Roland Peelman has good reason to feel 2019 is noteworthy. Not only is it his fifth year as artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival, but it's also the 25th year of the event.
Peelman wanted to do something special for the occasion, so in this year's festival there's a heavy emphasis on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), with instrumental, chamber, choral and vocal works and arrangements by the versatile and prolific German Baroque master.
"You might well ask, why Bach?" Peelman says. "The fact is Canberra audiences and music lovers really dig Bach."
And this isn't just an assertion: Peelman says there is "hard evidence".
"When we put on a Bach concert. ... it always sells well."
Why is this?
"Bach in the world of music is probably the most unusual figure," he says.
Over his career he worked as a church organist, a cantor, a court composer for various aristocrats, a performer and a teacher. He wrote more than 1100 verified works, including cantatas, motets, oratorios, masses, passions, solo pieces for violin, cello and keyboard and concertos. He also married twice and fathered 20 children: only half survived into adulthood but a few became notable composers in their own right.
Bach's explanation for his prodigious musical output was, "I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results."
The festival gives a partial overview of Bach's versatility and talent in a variety of locations, both indoors and outdoors, ranging from Beaver Galleries, The Fitters' Workshop and James Turrell SkySpace to Mt Stromlo, and Smith's Alternative, among others
Peelman says Bach's music, with its beauty and mathematical precision, speaks to people of all periods, countries and cultures (it even, he says, has been shown to help pigs grow more healthily).
He says Bach's music seems to work now matter what instrument it is played on or however it is arranged, from the orchestral transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski to the jazz versions by Jacques Louissier.
"You can't go wrong with Bach - there's no conceivable way of failing Bach ... You can play him on the guitar, the steel guitar, the ukulele: it still works."
Bach was himself a frequent arranger of his own and others' works and a skilled improviser. The French ensemble Quatuor Voce will perform Harrison Birtwistle's arrangement of three Contrapuncti from The Art of the Fugue as well as Beethoven's Harp Quartet and Bruckner's String Quintet in F major. The French marimba trio SR9 will play repertoire ranging from the Baroque to the 20th century. And Dan Tepfer will perform the Goldberg Variations on piano and will improvise an additional statement after each of the 30 variations. He'll also be performing a separate concert leading a jazz trio with his own works and some from the Great American Songbook.
A striking and relevant example of the cross-cultural appeal of Bach's music will be featured in the festival. In 1896 Lutheran pastor Carl Strehlow adapted Bach's hymns to the Arrarnta language. The (sold-out) Bach in the Central Desert concert by the Ntaria Ladies Choir juxtaposes Bach with Indigenous music-making, accompanied by William Barton, Veronique Serret, Chris Sainsbury and the Berlin-based Sonic.Art Saxophone Quartet.
The fact is Canberra audiences and music lovers really dig Bach... it always sells well.Roland Peelman
Peelman says, "Bach never wrote a single piece of music to satisfy his own ego. Bach wrote deeply religious music ...and gave it for the greater good of humanity."
Another concert - with seats still available at the timing of writing - is a performance of the St John Passion (1724). This choral work, directed by Korneel Bernolet and with the Bach Akademie Australia led by Madeleine Easton, features Andrew Goodwin as the Evangelist and Jeremy Kleeman as Jesus.
Goodwin, a tenor, says the Evangelist, who narrates the story of the passion, is "a huge part singing-wise and it's quite challenging in how to pace yourself".
It also lies quite high for the voice - higher than the same role in Bach's St Matthew Passion - which is another challenge.
Goodwin has been performing Bach since he was a child, first on piano and violin. And, after vocal studies in Russia, he began working in opera and choral works, he says, "Bach has been a staple composer of my entire singing career."
While Bach is at the heart of the 2019 festival, he's obviously not the whole story. Other Baroque composers to be featured include Dowland, Purcell and Handel in English Baroque. a show with Circa acrobats performing alongside the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
When Bach was 20, he walked almost 400 kilometres to hear an organ recital by Buxtehude. The latter composer is included in Bach's Orbit, a concert also featuring works by Vivaldi and Pergolesi (the Stabat Mater).
The British Brodsky Quartet will play Contrapuncti I and VI from The Art of Fugue as well as works by Mozart and Beethoven.
And, there are components of multicultural and modern music. Bach in Africa juxtaposes the composer with traditional kora music. Los Pitutos has devised a mix of retro and urban contemporary music based on the traditional Latino genres of the 60s and 70s in Latin America.
The Children's Bach is an Australian opera by composer Andrew Schultz and librettist Glenn Perry based on Helen Garner's 1984 novella about an autistic boy whose performance of a Bach piece is the climax of the work.
Brexit Blues presents a recent ruckus in symbolic terms, as the Brodskys plays works by English composer Edward Elgar's plays works and Quatuor Voce counters with the Piano Quintet written in Paris by a Belgian with a German name: César Franck.
And leaving the past behind, technology plays a big part in Canadian artist Eve Egoyan's Augmented Piano: Solo for Duet. This program of 21st-century music is performed on Disklavier, a digital player piano that fuses visual art with performance art and superb pianism. It features works by David Lynch, Linda Catlin Smith and John Oswald.
Presumably Bach, who appreciated others' musical styles and creations, would approve.
- The 2019 Canberra International Music Festival is on from May 4 to 12 at various locations and times. cimf.org.au. The Canberra Times is a sponsor.