Rachel Bruerville experiences UKARIA 24

A festival at the UKARIA Cultural Centre



UKARIA Cultural Centre, 25-27 August


What’d you miss?

  • Iain Grandage winning as MC
  • A festival on the concert hall’s two-year anniversary
  • James Crabb bringing classical accordion into a ‘serious’ setting (and being theatrically slapped)


UKARIA Cultural Centre came alive over the weekend, from the Friday evening, to afternoon and dusk concerts on Saturday, to the final morning concert on Sunday 27 August. The four programs were cleverly curated by classical accordionist James Crabb. We were also gifted (in the words of Crabb) “the additional bonus of a thoroughly entertaining and highly knowledgeable MC” in the form of Iain Grandage. I felt myself incredibly fortunate to be able to witness two of these varied and refined programs.

On the agenda for my first afternoon experience was Bach, Scarlatti, Purcell, and Rameau. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites framed the program, beginning with a sensitive and beautiful performance by Julian Smiles of Suite No.2 in D minor. Classical guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski finished with the better known Suite No.1 in G Major, skilfully arranged by Stephen Snook. The intimacy of a (well-played!) classical guitar performance is a very special thing, and Tsiboulski most definitely proved this point with his fine musicality. The two sets of selected Scarlatti sonatas performed by pianist Stefan Cassomenos, then harpist Alice Giles, were simultaneously filled with energy and poise. It was demonstrated early on that these excellent chamber musicians are all excellent soloists in their own right.

The highlight of this Saturday afternoon program was the performance of soprano Emma Pearson. “She should also consider an acting career!” was a relevant comment made by an audience member seated behind me. It is such a great thing to witness a singer comfortably acting and moving about on stage with no sense of awkwardness, and at the same time never compromising vocal tone and technique. This was particularly evident in an amusingly choreographed presentation of Rameau’s Air de La Folie ‘Formons les plus brilliants concerts…’, Act II, Scene 5 of the opera Platée, featuring a theatrical slap of James Crabb’s bald head. I can only imagine the power and beauty that Pearson’s performance of a UKARIA centrepiece, Osvaldo Golijov’s rarely performed song cycle, Ayre, reportedly had that evening. (Check out our blog from young muso Lloyd Van’t Hoff, who performed in Ayre.)

The second concert I attended was the final Sunday morning concert, and what a spiritual Sunday morning it was (even for an atheist such as myself!). Sofia Gubaidulina’s Sieben Worte (Seven Words) draws on her experience as a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church. The seven movements are subtitled with the seven last words of Jesus on the cross; the music is full of powerful symbolism. Soloists Julian Smiles (cello) and James Crabb (classical accordion) represented the soul and the breath of Christ, respectively, backed up by the angels (strings) of the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Momentum Ensemble. The virtuosity of both soloists was on show, combined with the perfect, shimmering blend of the Momentum Ensemble. By the end of this flawless, emotional performance of one of the masterworks of the 20th Century (this so-called ‘difficult’ music), all on stage were visibly moved. Then, pairing Gubaidulina’s work with a chamber arrangement of Haydn’s final symphony – No. 104 in D Major – provided a much-needed lightness at the end of the program. It almost goes without saying that the Haydn was impeccably played by all. The stamina and versatility of all of these fantastic chamber musicians was clearly displayed.

Iain Grandage as MC deserves his own special mention. His enthusiasm for the music shone through every time he spoke. By giving short and informative introductions to each piece during the resetting of the stage, he served to bridge the gap between audience and performer, and never in a patronising way. Always what he had to say, and sometimes demonstrate on the piano, was useful, relevant, and entertaining.

Crabb as a performer also deserves his own special mention. I personally have never heard the accordion played in a ‘serious’ chamber music setting such as this, and Crabb really opened my ears. I was particularly intrigued by how well the accordion blends into many forms of ensemble textures – for example, a melody played in the high range of the accordion in unison with flute provides its own interesting and seamless tone. Crabb must also be commended once more for his inspired programming choices.

The impressive concert space at UKARIA is a young venue. Fittingly, 26 August marked the two-year anniversary of the opening of the concert hall. As Grandage so eloquently put: “Every concert that goes past seeps deeper into this wood”. And in the past two years, the hall has been infused with much high quality music. Perhaps it is the youth of the venue that means the word hasn’t quite spread to a younger, more diverse audience. The weekend had quite an exclusive feeling about it, and my thoughts are that a focus of the next year, leading up to the third UKARIA 24 flagship weekend (on the June 2018 long weekend – save the date!), ought to be on broadening the demographic of the audience. This year UKARIA offered a concession price as well as a cheaper student price, which is a great thing. Potentially to make the venue itself more accessible, a bus option could be investigated, or coordinated carpooling, as it is impossible to access UKARIA by public transport. The high quality music making of UKARIA 24 should reach far and wide; it deserves to be heard by all.


Image credit Dylan Henderson

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