Sunday, July 26, 2015

Going for Stradbroke ... the story of a Piano and his friends


Saturday morning on ‘Straddie’ dawned bright and fair, as we tucked up our sleeves ready for some serious Festivalling. Four concerts in two days. Well, there were actually five, but Bach with Birdsong and Breakfast from 8am was a little matinal for me …

Yesterday, I thought, was going to be a hard act to follow. Oh, yes?

The Point Lookout Hall is even better in the sunshine. With the doors flung open, the sun glittering on the sea through the coastal mangrove trees, behind the piano, the scene made a fairytale atmosphere for music. And the first half of the programme was chosen, I am sure, in function. Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Songs of Sea and Sky’ is a clarinet and piano piece, in six sections, which takes the Torres Strait Island of Saibai – somewhere out there beyond the waves -- for its inspiration. A fair reference to the ‘Straddie’ situation, where the aboriginal people make up an important part of the population. But was this 1987 piece, written for an academic situation, going to be pretentious? approachable? enjoyable? Easy answer: it is not at all pretentious. It is totally approachable, and, as played by Irit Silver (‘I am the token wind-player’) and Liam Viney, with a lovely little obbligato by an unscheduled, passing kookaburra, I found it wholly enjoyable. And thanks to the combination of subject and situation, a perfect choice for a sunny afternoon concert in the ocean.

Before part two, we had a kind of entr’acte. The grand piano for the Festival has to be brought on the ferry, like us, from the mainland. But the concerts are held in three different venues, so he has to be ever so carefully moved by the expert team of Nigel Bland and wife, from hall to hall. Now, his contribution finished for the morning, it was time for him to go. So our interval entertainment was ‘how to strip and carry away a grand piano’. Much applause.

Part 2 of our concert was the ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet of Schubert. It’s thus called because it uses a portion of the composer’s famous song in its second movement. This one I had heard before. Well, I know its mostly in minor keys, with death and madness references (I read the programme note) but it is in no way morbid or depressing. It is simply quite, quite beautiful. And as played, in the undeathly sunshine by the outstanding quartet of players (Rowell/Smith/Henbest/de Wit), with the wonderful Sophie Rowell’s violin soaring, whispering, fairy-stepping along on top, it was a truly a moving experience. Grand. Fullstop.

Time to grab something to eat – alas, the islands eateries are, it seems, mostly of the fish ‘n’ chips and burger styles – feet up for thirty, and then off to our 5.30 date at the Point Lookout Surf Club. Tonight, we were in for something altogether different. A tango concert. Yes, an entire evening of tango. Why? I thought. The answer was soon obvious. The hall was packed to the rafters, with a waiting list-queue for returns, there were people sitting on the bar staircase. And huge enthusiasm was the keynote of the evening. The other reason was the star of the evening. Cyril Garac, the violinist who had made such a success in the Chausson, is a tango specialist.

Mons Garac is a host in himself. Tall, dark and sparkling, with a great stage presence and a perfect Maurice Chevalier accent, he would make a great television host. A violin-playing Sascha Distel. He rolled the evening along deliciously, to the audience’s delight, from one tango to another, ably assisted by Sydney’s Maggie Ferguson on the bandoneon, a grown-up kind of concertina which is really at the base of the ‘true’ tango.
And with the superb soloists of the morning music as a kind of ‘backing group’! A very democratic Festival, this!

I am going to have to grouch about something soon, so I’ll make it now. There was too much talk. Either we have a concert, with minimal talking and lots of music, or we have a musically-illustrated lecture. I would have liked the latter (I began to get rather tired of tango rhythms by the second half), but I think most of the audience would have preferred the former. I’m pretty well musically educated, but the rain of unfamiliar (foreign) writers’ names, and the apparently non-linear chronology of the programme quite lost me. Experts sometimes forget that we are quite ignorant of the subject of their expertise. Please give us basics not specialist details. Or put it in the programme and shut up and play.

My favourite bits of music were the grungy bits. Bandoneon absolutely necessary. The bits that sounded like backstreet Buenos Aires and not Hollywood soundtrack. Like real ‘rock’ compared to today’s smoothed-down stuff. I’m afraid the popular Finnish tango (no bandoneon) left me cold. But the whole was so joyously presented and played, and the large audience so openly revelled in it … who am I to grouch just a little?

Anyway I went home with a new-found enthusiasm for the bandoneon, and an admiration for the performance of Mons Garac, which was definitely shared by the swooning ladies around me. And by the big, ageing Aussie bloke in front of me in the bar queue, who turned to his wife and said ‘gosh isn’t he sexxxxy!’.

