Review: Four winds 2016 – balancing old and new

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THE 2016 Four Winds Festival held in the romantically-named outdoor amphitheatre ‘Nature’s Concert Hall’ at Barragga Bay marked 25 years for the event, a drawcard for classical music-lovers from the East Coast of Australia.

‘Nature’s Concert Hall’ at Barragga Bay
‘Nature’s Concert Hall’ at Barragga Bay

Full of atmosphere and driven by idealism, the festival, now under the artistic director of clarinettist and composer Paul Dean, drew an estimated 4,300 people to the 21 programmed events.

This is a festival with a passionate core of followers, many of whom have been coming since it was founded by a circle of artistically-minded friends, Michael and Judith Brimer, Sheena Boughen, Bill Caldicott, John and Zoe Ellingworth, the late Neilma Gantner, and Rodney and Beth Hall.

Under the directorship of Dean and the new CEO David Francis, Four Winds has sought to extend its reach to the Bermagui community and the indigenous community centred on nearby Wallaga Lake. To this end, Dean programmed free events at Barragga Bay on Good Friday (notably a Philip Glass concert) and the Bermagui Community Hall was transformed into a hub of more popular entertainment, with rap artist and poet Radical Son (David Leha) playing ticketed shows on the Friday and Saturday nights. As well there were three intimate house concerts preceding the east weekend and three packed evening concerts at the tiny Windsong Pavilion.

Through this diversity of offering Dean, Francis, and the four winds team have signalled their intention to broaden the scope of the festival and turn it from a prestige biennial event into a year-round hub of music-making.

Four Winds 2016 Festival, Photo by Ben Marden
Four Winds 2016 Festival, Photo by Ben Marden
A sign of this serious intent was seen in the fundraising effort a $100,000 to buy a concert grand piano for permanent use. Almost half the available piano keys (there are 88) were ‘purchased’ by audience members, so they’re well on the way.

Dean, Francis and chair of Four Winds Sheena Boughen have clearly delineated  Four Wind’s moves plans for development, but there is no escaping the fact that its heart is to be found in the programmed concerts held in the Sound Shell amphitheatre to present audience of around 1,100 a day. It is at these concerts that this review looks.

Day 1 of Four Winds began after a bush breakfast with the traditional “Koora Koorai” Welcome to Country. In what followed —and this is a festival where you sit still for a program of curated items, with no wandering from venue to venue — proved to be a something-for-everyone program of classical works, including Dvorak’s Wind Serenade, Ravel’s String Quarter in F and Schumann’s Piano Quartet. These were interwoven with composer James Ledger’s wordy introduction to his commissioned work “The Natural Church” , highly theatrical drumming from Taikoz Trio, six gentle songs by George Butterworth (who died 100 years ago )and a throbbing composition by Paul Stanhope called “Pulse-Heart-Beat.” Peter Sculthorpe’s 8th String Quartet was intercut with prose reflections on the Bay written by the late Neilma Gantner (who died last year) and performed by her son Carrillo. The daytime program concluded with a baffling 1970s work called “Frankenstein”by Austrian composer HK Gruber.

Photo by Ben Marden
Photo by Ben Marden
The first day was intended to be substantial but it left many patrons dissatisfied. The more classical works were over too quickly, the breaks for instruments setup were over-lengthy and the nostalgia in the Gantner/Sculthorpe was comprehensible to only a section of the audience. As for the dated 1970s Gruber work, it appeared, as the composer himself said, to be a well-played “pan-demonium”.

Day 2, Sunday, proved considerably more substantial, with the listening audience rewarded with works by Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto in E Minor, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the premiere of Ledger’s new work, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Matthew Hindson’s “Light Music”.

Zubin Kanga, Photo by Ben Marden
Zubin Kanga, Photo by Ben Marden

The tone of Day 2 changed dramatically when pianist Zubin Kanga, one of the young luminaries of the festival, appeared to take apart the grand piano for Rolf’ Hind’s “Tower of Silence”, exploring the piano in quite a physical way. It took a while for the instrument to recover in the hands of a piano tuner while the Festival Orchestra set up for a Gershwin finale.

Compere Phillip Sametz took to the microphone to sing a couple of laid-back Gershwin numbers  until Kanga returned, resplendent in blue, to perform “Rhapsody in Blue”, accompanied by artistic direct Dean himself in a joyous clarinet intro and the Festival Orchestra getting into the swing to send loyal patrons home with smiles on their faces.

Four Winds Festival has high aspirations. It has already set its standards high, employing the very top instrumental players available. Its plans went smoothly on the whole, with the enforced absence of cellist Li-Wei Qin quickly covered by other musicians. To reach both its old constituency and a new one, its director now needs to give more attention to the smooth tradition from one performance to another, to tighten the excessive chit-chat at the mic, and to think deeply about just how to balance the new and the old.

As part of the ongoing musical program, this weekend The Sydney Youth Orchestra presents “Mozart by the Sea’  in the Four Winds Sound Shell, 2pm Sunday April 3. Tickets are $10 and under 16 years free and available at the gate.


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