It is not clear when the last locust plague hit Mudgee, site for the recently concluded Huntington Music Festival. But there is an unnerving similarity between festivalgoers and locusts as they mill around the platters of excellent pre-concert nibblies and devour everything in sight. All with a glass or two of wine, of course. But then the reasons for coming to festivals must vary. Is it for the music alone? Or perhaps the fellowship of a weekend away with a group of friends? What ever the reason, it is clear neither the music, food nor wine is incidental. So fail in any one of these departments and the organisers will be deluged with letters and emails from “Concerned of Vaucluse” and the like.
So what of the 2012 Huntington Estate Music Festival? Has a deluge of mail commenced? Who knows, but you correspondent suggests it to be unlikely that the whingeing from the 2011 festival will be repeated. The food, ranging from fresh oysters through home made pies, pates, pork and poached pears could not have evoked complaint. Nor the warm, sunny weather. The line up of outstanding talent could also have garnered nothing but praise, starting as it did with the gifted violinist Anthony Marwood, his brilliant pianist colleague Aleksander Madzar and an incredibly talented 20 year old clarinettist, Narek Arutyunian who astounded at every level of technical brilliance and musicianship.
So what of the programming? Were the issues which so disturbed some of the audience at last year’s festival in evidence? The answer is clearly no, although there was one bracket of cabaret songs from Fiona Campbell, included perhaps to cock a snook at those who complained last year. In a sense this was inspired programming, Fiona Campbell having such a glorious personality to match her voice. Equally inspired was to partner her with Andrea Lam, a wonderful classical pianist who was surely the Australian audience darling of the festival. In the event, though, Lam struggled a bit with the unusual task for her of playing with nightclub style. She acknowledged afterwards how hard it was to do all those things a classical pianist is trained not to do.
Artistic Director Carl Vine explained, perhaps for the first time, his model for Huntington programming. It is variety. There is no theme or direction either at the concert or festival level other than to have a series of works which contrast, the one with the other. This variety certainly provides an enjoyable concert experience: as Vine put it, two major works, themselves different in style, may be separated by an aural “amuse bouche”. This approach is probably appropriate for a general festival audience as there is definitely something for everybody.
Well, perhaps not everybody. The overall impression of the program was that is was designed to not offend. It was not in the least bit adventurous. There was no edge. Nothing to frighten the donkeys. No obeisance to Australian composers either, except for Carl Vine”s String Quartet No 4, the only 21st Century work in the whole festival. The cynics would suggest this inclusion was a deliberate marketing ploy to advertise Vine’s new collected string quartets album performed by the Goldner String Quartet. Be this as it may, your correspondent has a bit of a problem with artistic directors programming their own works unless there is some compelling artistic reason. Variety, given the extensive quartet repertoire, is not sufficient.
The most challenging work of the festival was, arguably, Peteris Vasks’ Violin Concerto, “Distant Light”. Vasks is not unknown to classical audiences here, having been an element of Australian Chamber Orchestra programming for some time. Indeed the ACO played “Distant Light” in 2005. The work was proposed, in this festival, by the soloist, Anthony Marwood, who says he was, as a violinist, significantly affected by the influence of Gidon Kremer whose autobiography was, in turn, a contributor to Vasks’ inspiration. Incredibly complex and moving, with indiscernible shifts in timing and mood, it was a credit to both Marwood’s skill and his confidence in the young players of the Chamber Orchestra of the Australian Academy of Music (ANAM) that the performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the festival: a remarkable and moving experience for all.
The festival opened with another highlight. Indeed in this case the whole first concert. The visiting American Enso Quartet provided a wonderful Haydn experience with a beautifully ornamented performance of the rarely heard Opus 20 No 2 quartet. This work was a game changer for the future of quartet writing. The unusual cello opening was delightfully played by the quartet’s New Zealand member, Richard Belcher, who produced a lovely tone throughout this and subsequent works on his Vuillaume cello. Following on was the first appearance of Fiona Campbell who won the audience’s heart with her rendition of Schumann’s moving “Frauenliebe und –leben”. Ian Munro provided sensitive accompaniment. The incredible theme restatement, on piano alone, which finishes this work was so movingly expressed that the audience seemed to gasp with emotion.
