Review of three concerts from start of the Canberra International Music Festival
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Review of three concerts from start of the Canberra International Music Festival

Canberra International Music Festival: Three Concerts – The Gala Opening: Tango Tambuco – Fitters' Workshop, Friday, April 29, 7.30pm; Ear of the Cat: Griffyn Ensemble, Ainslie Arts Centre, Saturday, April 30, 10am; Fandango: Forma Antiqva, Fitters' Workshop, Saturday, April 29, 1pm.

This year's Canberra International Music Festival under Roland Peelman's direction is off to a grand start, leaving its transition year behind and moving forward with a program focused on repertoire out of the mainstream and engaging with an exciting range of artists across the generations.

Tambuco displayed exceptional technical ability in their percussion playing.

Tambuco displayed exceptional technical ability in their percussion playing.

Opening the festival with Bach's Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998, was an inspired programming decision, featuring the intelligent young guitarist Andrey Lebedev. This is music to clean the palate and prepare the heart and mind for whatever might follow – in this case, more Bach interpreted by Tambuco Percussion, leading into an evening of spirited percussion music, tango and innovative collaborations involving James Crabb, Rohan Dasika, Anna McMichael and the Boccherini Trio.

Tambuco was founded in 1993 by four Mexican musicians who explore all styles and repertoire, relying on their telepathic communication forged though years of dedicated music-making together. Their exceptional technical ability to alternate between ferocious drumming and shimmering evocations on marimba and vibraphone created dramatic contrasts throughout the evening.

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The members of Forma Antiqva performed as one.

The members of Forma Antiqva performed as one.

In keeping with CIMF tradition, Beaver Blaze rose again to shine from the flames of festivals past, reincarnated by Gerard Brophy. Brophy's work Vox Angelica for percussion and string quartet represented a warm Australian heart in the central position of the gala.

Using the two-stage configuration of the Fitters' Workshop to his advantage, Brophy had the perfect venue to activate the subversive plan underpinning his composition by reversing the roles of the instruments to have the percussionists caressing the stringed instruments and exploring percussive techniques. There were some wonderfully perplexing textures generated in the course of the performance to fascinate the ears.

James Crabb is a musician with more than his fair share of gravitas. His power infuses whatever ensemble he inhabits and the performance of his arrangement of Piazzolla's Tango Selection was irresistibly energising. The version of Oblivion was particularly beautiful.

The Griffyn Ensemble's special children's performance, Ear of the Cat, made a lively start to Saturday morning. Interviews with a delightful bunch of children filmed in Cairo were interwoven with the Griffyns in the guise of mummified cats sleeping in a tomb, brought to life by a magical, musical summons.

It is a wonderful idea, rich with the depth of Egyptian legends about sacred cats and their connection with the old gods and linked to special tales of modern cats told by the Cairo youngsters. There is much potential for a strong narrative that transports the audience into the tomb to follow the awakening cats on their adventures and their discovery of 21st century life, but a clear sense of an unfolding story was not evident.

Musically the piece features some great rhythmic playing by the ensemble, particularly by the amazingly agile-fingered Holly Downes and spirited ensemble singing.

A chance conversation on a European train between Canberra's Dan Sloss and the Zapico brothers resulted in their inclusion of the ensemble Forma Antiqva in this year's festival.

Saturday afternoon's concert in the Fitters' Workshop was glorious. The three brothers perform as one. There is no evidence of excessive exertion or anxiety –simply uninhibited music. I was struck by the impeccable balance of the instrument voices and the perfect tuning of the ensemble. Even under hot spotlights and in Canberra's dry and unusually warm autumn, the three delicate instruments – theorbo, harpsichord and baroque guitar - remained absolutely in tune with themselves and with each other. It was almost as if the pitch was held in perfection by the shared musicianship of the ensemble, resisting any interference from the elements.

The Song Company joined Forma Antiqva to perform Flecha's El Fuego from Ensaladas, immersing us in the fires of hell and the sweet pure waters of redemption. Kapsberger's Passacaglia was exquisite, the delicate guitar introduction ending with one fragile note gently taken and gracefully developed by the theorbo.

The following Improvisaciones sobre Caponas y Chaconas created a mesmerising reverie creating a contrast to the final Fandango by Scarlatti – a surprisingly different style to his more frequently played keyboard sonatas.

How glorious to hear these musicians and feel the music of 18th century Spain brought to life.

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