Neilma Gantner, devoted diarist and prolific letter writer, and the daughter of a noted Australian philanthropist, seeded the idea for a festival that would bring “performing arts of the highest quality to Bermagui for the benefit of locals and tourists.” In the hands of its many artistic directors, the programming has favoured diversity, calling on all art forms to provide its fare. But throughout its history, classical music has held a central position.
In 2021, under the new stewardship of former Perth Festival director Lindy Hume, the classical music narrative continues. Resident Australian groups such as the Goldner String Quartet, the aspiring musicians of the Symphony Fellowship program, Finnish cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra performed in the annual three-day Easter gathering April 2-4.
The bucolic setting is both a visual treat and a relaxing respite for the audience. But this virtue is also its vice. The soundscape of bush birds and whistling gumtrees vies for the audience’s attention. For the musicians, there is special focus needed. It’s challenging to project the intimate nuances of chamber music in a conventional concert hall, so when there is a native bushland environment to compete with, the task becomes greater. Programming the right repertoire in this unique landscape requires keen acumen on the part of the artistic director. It was clear that Hume sought to make a statement for these pandemic times by programming contemplative music, but the musical choices in this setting required more body.
Performing outdoors, however, has long been a classical musician’s duty, and in this Covid era it’s common for musicians to find themselves playing al fresco.
On the first full day of the festival the longstanding Goldner String Quartet brought these themes forward with their finely tuned interpretations of works by Australian composers Ross Edwards and Matthew Hindson, Latvian mystic Pēteris Vasks, and Beethoven. Edwards’ White Cockatoo Spirit Dance is an iteration of a work that began its life for solo viola. The lithe music asks the listener to observe the repetitive and exuberant dance rhythms in nature. Edwards’ compositional language is indeed second nature to this quartet, so the performance seemed effortless.
Of all the Australian string quartets, the Goldner is probably the most European in style and execution. The playing does not give over to excessive displays of drama or unnecessary extroversion. It is elegant and thoughtful. Thus it was no surprise that the foursome discovered the right balance of composure and energy in Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3, agilely negotiating the work’s alternating chorale and folk-like idioms.
Likewise, in Beethoven’s String Quartet A minor, Op. 132, the Goldner connected the three chorales of the deeply spiritual slow movement — marked Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) — with a unified emotional thread. Written in the last two years of his life, the movement represents Beethoven’s most intimate writing. Given that this captivating music-making was achieved against the compelling and competitive bush landscape, the result was a remarkable one.
An after-lunch program spotlighted works by two current American star composers, Missy Mazzoli and Caroline Shaw. The members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellowship couldn’t quite capture the full spectrum of ebullience, detailed articulations, and subtlety of Mazzoli’s Ecstatic Science, an exacting piece that requires an equal dosage of soloistic virtuosity and refined chamber skills from each player.
But a string quartet from the same ensemble did justice to Shaw’s Entr’acte, a brilliant Technicolor post-modern minuet-and-trio homage to Haydn’s String Quartet in F, Op. 77, No. 2. The work is a stunner for audiences and musicians. Its brilliance lies in the way Shaw effortlessly transitions the colors and ranges of her thematic materials. The piece leaves you feeling so light and positive that you wish you could hear it again straight away.
The success of the performance was underpinned by sound engineer Jim Atkins, whose finesse allowed the music-making to sound almost as if it were in a concert hall.