Clarinettist Narek Arutyunian’s first appearance was to give a sound and well phrased rendition of Brahms’ Sonata No 1. A serious young man he had at this first appearance not quite relaxed. But as he displayed his incredible dexterity and tonal colour in other, perhaps lesser, works such as the Sonata by Edison Denisov and a Spanish Caprice by Ivan Olenchik, he relaxed and was clearly another in the constellation of stars at the festival. His performance of the Poulenc Sonata was a dream come true. Ian Munro, who knows and loves the French idiom partnered in the Poulenc. His personal highlight was a remarkable performance of “Gaspard de la nuit”, Ravel’s tour de force that must make lesser pianists blanche. Munro also appeared in two duet works with Andrea Lam (Mozart Sonaata K521 and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances). He is known to enjoy playing duets, but even had this not been the case, the chance to play with a pianist with Ms Lam’s many attributes, pianistic and in personality, must have given great pleasure. The third pianist to deliver the goods for all was Anthony Marwood’s recital partner through Musica Viva’s final international touring season. Whenever he appeared, alone (Ravel’s “Miroirs”), with others (Mozart K449 with the ANAM Chamber Orchestra) his performances were impeccable. His skill as a partner is outstanding and should be an example to all young pianists who may consider a chamber ensemble career. He never overpowers, even in the most intense and powerful moments. His performance of the Dvorak Piano Quintet with the Enso Quartet was masterly. Overall, this performance was one of the high points of the festival.
Apart from their Haydn, the Enso Quartet also excelled in a highly disciplined, precise performance of Ginastera’s Quartet No 1. Taking much impetus from his native Argentina, Ginastera produced an intricate and sometimes explosive work reflecting many elements in the Argentinian makeup. It is clearly not an easy work to bring off, but bring it off the Enso did with commendable power and precision.
In the face of all this it would be easy to overlook the interventions of G3 (the Goldner Quartet less Dene Olding) and the Australian String Quartet. G3, together and individually as partners in various works, displayed their well respected skills. The work of Dimity Hall is of particular note. A fine violinist she displayed her skills admirably, bringing pleasure to those who see her more often in a subordinate role. (Yes, yes. Alright already. Your correspondent knows the second violin in a quartet is not “subordinate” in any way. As someone said: “they have to play everything the first violinist plays, and in a much more difficult register.”)
The Australian String Quartet delivered sound performances, particularly their Shostakovich Ninth Quartet. One year down the track their cohesion as a quartet is coming along nicely. First violinist Kristian Winther appears to have taken some stylistic decisions aimed at differentiating the new quartet from its predecessor. While this is admirable, there are some difficulties with a standing performance, particularly body movement which at times appears a bit incoherent. Similarly, a tendency to a bright, edgy, sometimes aggressive tone which lends itself to performances of contemporary works does not work well with romantic repertoire. This was particularly the case in a rather unsatisfying Schumann Piano Quintet performance, notwithstanding excellent piano work from Andrea Lam.
As suggested previously, the ANAM Chamber Orchestra deserves special mention. Mere students? Sure. Could they play? Sure. They had but a week rehearsal time with Anthony Marwood before taking on this professional gig. They delivered on every level. Their Vasks did not miss a beat (and believe your correspondent: beats are hard to find in “Distant Light”.) It was completely professional. Their tone in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was rich and pure. Their Bartok divertimento was disciplined and delivered with panache. They displayed attack and passion which they, hopefully, will carry over into their individual solo performances at ANAM and beyond.
The big finish, always, no doubt, a difficult decision for an artistic director, was a bit of an anti-climax. At least it was not yet another performance of the overworked Mendelssohn Octet. But in the event, Danish romantic Niels Gade’s Octet was just a charming work with little bite. Perhaps this is the lot of the string octet. There are about thirteen of them in the repertoire. But let’s keep trying the others. Maybe there is another great work out there. Shostakovich perhaps. Keep Mendelssohn for the very special occasions.
The Huntington Estate Music Festival will next take place from 20-24 November 2013. It will be another great experience. Try it.