The program’s first half was an eclectic medley of traditional and concert pieces, often abridged. It began with William Barton’s highly virtuosic didjeridu performance, which explored the full timbre of the instrument including multiphonics, circular breathing and a range of evocative animal and insect calls.
Massed local choirs were successfully led through Orff’s “O Fortuna” by the extraordinary conductor Roland Peelman, whose absolute precision and attention to detail almost eclipsed the other performers. Noteworthy, too, were TaikOz – as beautiful to watch as they were to hear. These three drummers, whose balletic presentation of traditional Wadaiko drew audible gasps from the audience, performed three “rites”, which structures the first half of the program, and linked to the second half (“The Rite of Spring”).
Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was most pleasingly rendered by Canberra Festival Brass – particularly the trumpet and brass opening, which delivered near perfect intonation and dulcet timbres.
The pinnacle of the first half was undoubtedly Viney-Grinberg piano duo’s breathtaking rendition of “Variations on a Theme of Paganini”, the only surviving piano arrangement of 200 written by Lutoslawski for his Warsaw piano duo during World War II. This difficult work was performed with confidence, sensitivity and great technical skill.
This varied, often stunning, concert program did border occasionally on the kitsch – the resurrection, for example, of Walter Burley-Griffin and his wife by two talented actors from Melbourne, James Saunders and Maude Davey, (who were presumably not responsible for the lame script), and quite a reasonable performance of Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory”, with the words changed to “Canberra, shimmering city”.
All lip-pursing, but these slightly silly elements vanished as the second half of the program presented a magnificent performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in the two piano arrangement by Viney-Grinberg piano duo and Synergy Percussion. This performance, at a tempo much faster than Stravinsky himself had dared in his piano roll recordings of the work, delivered a dazzling array of instrumental pyrotechnics and extreme tonal and dynamic ranges.
“Polyrhythms” precisely co-ordinated between pianos in “The Adoration of the Earth,” with its accented staccato passages, before moving seamlessly into the beautiful legato sections in “The Sacrifice”. It is rare to hear such an accomplished performance of this work and the audience collectively held its breath from the first to the last notes.
As the final bars rang out a wildly appreciative audience leapt to its feet and the first concert of the Canberra International Music Festival was concluded with standing ovations. Let’s hope the rest of the festival lives up to this impressive start.
Judith Crispin is a composer, writer and artist and the director of Manning Clark House