The Port Fairy Spring music festival this year was all about memory. In some ways the Festival has had an element of nostalgia, especially since the untimely death of its founder Michael Easton 10 years ago. But this was not a gloomy 25th birthday, it was a festival that created new memories: of performers, or works played, and of the ambience of a festival blessed by spring sunshine.
Thanks to the wealth of performances on offer, and the impossibility of hearing them all, most people created their own festival, with diversity the key element. In its early days The Port Fairy Spring Music Festival was all about innovation and contemporary classical music. It was unique for its time and in 2014 some regretted that things had changed – but the general feeling seemed to be an acceptance of more mainstream performances, many of which also contained newer music.
The opening concert featuring Easton’s magnum opus A voice not stilled (in a chamber arrangement by Benjamin Martin) was a beacon for contemporary Australian music. But it was by no means the only nod to music of our times. In a number of concerts one or more of the items featured contemporary composers with some works commissioned especially by the ensembles performing them. As harpist Marshall McGuire said in his festival Lunch, (which revealed the harpist to be a memorable speaker as well as great exponent of his instrument): “We have to create new music today or we will have no old music tomorrow.”
Those who heard the Australian Premiere of Rick Ian Gordon’s song cycle Orpheus and Euridice (directed by Cameron Menzies) were excited by the work and the performance of Ensemble 13 – comprising soprano Alison Rae Jones, clarinettist Andrew Boyle and pianist Len Vorster. That Vorster was co-founder of the Festival added resonance (as did the artwork by Richard Webber that matched the 15 scenes of the song cycle).
A very different song cycle (in style, if not entirely in subject matter) from Gordon’s work was Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill). The program advised it was “a gripping recollection of frustrated love, charting its stages from hope to despair” and one would have to say that tenor Christopher Saunders left the audience in no doubt about what was happening, so intense was his acting as well as his singing.
At one hour 20 minutes, this was a demanding sing but Saunders’ rich voice always had power when he needed it, yet was tender, loving and lilting in contrast. Beautifully phrased and with a lovely tone, the vocal sound was matched by that of pianist Stefan Cassomenos, usually a soloist but on this occasion an accompanist in the best sense of that honourable profession. This was a partnership, but one that gave due deference to the singer, as the two balanced and complemented each other. Such a performance is not achieved without intensive rehearsal but more importantly a deep respect and sensitivity between musicians. It was a highlight of the Festival.
Christopher Saunders appeared again in a performance by Plexus Trio, (Monica Curro, violin, Philip Arkinstall, clarinet and Cassomenos) an ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary chamber music. Premiering 22 new works by the end of this year, Plexus Trio’s final work in its concert at Port Fairy was The End of Many Worlds for tenor, violin, clarinet and piano by Gordon Kerry. The piece is dedicated to the composer’s great-uncle John Kerry, who died in Flanders in 1917. Works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Debussy had given the Trio the opportunity to show each member’s prowess, but Kerry’s work was exactly the kind of music audiences hoped for from this Festival.
The tenor told the story (which included reference to the story of Stille Nacht coming from the enemy’s trenches). Violin and clarinet “commented” while the piano grounded the whole, and all carried the work through to the hugely dramatic last section, evoking the sounds and confusion of battle. In a year already filled with militaristic hype, this was a welcome honest and heartfelt musical account of the reality of war.
This was, however, a weekend of contrasts. Before the Festival proper began, local schoolchildren were reportedly delighted by singer Lauren Henderson with Seraphim Trio, in a program called Mother Chook’s Nursery Book. This comprised works by Ravel and the title work by Graeme Koehne with a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy. Adults were treated to Looking for Lawson, composer and pianist John Thorn’s tribute to the great Australian poet, with Mikelangelo and Emily Taheny giving voice to his works.
I was sorry to have missed Spontaneous Broadway, with Thorn as musical director and Russell Fletcher hosting what I was assured was a stylish and hilarious improvisation. Although I didn’t see Robyn Archer’s “Paris” show, I did catch a glimpse of the songstress in Paul Grabowsky’s cocktail hour – and not for the first time felt privileged to hear these stalwarts of jazz and theatre performance. Another highlight of the festival for me was L’invitation au Voyage, works by Chabrier, Poulenc and Debussy performed by duo pianists Roy Howat and Emily Kilpatrick. Most works were unfamiliar but were immediately charming, the two pianos having a resonance that lent brilliance to every note.
Sparkle of a different kind came in the final concert I heard, the self-explanatory Crabb and Lacey, in which accordionist James Crabb and Genevieve Lacey made the acoustics of St John’s Church ring with music from Ortiz, Palestrina and Bach through to Damian Barbeler’s Shadowbox and the crowd-pleasers that were Crabb’s arrangements of the traditional Mary Scott, the Flower of Yarrow and Cuckold Come out of the Amrey.
In summary: this was a very successful Festival, by all accounts. My only regret was not hearing more. I wondered if director Anna Goldsworthy might consider taking a leaf out of the “other” festival, the even-older Port Fairy Folk Festival, which usually allows more than one chance to hear artists by simply repeating a number of concerts. Perhaps the solution is to look for a longer stretch of time, such as Cup weekend, when some people could stay on for Monday and Tuesday and enjoy more of the great music we heard this year. I’d like to see that!
Picture of Helen Ayres by Aaron Sawall