The final day was an early start and, blow me down, Mr Piano had moved again! Across to the larger Dunwich Public Hall. Conveniently, right next to the ferry. Another good venue, but without the magic of Point Lookout. The morning concert had Haydn and Dvorák scheduled. OK. Fine. Both pieces new to me, but I wasn’t expecting any surprises. I mean, I know Haydn and Dvorák … Once again, wrong. I’m going to have to stop ‘expecting’.
The Haydn was the Piano Trio in E Flat (nice key) which, as the composer noted, is really a piano sonata with accompaniment by violin and cello (Hankinson/Smith/De Wit). This is chamber music. I was seated in the front row, and I could make believe that I was in the Graf Esterházy’s drawing room, listening his court musician’s latest composition (new one tomorrow, your Highness). It is delightful intimate, personal music, that makes you want to get up and dance … which of course, I can’t … if you had told me that a ‘simple’ (it’s not) Haydn trio would be one my favourite items of the Festival, I would have been amazed. But I was enchanted.
And the Dvorák, too was a treat. A string quintet, with the addition of a double bass (Marian Heckenburg) the end of whose bow flirted with my right knee. So I felt right ‘in’ the performance! But the feeling of being ‘in’ is wonderful. I much prefer my chamber music like this, rather than in a theatre or concert-house sitting in a stall. The piece is as tuneful and dancing as can be, and the use of the double-bass as well as the cello adds so much depth to the music. I went off to lunch in a very happy frame of mind. Since we found the Island Fruit Barn, with excellent food (yayy!), I also came back in a very happy frame of mind for the final concert of the Festival. It was subtitled Contrasts, and it certainly did have.

We opened with Prokofiev’s sextet Overture on Hebrew Themes (Silver/Garac/Smith/Henbest/King/Viney), which was immediately added to my ‘favourites’ basket. Another piece of smashing programming. Then two Spanish cello pieces (King) and Ravel and Stravinsky takes on gipsy music and the tango for the violin (Garac), then a rather rebarbative Bartok work which seemed to be built around train whistles, and it was time for the pièce maîtresse of the day. An original work, for piano and string quartet, commissioned for the Festival, played here for the first time by the composer, Paul Hankinson, by Cyril Garac, Rachel Smith, Caroline Henbest, and Eric de Wit.

The programme of the piece was certainly relevant. The hero was Mr Piano, whom we had seen floated across the water, hefted from hall to hall and, in between, make some magnificent music. The piece followed him in his travels across the bay, his meeting with the musicians and their making of music together, ending with his return voyage, full of happy memories, over the calm waters of Moreton Bay, broken only by Migaloo, a passing whale.

It was an enchantment. I was mesmerised in the opening measures, as the waters shimmered, by the pianist’s hands inside the piano, plucking the strings like a harpist, mirrored in the lid of the piano, as our Hero made his way to the island. Then he was there, and the music breaks into a lively, warm and ringing dance as He makes his island tour. And then, in perhaps the loveliest part of the work, we have his return … back inside the piano, a long drawn out B, produced by a swatch of horsehair on the string, leads Him to the end of his adventure.

The piece ended, I shot to my feet (without my walking stick) in applause. Then I turned round … the entire audience was on its feet clapping and cheering. And they wouldn’t stop! Finally the players came out and played, not the whole thing again (as someone shoutedly suggested) but at least the festival movement. And, once again, those that hadn’t had to rush for the 4pm ferry, burst with applause. We waited for the 5 o’clock ferry. Sometimes, on a ‘first night’ the aftermath is part of the triumph.

But this ‘first night’ was also the last night of the festival, and we (with Mr Piano, who had been taking off his wooden legs as we sipped a farewell wine, not far behind us) headed across the waters to the mainland. 

The putting together of Festivals of this kind is not only a vast amount of work but requires a mind of a kind of genius at the helm. Because the choice of artists and of pieces to be played is the heart of the affair. Volinist Rachel Smith is the ‘artistic director’ heroine of this particular affair. The programming and the players were both perfect. Even the one or two pieces I didn’t really appreciate were interesting, and the huge majority were a total joy. And the players … well …

Stradbroke Island, the Quandamooka Festival and Redland County can be very, very proud of their festival. And me? I’ve just had a whale of a time, been swimming in the best of chamber music in a lovely place, and I hope very much that I will return soon.

No comments: