to frighten the donkeys.