To close the 2024 Canberra International Music Festival (CIMF), a star-filled concert that celebrated the oldest living culture on earth. It also marked the end of Artistic Director Roland Peelman’s decade-long tenure at the Festival’s helm.

The artists were: the Stiff Gins (Kaleena Briggs and Nardi Simpson, with Kevin Hunt on piano); William Barton and Véronique Serret; The Dudok Quartet; Claire Edwardes, Niki Johnson and Veronica Bailey (percussion); Jason Noble (clarinet); Lamorna Nightingale (flute); Freya Schack-Arnott (cello); Ben Ward (double bass), the Luminescence Chamber Singers and the Ellery String Quartet.

Stiff Gins. Mulanggari. Canberra International Music Festival 2024. Photo © Peter Hislop

Opening with a selection of songs by the Stiff Gins, they sang seven works by Kaleena Smith and Nardi Simpson. Many arranged by Jonathan Zwartz.

The sublime harmonies of the Stiff Gins is an uplifting experience. But when backed by piano and five string players, their mellowness felt silky smooth. These arrangements were something else. Flowing and even, hitting the right balance between voice and instrument; they felt so natural.

No matter what the song title or the style, this was feel-good music. Just the ticket to wind up a festival. For the final song, Dust, (Wiradjuri & Yuwaalaraay), for voice and clapsticks, in language and English, the sentiment was clear and it left the audience feeling hopeful.

After the interval, Walimbaya (Return), by Brenda Gifford, with Gifford on clapstick and Ward on double bass, a mesmerising, circular work.

Feature Creature: Mulanggari. Canberra International Music Festival 2024. Photo © Peter Hislop

Feature Creature, for three percussionists composed by Holly Harrison and commissioned by CIMF, was a showstopper. As the 2024 composer-in-residence, I asked Harrison what she got out of this festival? She said, “It’s been wonderful. My music is reaching new audiences and I’m building connections with like-minded people and fellow musicians.”

On a variety of instruments, this atmospheric and eclectic work consisted of fragments wrapped in a repeating phrase. It was a carnival of music played with enjoyment for the players and listeners.

William Barton and 12 players staged Brenda Gifford’s Wadhu (Skin). Strings, percussion and woodwind made a sound perfectly formed in beauty of tonal character and storytelling.

William Barton. Mulanggari. Canberra International Music Festival 2024. Photo © Peter Hislop

In a slight departure from the program, Serret and Barton thanked Peelman for all his commissioning of new music, by performing their composition, Heartland.

Then, with Luminescence on stage, Burruguu (time of creation), by Nardi Simpson, written for Ensemble Offspring as part of Ngarra Burria, was an ethereal work.

Finishing with a song, Yarrager Mayraa, words and music by Simpson, arranged by Zwartz and Peelman. With the Stiff Gins back on stage with everyone – even Peelman singing – this uplifting work cried out land, family and connection. What a concert.

Eugene Ughetti is set to lead the 2025 Canberra International Music Festival as its new artistic director. I asked him what was one thing he hoped to achieve during his time?

He said, “Among many things, I hold a responsibility to see that the festival continues and to keep growing for the next 10 years.”

I can’t wait to see where he takes it.

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