The Port Fairy Spring Music Festival began its 30th Year with all the stops pulled out to celebrate new horizons and a brave new world of fine music under the new direction of Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos. At first glance, the weekend of October 13-15 offered another stimulating and inventive program which has had a “Sold Out” sign on almost every festival event year after year. The intimate venues in this bright and unique coastal community welcomes the outstanding visiting artists, and this year’s event seemed to pay homage to strings, piano and voice. A second read showed a highly conceptualised theme of “Emergence” and “New Beginnings”, origins and growth, World Premier performances, and a refreshing, spiritually engaging, commitment to new journeys in music performance.
With a Friday night opening Gala performance in a packed Reardon Theatre, some fine music lovers may have expected bright festivity, and so the quiet emergence of Cassamenos walking in silence to the grand piano to begin at the beginning, with the First of the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Messiaen) with its slow, soft and deep chord clusters and high bell-like octaves, was a sensitive, profound and serious moment of solitude and wonder. Timeless. Curro emerged to develop the melodic, sumptuous conversation in the Adagio molto expressivo 2nd movement from Spring Sonata Op24. (Beethoven). Joined by cellist Michael Dahlenburg, Ravel’s Piano Trio allowed the sonorities to grow further as harmonics, double stopped trills and changing time signatures added the dramatic contrast of extreme pitch ranges in this technically advanced work. Wiradjuri soprano Shauntai Batzke’s new artistic compositions were a feature of both the opening and closing concerts in this year’s Festival, showing a colourful and gentle panorama of vocalising and Aboriginal languages, balancing both simplicity and denser chordal textures. Cultural strength, simple beauty, peace and harmony emerged. The unifying elements of this seemingly disparate opening program spoke clearly. Thought provoking.
There was a wide choice for lovers of fresh young string players. The exciting, ethereal and inventive Adelaide Zephyr quartet performed original works, the Orava Quartet performed a culturally diverse program – (Kats-Chernin, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Kilar) and were later joined by Stefan Cassomenos for the contrasting genres La Creation du Monde (Milhaud) and Piano Quintet Op 44 (Schumann). With music by Beethoven, Gesualdo, Part and Ligeti, the Partridge Quartet showed they can bring works from any era to new life. In the beautiful St John’s Church, they performed two more programs being two cycles of Richard Mills String Quartets. This energetic composer was very present at the festival as composer, conductor, part entertainer and supportive audience member.
Artistic Director Monica Curro is dedicated to promoting women composers in music making, and so we saw many contemporary compositions by women in several of the 28 listed events in the festival. One such tribute was the tribute to publisher Louise Hanson-Dyer, with works by Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Margaret Sutherland performed by mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd and pianist Caroline Almonte. Caroline demonstrated exceptionally sympathetic and intuitive accompanying for the gorgeous soprano Lee Abrahmsen in a delectable late night “Parisienne soiree” in a finely contrasted program of art-songs by Poulenc and Debussy. The inclusion of a glass of wine as a warming treat for the audience was most welcome, and we were fully enticed by Abrahmsen’s rich, full-bodied voice and expression, bell-like notes and crystal clear diction. Most charming and musically sensitive.
The Drill Hall was fully booked out twice for Lunch with soprano, and more recently, broadcaster Greta Bradman, and for the night owls and jazz lovers who relaxed to the endearing and tasteful creative lines of jazz singer Michelle Nicolle. With a wide vocal range and imaginative phrasing, and a very cool backing group of drums, bass and guitar, her ballads were very pleasant, warm and sensitive. The improvisations were smooth, safe and secure, totally contrasting with the more avant-garde free style of jazz trio Trichotomy Twenty.
The new artistic directors masterminded an increase in community events this year. The brilliant animated films Magic Piano and Chopin Shorts were a fantastic free event for local school children. Again, there were no empty seats for the two Friday daytime sessions, and the students were totally enthralled in the magic of the screen and the live performance of Chopin’s Etudes by pianist Yigun Gu. The synchronisation of the action with the storm and calm of Chopin’s score was simply thrilling and engaging for young and old. The annual inclusion of the Pop-Up recital space with a Grand Piano in The Hub café always provides a relaxed venue for all comers to meet, mingle and make music and Piano masterclasses again were highly welcomed by local students. Another surprise free event was the addition of Words about Music – two lunchtime interviews with the Festival guest, brilliant author and musicologist Paul Kildea by Monica Curro. Their interaction was most welcome.
The new directors described the Saturday night Gala concert as “the jewel in the crown” in the Festival. With the renovated Southcombe Park Stadium offering a surprisingly good acoustic (with much credit going to the annual expert technical crew), 150 performers from the Western Region’s community orchestras and choirs teamed with professional visiting artists and soloists to perform a dynamic Orff O Fortuna, Beethoven 9th Symphony (4th Mov’t), and Cassomenos In the Beginning. All rehearsed and conducted by the magnificent amiable Richard Mills.
In this venue Sunday’s closing Gala concert, we heard a hugely colourful premier of a second New Work by Shauntai Batzke before the extraordinary and dramatic Song of The Earth (Mahler) with huge “sing” by Lian Keegan and James Egglestone and an exceptional chamber ensemble of shining soloists and sparkling celeste.
My festival highlight has to be the showpiece of near perfection by cellist Michael Dahlenburg and pianist Stefan Cassomenos, whose Schumann Five Pieces Op 102 and Grieg’s Sonata in A minor were exceptional in every technical detail and passionate expression. Our hearts and souls were moved and enriched by this magnificent music.
Julie McErlain attended much (but not all) of the Festival to give this overview for Classic Melbourne; we admire her stamina. We also applaud the vision of Curro, Cassomenos and Mills, for creating between the three of them such a memorable festival.