Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

Jes­sica Duchen vis­its Townsville, Australia

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

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.’

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion:

The AFCM takes place from 26 July to 4 Au­gust 2019

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

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