After ten days of non-stop music-making, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music came to an end with a massive celebratory closing gala. By all accounts Artistic Director Kathryn Stott has outdone herself this year, with everyone I spoke to confirming that the program has topped her debut as director in 2018. There was plenty of buzz, too, about pipa virtuoso Wu Man, as well as the heroes of the festival, percussionist Robert Oetomo and violist Thomas Chawner, who both came on board last minute to replace injured musicians. Oetomo was a particular source of awe, somehow having memorised an incredible amount of music despite the short notice.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicRobert Oetomo and Wu Man at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

The final concert is traditionally a sprawling, two-interval affair, which Stott took advantage of to give breathing room to several rarely played, large-scale works – Louis Vierne’s Piano Quintet and Joachim Raff’s Sinfonietta for Double Wind Quintet. But it was with a more intimate work that the concert opened, a single chime from offstage announcing the arrival, as the lights came up, of Man and Oetomo as they processed onto the stage for Man’s own composition, the second movement, Longing, from her suite Ancient Dances, a collaboration with Chen Li. A meditative work for pipa and percussion, based on a ninth-century scale discovered in the Dun Huang caves in western China, Man built improvisatory phrases, sensitively accompanied by gongs, woodblock and the muted thunder of bass drum, the music reaching its climax in wild strumming and a dramatic percussion solo.

Vierne composed his Piano Quintet in memory of his son, who died in the First World War at the age of 17, the music – a spotless, impassioned performance here by Stott and the Goldner String Quartet – swinging between turbulent, heart-rending grief and shining moments of brilliant light, and continuing a thread of music inspired by loss woven through the Festival program. There’s some beautiful scoring – Stott’s organ-like piano chords in the opening, the way the cello emerges from the piano’s lower register in the first movement, and the agitated fourth movement, driven furiously by Stott.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music wind players. Photo © Andrew Rankin

At the centre of the program, between the two intervals, Raff’s Sinfonietta for Double Wind Quintet saw 10 musicians – Arcadia Winds and the Festival’s stand-alone wind players – take the stage in pairs, Noah’s Ark style. Balancing the grim Vierne, Raff’s decet is a bright, bubbling work, and was dispatched with panache by the Festival winds with plenty of verve and a relentless, fizzing energy. The clarinets and bassoons were marvellously spritely in the second movement, while solo lines from oboist Rachel Clegg were delightful throughout. If there were a couple of moments when the whip-crack entries weren’t completely immaculate early on, the propulsive finale was tight as a drum – a joyous, festival piece.

The final concert is traditionally an opportunity for the musicians to let their hair down, and the third act began the transition into party mode. Violist Jennifer Stumm brought her incredibly rich, port wine sound to the Adagio of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, ably accompanied by strings from the AFCM Winter School, before the Festival’s quartet of pianists took the stage for Ernest Guiraud’s arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre for eight hands and two pianos, Stott and Aura Go facing off against Timothy Young and Charles Owen in a fiendish performance.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicThe Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

British baritone Roderick Williams may not have been at the AFCM in person this year, but he was there in spirit, as the mastermind behind the party arrangements of the final two numbers on the program. Rossini’s William Tell Overture saw rain-coated musicians dashing – or blown – on and off stage in the storm music – with a cameo on tuba from AFCM’s Executive Director – before Sally Walker on flute and Amy Dickson on soprano sax gave an idyllic account of the Ranz des vaches as Robert Oetomo got plenty of laughs wandering obliviously on and off stage with a triangle.

AFCMThe Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Soon Dene Olding was riding across the stage on a hobby horse, closely pursued by Dimity Hall brandishing a whip and riding crop, and things escalated from there. “Our rehearsals are just like that,” quipped Stott in her thank you speech before the final number, Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, that saw the combined Festival forces – from Wu Man’s pipa to Lotte Betts-Dean’s mezzo soprano, conducted by Olding – bid farewell to another successful Festival in Townsville.

Read all Limelight‘s coverage of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music here

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