Arts / Peelman promises a mighty ‘Return’ to the music festival

Roger Woodward… “The most prominent pianist we have produced over the last half century.”

“YOU can have a festival with all the best music but it can be total crap,” says outspoken director of the Canberra International Music Festival, Roland Peelman,

Festival director Roland Peelman… “music must be performed by right the musicians… in a process of discovery”. Photo by Peter Hislop

He has no intention of letting the 2018 Music Festival go that way, and tells “CityNews” that in his kind of festival “music must be performed by the right musicians… in a process of discovery”.

The coming event is built around the idea of “Return” – a return to the roots of our language, to folk traditions and improvisational styles, to the singer-songwriter traditions, to the cradle of Western concert music, a return home, a return to normality, a return to nature and a return to Canberra, the place of birth for Mary Finsterer, composer-in-residence.

Peelman is equally adamant that he refuses to be straightjacketed by that theme. Peelman loathes didactic music and says “drumming in a theme would be a mistake”.

On the contrary, Peelman has engaged superb but at times unpredictable artists, such as Roger Woodward (“You never know what you’re going to get from the most prominent pianist we have produced over the last half century.”).

Benjamin Bagby… will perform, with subtitles, a slab of “Beowulf” in Anglo Saxon accompanying himself on the Celtic harp.

And Benjamin Bagby, the modern-day equivalent bard who will perform, with subtitles, a large slab of “Beowulf” in Anglo Saxon accompanying himself on the Celtic harp – seats are already selling out for this 100-minute epic.

Another idea Peelman’s been grappling with is the neglect of indigenous music and, with that in mind, has commissioned indigenous composer Brenda Gifford to create a new work inspired by the passing of the coastal seasons for the festival’s slap-up gala opening on April 27 at the festival hub, the Fitters’ Workshop.

Gifford, he says, is simply a standout.

And, of course, soldiers return. In fact it will be 100 years in 2018 since they came home from The Great War and anyone who saw his predecessor Chris Latham’s “Flowers of War” concerts will know how that went. Stravinsky’s soldier’s tale is a poignant commentary on the same subject.

Despite Peelman’s enthusiasm for the brilliance of his performers, it’s obviously no picnic curating a big music festival. Gone are the halcyon days of the early Canberra International Chamber Music Festivals when our embassies had spare cash for culture and brought performers here to play at exclusive embassy concerts. Nowadays, he says, most official acts of cultural diplomacy are tied up with national institutions.

To give it depth, he’s developing the intellectual side of the event instead, with a reprise of the 2016 “Talk of the town” sessions at Ainslie Arts Centre from Monday to Friday, designed to get more intimate groups talking about music. The education-slanted days of music and talk at Canberra Grammar School will also return. The annual Barbara Blackman Lecture will serve a similar purpose.

Children are well served, with inclusions such as Holly Harrison’s “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party”, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and a children’s event with Mr Tim and the Fuzzy Elbows.

Ultimately, his festival looks to be a wild ride with great musicians. “There’s a helluva lot to see,” he says. “But it’s all about music.”

The Canberra International Music Festival, The Fitters’ Workshop, Kingston, and various locations in the ACT, April 27-May 6. Program details and bookings to


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