Jessica Duchen visits Townsville, Australia
When one of our suitcases failed to pitch up at Sydney Airport, I was superstitiously afraid it boded ill for the furthest-flung music festival that I’ve ever attended: the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) in Townsville, a good 24-hour journey from sunny ★eathrow. But, happily, no: the case arrived the next day, and soon, on the Queensland coast, we were joining some of the finest musicians in Australia and Europe amid a fiesta of sunshine, glittering sea and ‘Moreton Bay Bugs’ with garlic butter.
The AFCM, a long-established jewel in the Antipodean musical crown, has drafted in the British pianist Kathryn Stott as only its third new artistic director in 28 years, taking over from pianist Piers Lane. For her first festival she programmed an eclectic mix of repertoire – from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time to a brand-new work for marimba, bandoneon and sheng by Argentine musician JP Jofre and a startling version for trumpeter, three supporting trumpets and some bagpipes of Amazing Grace.
In a festival where most musicians are present throughout and perform numerous pieces, often with colleagues they’ve never met before, choosing the right performers is absolutely key. ‘★appy musicians make a happy festival,’ Stott declares. Still, it would be difficult not to be happy here: Townsville is a welcoming setting, big enough to be a thriving military and marine-focused town, but small enough to be easily traversed. Plentiful eateries include a splendid seafood bar and a friendly establishment that stays open late each night for the musicians and their
fans post-concert. In any free time you can walk by the sea in the tropical gardens, hire a car to explore the coast and its beaches, and soak up the extraordinary Australian sun. Just don’t go out without sunscreen.
Among the town’s assets is its proximity to tropical islands near the Great Barrier Reef. Magnetic Island, a 20-minute boat ride away, offers a nature reserve, walks and watersports galore. Two hours away is Orpheus Island – a festival outing ferried 200 concert-goers to a beach at its uninhabited end where they were entertained by the five musicians with the loudest portable instruments: two trumpets, clarinet, bandoneon and sheng; you could listen in your swimsuit from the warm shallows, or lie out on the sand.
Many festival-goers return year upon year, and I don’t blame them. You can attend events from morning to night. Kick-off is at 10am with Stott’s Concert Conversations – interviews with some of the musicians, who then present a short concert. At lunchtime, you can attend masterclasses of the Winterschool, the AFCM’S chamber music course for young musicians, directed by Pavel Fischer. The Sunset Series at 5pm provides a musical cocktail before the main evening event, when the day culminates in a programme themed around something like ‘Gypsies, Pipers and Dukes’ or a ‘Governor’s
Gala’. This year, the final night involved Roderick Williams as not only baritone but also composer and arranger, with a Magic Flute medley in which he and the Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg reprised their Royal Opera house roles as Papageno and Pamina, plus a version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony slow movement to be played by everyone, on everything. One night featured light music at a supper club; another found the artists testing alternative musical wings in a beer garden.
Some 110 pieces were on offer, including six world premieres and many more Australian premieres. Composer-inresidence Julian Yu was also a special and fascinating voice: in one extraordinary performance, the wonderful 19-yearold Australian violinist Grace Clifford performed his complex Passacaglia after Biber magnificently, from memory.
We also enjoyed a satisfyingly large quantity of music composed by women. Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio and works by Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger and Ethel Smyth were just the beginning. ‘I’m the first female director, so that made me look into a few other women composers and see what I could do,’ Stott says.
Personally I’ll never forget Stott herself with Alexander Sitkovetsky and the Goldner Quartet playing the Chausson Concert; Pavel Fischer’s astonishing String Quartet No. 3 inspired by the folk music of his native Moravia; or the stunning performances by the sheng virtuoso Wu Tong. And the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time was played with transcendental beauty by Sitkovetsky, Guy Johnston, Julian Bliss and Timothy Young. ‘The collective silence at the end was something I hadn’t experienced at the festival before,’ Stott says. ‘That was very special.’
But for her, the festival’s chief joy lies in bringing people together. ‘I could see some of them planning things for the future. Curiosity sparks and new friendships form,’ she says. ‘It’s such a collective experience – it wouldn’t have been the same without any single person there. Everybody made a difference. That’s what was so great.’
The AFCM takes place from 26 July to 4 August 2019 www.afcm.com.au
200 concert-goers went to a beach where they were entertained by five musicians
Sea pictures: cellist Julian Smiles, violinist Francesca Dego and bassoonist Jack Schiller take a stroll along the Townsville Strand
Lift off: percussionist Claire Edwardes at the 2018 first night
Briton abroad: Kathryn Stott is festival director