Friday night’s Evening Series concert Homelands encapsulated in a single concert the wide-ranging musical styles Artistic Director Kathryn Stott has brought to this year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music, in a program spanning 16th-century English harp music to the Australian premiere of a Chinese work for pipa and Western instruments. While the evening’s Sunset Series concert, Klezmer Connections, felt taut and contained, this was an ambitious concert that sought to capture whole worlds.

Australian Festival of Chamber MusicHomelands at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

Harpist Ruth Wall opened both halves of the concert, the first with My Lady Carey’s Dompe, dating from around 1525 in England, with the distinctive buzzing bass notes of the bray harp offsetting the instrument’s crisp high register, and the second half – on modern harp – with her arrangement of the Irish song My Lagan Love, the song delivered in clear, affecting tones by mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean.

Betts-Dean also covered the Auvergne region in France in this diverse name-check of homelands, with three of Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne. Audience members from Sydney may have heard the superlative Susan Graham sing these same three songs with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago, and while Graham’s was an all-encompassing account riding the power of the full orchestra, Betts-Dean’s rendition with harp was vivacious and spritely, bringing plenty of emotion to the famous Baïlèro, a keen edge of grief to Le Delaïssádo and buckets of personality – not to mention spot-on clarity – to the comic Malurous qu’o fenno. (And if there wasn’t proof enough of Betts-Dean’s flexibility in the mainstage program, she sang jazz standards later that night in the Rum Garden of Townsville’s Heritage Exchange.)

Buenos Aires was represented in a smoky performance of Piazzolla’s Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango, Sally Walker bringing delicacy and elasticity to the flute lines over Roberto Carrillo-Garcia’s sensitive, improvisatory guitar playing.

Rounding out the first half of the concert was the Australian premiere of Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang’s Crepe Myrtle, part of the composer’s Tropic Plants series, which saw Wu Man joined on stage by a small chamber orchestra of Western instruments, conducted by Gordon Hamilton. As the pipa virtuoso explained in an interview with Limelight earlier this year, Xiaogang’s music is more in an urban Shanghai avant-garde style than the folk-leaning music of Tan Dun, and this music showed him as a deft colourist. From the atmospheric solo pipa of the opening, the music seemed to bloom out from the pipa, Man’s tremolos haloed by shimmering vibraphone or echoed in shivering strings and percussion, her part ranging from melodic solo lines to percussive strumming. A duet between Man and clarinettist David Griffiths was a particular highlight.

The second half of the concert saw another Australian premiere, that of Czech violinist Pavel Fischer’s Morava for string quintet (a reworking of his First String Quartet), which follows the Australian premiere of his Mad Piper last year. Along with violinist Liza Ferschtman, violist Jennifer Stumm, cellist Timo-Veikko Valve and Carrillo-Garcia on bass, Fischer gave an incredible performance of the bustling, folk-infused music, which depicts scenes such as an escalating tavern dance, the rising and setting sun over the rugged Beskydy mountains in Moravia and culminates in a wild folk dance. “Off the chart,” as the concert’s host Christopher Lawrence put it.

Traveling the furthest distance musically and geographically from the opening harp music, Australian composer – and AFCM Composer in Residence – Connor D’Netto’s Too, the moon fantasy for viola and electronics (a reworking of material from his Cold Companion for soprano and piano) saw Stumm take the stage, her lyrical viola lines soaring amidst almost pointillistic electronics, underscored by vast organ-like chords.

Kathryn Stott and fellow pianist Timothy Young shared the piano keyboard to send the audience out into the night with a heroic performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, in the Franz Bendel arrangement for four hands, finding plenty of passion and humour in moments of exquisite, finely detailed delicacy and thundering passages that shook the stage of the Civic Theatre.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music runs in Townsville until August 4. Read Limelight‘s full coverage here.

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