“We can do hard things” Chris Howlett proudly announced as he and his equally excited and energetic co-director Howard Penny welcomed the audience to the elegant, historic Capital Theatre for the opening of the third Bendigo Chamber Music Festival. “We squeezed a festival in between lockdowns” (in 2021), and with a committed team of local residents, partners, volunteers and dedicated problem solvers, preparations for this year’s event have shown that “miracles often do happen before the music starts”. When machinery malfunctioned, Bendigo’s human spirit and muscle power lifted the Kawai grand piano up the stairs and on to the stage, problem solved, and at two days’ notice, with two artists unable to attend, concertmaster of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Haveron came in as a replacement for Sulki Yu, with violinist Rachael Beesley replacing Grace Clifford, saving the day to generously complete an exciting team of musicians. Miracles do happen in Bendigo.
In this historic venue, the elegant stage setting provided a warmly satisfying view, with Donald Nicholson’s harpsichord adding a festive Baroque presence. With sell-out live concerts, hundreds of viewers also engaged with this festival, thanks to 5stream and Australian Digital Concert Hall, supporting the vision of Penny and Howlett to make BCMF a world class festival.
A robust and stormy secular three-part cantata, Aria-Recitative-Alleluia, by Vivaldi opened the program. In Furore Iustissimae Irae – “’Righteous Rage’: we’re here we mean business” said Howard Penny – featured soprano Chloe Lankshear with string orchestra and continuo in a colourful and dramatic performance. Assertive, authoritative, with some touches of pathos, the ensemble delivered true Baroque expression in sophisticated cadences, detailed dynamics and phrasing and effectively timed silences. Lankshear has an impressive rich, golden tone, and she showed most sensitive and sweet vocal work in a lyrical Recitative accompanied by empathetic, lightly textured violin accompaniment. In the Alleluia, ascending vocal lines showed Lankshear’s voice to be a truly broad-toned and exciting instrument, contrasting joyfully with the strings, but producing however a very fluid text. This was a fine festival opening. And the stage setting had a great look!
Saint-Saens’ Septet in Eb, Op 65, written for an unusual combination of instruments, reveals a simplicity and a popular Parisienne charm in a four-movement, almost neo-classical form. The exuberant and joyful trumpet of David Elton added theatrical colour and bonhomie to the ensemble, with ascending waves of arpeggios from Daniel de Borah (piano) adding fresh spirit to the many introductory ideas in the Preamble. The central section of Minuet became a buoyant Romantic orchestral waltz with sweeping melodic themes and theatrical gestures, the Minuet section itself retaining simple classical rhythms, but French orchestral timbres. A gorgeous cello solo opened the third Movement, Intermede, leading individual instruments and piano to express long statements combining in colourful portraits of romantic sound. It was the final Gavotte which featured shining running passages on the piano, skipping strings, and light trumpet patterns – quasi Fanfares – with each major section accelerating into the homeward run. We felt that all was completely happy in the world!
This Gala concert was remarkable for its inclusion of the core team of Festival musicians in a program of very different and exciting works. With Dvorak’s compositions featuring in some BCMF events, his second Piano Quartet in Eb Op 87 was a well-placed finale. Pianist Amir Farid joined string trio Sophie Rowell, Tobias Breider and Howard Penny for a spirited and complete expression of Dvorak’s brilliant solo writing, expressive lyricism, and original folk-dance elements. In his pre-concert welcome, Howard Penny expressed his delight at performing chamber music again for the first time in twelve months, but tonight the Lento second movement in particular gave the cellist a particularly expressive and melancholic solo. The Finale showed this ensemble to be an exemplary team of world-class Australian musicians performing Dvorak’s masterpiece with flair, passion, strength and superb musicianship.
The satisfaction and warmth of the highly responsive audience reflected the popularity and success of this beautifully designed gala program.
Julie McErlain reviewed Bendigo Chamber Music Festival’s Opening Gala – Summer Nights Series, streamed live from the Capital Theatre by Australian Digital Concert Hall on February 2, 2022.