What a bold and adventurous undertaking – holding a ten day International Music Festival with the absence of international musicians, but with artists from all over Australia offering a highly diverse program. The headline for the festival – “Canberra transformed by …the idea of Vienna”- was perhaps a tenuous signpost for this concert, which did open with Schubert Waltzes, but the acknowledgment too that “tango still rules in Buenos Aires”, and the inclusion of recent Australian compositions, made this appear to be a disparate hour of music. Staged in The Fitters Workshop, an historic arts and cultural space in the historic Kingston Arts Precinct, the audience of two hundred people added a high level of anticipation to the atmosphere. Sadly, there were no dancers.
In Schubert’s short life, he wrote over 450 short dances, more like occasional pieces, whose economy of writing and delightful melodic appeal was shown in Six Waltzes D145, brought to life by soloist Ronan Apcar on a very beautiful Bosendorfer grand piano. His was an artistic presentation with colourful, exaggerated contrasts, bringing an elegant, and at times flamboyant expression to these enjoyable miniatures. He sensitively controlled the momentum of the flowing Viennese waltz, highlighting the melody and symmetry of the young Schubert’s pleasing romantic waltzes.
Australian World Premieres are always highly anticipated and warmly welcomed. She Dances By the River Op 103 was a most introspective, almost programmatic, slow and searching work for strings and piano by Sydney’s Andrew Schultz. Beginning with gentle walking steps, we could see in our minds a solo dancer exploring freedom of movement, with gentle turns and evolving shapes as strings climbed upwards, then slowly descended as repetition rather than melodic development produced resolution and calmness. Variations in dynamics inspired more passion and energy in dance beats, defining sections and climaxes but returning to introspective movement.
A different colour and movement came with the combinations of instruments possible in the popular tango flavoured work The Three Dancers by Elena Kats-Chernin. Accordion player James Crabb joined strings introducing repetitive footfalls of the dance and the work gained impetus and flair with punctuation from percussive open chords on the piano (Sonya Lifschitz). This small dance orchestra produced some evocative movements as passionate and subtle descending glissandos appealed to our imagination. There was a rise in energy as soprano sax (James Nightingale) was joined by congas and chimes (Adam Jeffrey) reinforcing the traditional tango rhythm. The musical journey took us further to Paris as sax and five stringed double bass (Rohan Dasika) drew the dancers into a faster but elegant circular waltz. Dreamy, exotic sections continued to alternate with changing orchestrations, with an exciting finale driven to its close by a prominent bass drum.
Three pieces by Piazzolla, led by the centrally staged accordion master James Crabb, took us firmly to the atmosphere of Argentina’s seedy nightclubs. Vayamos al Diablo (Let’s Go to The Devil) commenced with the traditional percussive handclaps and tapping of instruments with solid pulse beats, increasing to a more complex weaving and overlapping of fiery dance rhythms and short sharp melodic riffs. The fragments grew into longer, sweeping and sliding chromaticism as the heat was stepped up, sensuous and slightly manic but under control.
Central to Oblivion were long drawn out haunting notes from the accordion, with a hint of a Spanish serenade almost lost in memory. Repeated notes on the piano added to the simplicity and melancholy of the work as the music dissolved into a blur of white noise and gentle non-pitched shadows. Written as an accompaniment to a play Tango del Angel, the final piece La Muerte del Angel (Death of An Angel) showed the essence of Piazzolla’s revolutionary style. The story of an angel, who tries to heal the broken human spirits in Buenos Aires and ends up dying in a fight, inspired Piazzolla’s musical reflection on hope, desire and resilience. Performers first slapped their instruments, hands clapped overlapping syncopated gypsy rhythms and the accordion led the street dance with free solo improvisation. A romantic jazz ballad style evolved into a typical Piazzolla trademark finale with a frenetic increase in tempo and an exciting close.
The audience loved it.
Julie McErlain reviewed Waltz to Tango, presented as part of Canberra International Music Festival, and streamed by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from The Fitters Workshop, Canberra on May 7, 2021.