Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adventure Two: Beethoven amid the breakers

Adventure Number Two was a thoroughly scheduled one. In fact, the Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival is partly responsible for my ending up in this part of the world. Last year – my first visit – I came to north to hear Paul play Haydn and, most particularly, his own original piano quintet, the delicious ‘To Cross the Bay’. This year, he was ‘taking it easy’, performing ‘only’ Beethoven and Britten. The particular charm of this Festival is that – amid a glorious ocean setting, and with a team of superlative international artists -- it gives you a chance to hear lesser-known (to me) music. I remember so fondly last year’s Frank Bridge.

 Anyway, that time of year came round again. Paul had been up at ‘Straddie’ for a week rehearsing and working with local students, so Veronica and Rod picked me up at Yamba and we headed the three hours north into Queensland. Very pretty drive. But unfortunately punctuated by volleys of sneezing from Kurt. Bloody hay fever.

We crossed by the ferry to the Island – it was lovely to be ‘at sea’ again, even if only for 40 minutes. The ocean was such a big part of my life and I miss it – and drove to the Samarinda apartments, where we had stayed last year. Comfortable enough, but the wifi and phone reception are horrendous. Never mind, we weren’t here for work but for the music.

 But on Friday night we had no music. Concert One had been sold out for months! Well, if one can’t music, one can eat. And last year that had been a huge problem. Not a proper restaurant to be found anywhere on the isle. Ugh! But our Harry had done some research. And there was a new place, the Whale’s Way … So that was the way we went. And mighty glad we did! Very nice indeed! Straddie is no longer persona non grata on the foodie trail. It has a Restaurant with a capital R. I had a delightful swordfish carpaccio with scallops (two), and then the newly fashionable pork belly. Very happy, though I had to extricate the capers from my fish (my fault, they were on the menu) and my teeth couldn’t manage the stalk of the rather aggressive greenery. Anyway, it was delicious and I determined right on the spot I would eat nowhere else during my stay!

The Main Event began at lorikeet-breakfast time on Saturday morning. The audience (full house 268 people) assembled at Point Lookout Hall for coffee and yummy cheese muffins, and then squeezed into the hall proper for the concert. The programme started with a little Britten. Now, I’m not usually in favour of rescuing the contents of the waste-paper basket of celebrated composers, and these two Insect pieces for oboe and piano were an obvious part of a larger group that never got written. But the Grasshopper and the Wasp deserve to survive, even if they seem (contrary to what we would soon hear) a little cut off in their prime without their unborn entomological counterparts. Anyway, it was as if two fun creatures had escaped from The Carnival of the Animals (I actually liked them better than Saint-S’s animals) and perched on the sunny seascape that is Lookout Point. And Diana Doherty’s gloriously rich oboe and Paul Hankinson’s busy, laughing piano made the little exercise a total success.

Then came the centrepiece of the morning: Beethoven’s early Piano Trio in G major, played by Festival Director Rachel Smith, her husband ‘cellist Eric de Wit and Mr Hankinson, piano, working overtime. And it was overtime: the trio is a Big Piece, and like last year’s Haydn, seems thoroughly centred on the pianist who has pages black with thousands of notes to play from. I’m not going to be bold enough to pontificate on Beethoven. The work is a glorious piece, and I have to say it got a glorious performance. For 268 people on an island in Torres Strait. London, Edinburgh (where the de Wits are based) or Berlin (where PH lives) should be so lucky.
The final piece of the sensibly not-too-long concert brought the oboe back (with Sophie Rowell violin, Caroline Henbest viola, Louise King cello), and brought Benjy Britten back, for the performance of a quartet entitled Phantasy. I don’t know why it was called Phantasy, but it was very agreeable. And the players were just superb. Ah! I see in the programme note that Britten was a pupil of Frank Bridge and this is influenced by that under-remembered composer. Well, Benjy was 19 when he wrote this, so he still had time to catch up to his master!

