BY GILLIAN WILLS
Australian Festival of Chamber Music
Townsville, July 29-August 6
Stars in their own right, a quartet of women made a remarkable contribution to Townsville’s recent Australian Festival of Chamber Music. British violinist Tasmin Little, double bassist Kirsty McCahon, classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, and soprano Valda Wilson wowed the festival’s cosmopolitan, savvy audience.
If I were forced choose the stand-out contributor, it would be Wilson, who gave many performances championing diverse works by Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Shostakovich to Australian composers Paul Stanhope and Jennifer Fowler, which she executed with riveting intensity. Two days before the Farewell Concert, she had survived a staggering 45 rehearsals.
Wilson’s instrument is amazingly versatile. Whatever she sings is imbued with a palette of fresh colour and her deliveries exude a penetrating insight, which makes her riveting to listen to. Highlights included Paul Stanhope’s atmospheric Three Lorca Songs in the opening concert and Shostakovich’s edgy and emotive Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok in the very last. In the latter, she soared in theatrical peaks, shrank into an anguished whisper but always with such intensity, the audience’s applause exploded after the sound melted away. A woman walked up to Wilson at interval, ‘visibly shaken and teary’ and the pair hugged.
Little, like Wilson, performed in some of the festival’s trickier settings including the al fresco concert in Queens Gardens in front of 4000 people, who were sitting on camping chairs or spread-eagled on rugs. It wasn’t the easiest of acoustics to manage on the open-air stage, supported by a well meaning Barrier Reef Orchestra, nor an easy crowd to win over but she bravely and persuasively soloed in Vivaldi’s Concerto in E, RV 269 from The Four Seasons with all the chutzpah and prowess worthy of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Little generously partnered pianist Andrey Gugnin, the winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition, in an infectiously dramatic reading of Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata but the crowd’s ears were inevitably tuned in to Gugnin, who would go on to give a solo recital, rather than the astonishing virtuosity essayed on the violin.
The most rewarding of Little’s many appearances were in a duo with pianist Piers Lane, because then her gorgeous tone, exquisite phrasing and compelling voice were exposed. These pieces included Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, Lloyd-Webber’s The Gardens at Eastwell and Monti’s Csardas.
McCahon played in the Opening Concert’s rendering of Schubert’s Trout quintet. An obvious favourite with the audience, it featured Little and Finghin Collins channelling the darting, bubbly ‘trout’ tune. With Paul Silverthorne on viola and cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, McCahon provided a richly nuanced bass. Her supportive bass graced many works including the Bach Cantata No. 82 Ich habe genug BWV82 in the Ray Golding Sunset Series Concert, Bach by Candlelight.
In the airing of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with soloist Sa Chen, the arrangement of the orchestral part for chamber ensemble played by Goldner Quartet was troubled and stiff. McCahon was listening so hard to support Chen, she was ‘almost sitting inside the piano’. Sa Chen’s playing was fluid, stretchy, sure-fingered, and heartfelt and travelled the geography of the keys at Olympian speed but was at odds with the awkward orchestral reduction through no fault of her own.
Audiences expect McCahon to excel in underpinning ensembles; until recently, she was the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Principal Bass, a position she held for 20 years. But it will be her scorching take on Berio’s Psy, which revealed striking bass effects, for which she will be remembered. Someone post performance told her: ‘You rocked!’.
Classical guitarist Karin Schaupp with actor director Tama Matheson presented Don Juan; a crisp, gripping, music-cum-theatre piece illustrating the life of Byron as well as his epic poem Don Juan. Matheson was wonderfully arch, vulnerable and funny as Byron, his acting laser sharp. Schaupp and Matheson have a productive rapport. This compact, gripping show in which Schaupp travels with precision and aplomb through a swathe of challenging solos with a Spanish flavor, and acts convincingly in cameo roles, must be one of this year’s stunning highlights.
There were women composers threaded through the program (not enough, admittedly), but Australians Elena Kats-Chernin, Miriam Hyde and Jennifer Fowler’s music and the British Madeleine Dring’s made a strong impact.
Gillian is the author of Elvis and Me: How a world-weary musician and a broken ex-racehorse rescued each other, available through Finch Publishing.