 Back to the digs for a much-needed lie down, and to cough and sneeze my chest out. I hadn’t sneezed ONCE in the half-hour of the Beethoven. I was sitting right next to the recording gear and had to stifle myself once or twice! I was feeling a little shattered when we assembled for episode two at 2pm, for one of Straddie’s nice, adventurous programmes. The piano had already left for his annual tour of the island, so we had two violins, viola, two cellos, oboe and flute. Lovely.
The first piece was Prokofiev for two very energetic violins (Smith, Rowell). Four movements. The first two were splendidly flamboyant and beautiful, the latter two fine, and anyway just listening to those ‘fiddlers two’ was a joy. Then came a flute/oboe duet, written almost when I was born, by Alberto Ginastera whom I know only through guitar music (unless that was a relative). This one, I didn’t care for at all. I found it characterless and ultimately dull, and way out of its depth in the company it was keeping. OK, win some, lose some.  Next came Villa Lobos. For flute and cello. Villa Lobos can be fun, he can of course be extremely characterful. But either my ailment was getting to me or this wasn’t one of his best. A one joke piece which meandered on ..
And finally, Arensky. String Quartet for violin, viola and two cellos. Nice. And I’d be safe with Arensky. But there was no pleasing me today. There appeared to be no shape to the piece. It wandered hither and yon, stopping for a breather every so often (‘they’re what? They’re variations? Why?'). The wandering produced some lovely bits (played, it goes without saying, splendidly) but I felt as if I were listening to an integral film soundtrack, background music included … and nothing seemed to be GOING anywhere. Am I getting hyper-critical, or just a bloody awful cold.

I hadn’t planned on taking in the evening concert (5.30pm), by a vocalist of not-my-kind, so I had another lie down, a couple of glasses of wine on the terrace, watched the whales spouting and playing at being dolphins, out in the Pacific Ocean, and then we all headed back to Whale’s Way for a little supper. I, of course, repeated my previous night’s menu and … Matt the chef must have noticed the side of my late plate: the carpaccio came without capers! And the pork belly was even better than the night before. But I was weakening sadly. I tried. I slipped up to the lovely wee bar and ordered a big whisky. That would perk me up. And maybe get my ears back into gear. A table for eleven, and I can’t catch a word anyside …
No use. I was simply a death’s-head at the feast. Rod sussed my distress, and took me home.

The next morning, Sunday, was scheduled to be a Luke Styles piece Bodice and Ribbons, and a little Mozart. But I didn’t make it. Harry was driving back to University in Coolangatta, Renee to Grafton, and I was their luggage. Fragile. Deliver to Yamba. Please Keep Right Side Up. Or Danger of Implosion.

The trip started with a hiccough. We arrived at the ferry station for the 10.25 water taxi to the mainland. The ferry came in a little late, disgorged its passengers, turned round and departed. While we stood on the bank, awaiting our turn to board. A few minutes later, the ‘connecting’ bus arrived with more passengers … gone. The stupid taxi-driver obviously had a beer warming on the other side! But … his inefficiency was to have a silver lining …

 We cruised down the Pacific Highway, had a little lunch at a truly superior café called Ambiente on the Coolangatta waterfront (best toasted sandwich I’ve had in years!), dropped Harry, and then on to Yamba. Renée was taking me to Cole’s to stock up my empty larder and cellar. We arrived at Cole’s to find a crowd of people outside. Electrical failure: everybody had been ‘out’ for 30 mins. But as we arrived, the doors opened … so, Wally the water-taxidriver, you saved us half an hour in an arcade.

 Home. Home! When you’re feeling ‘crook’ there’s nothing like home. And the good fairies of the Cove had been in and cleaned and tidied Number Seven to perfection …  the blessed Renée departed for Yamba, and I collapsed. Shower. I’ll shave in the morning. Bottle of high-class Shiraz. Crumpets. Teeth out.

And so my cultural weekend ended, naked on the couch, glass of shiraz in hand and Masterchef on the telly (no, I don’t have a selfie stick). I just made it to the end of the show and to my bed. Not even to the end of the bottle. ‘Tomorrow is another day, and I will face the day tomorrow’.

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