WITH the recent announcement that the biennial Four Winds Easter Festival would become annual, the sense of change around this year’s Easter event at Bermagui was palpable.
Originally founded by a group of intellectuals and classical music lovers hoping to take advantage of the natural surroundings at Barragga Bay, the festival over the years has developed a reputation for being the home of rarefied music, but that perception is now in a state of flux.
When Englishman David Francis took over as executive director of the not for profit association in 2015, he and the committee of the day set their sights on making Four Winds not just a festival but a year round venture, one that reached into the local community.
Before moving to Australia, Francis had been the revitalising director of arts at Dartington in the UK, where he oversaw arts, sustainability and social justice programs come together.
The seeds of change were sown several years, with hip-hop concerts in the Bermagui township and major cultural programs organised with the Indigenous communities at nearby Wallaga Lake, but with the arrival of affable Scottish and superstar accordion player James Crabb, as new artistic director, the festival has taken a leap into the community.
A substantial youth program was located in a tent near the outdoor amphitheatre known as “Nature’s Concert Hall”, in the more exclusive Windsong Pavilion and in Bermagui’s community hall. The children, both local and visiting, got to explore drama, juggling and ball games with visiting circus master Sam Thomas, play musical games and be surprised by pop-up visits from some of the top musicians in town for the weekend.
In one remarkable session, composer Holly Harrison had young participants capturing sights and sounds on tablets and mobile phones to make “sonic postcards”.
Crabb is ambitious, hoping to be part of the growing movement on the south coast to develop and teach songs in Aboriginal languages so that kids can learn them from an early age.
“These songs can be part of this region’s heritage and this inspires me more than anything else it gives me Goosebumps, how responsive kids are to music,” he said.
As first-time festival director of Four Winds Festival, Crabb will have been discovering that programming a music festival is not just a matter of throwing together the best musicians he can lay his hands on, although he does that well, with a dazzling line-up of the best, youngest and brightest. But the purpose, tone and mood of each segment need to be carefully calibrated.
By and large he has done this successfully with a free concert at Bermagui’s Dickinson Oval on Good Friday where the songs ranged from Monteverdi to Jessie Lloyd’s “mission songs”. The two musicians from Speak Percussion got the audience clapping as an introduction to Steve Reich and local Heartsong community choir performed choirmaster Geoffrey Badger’s composition, “New Melodies”. The range of audience members testified to the way the festival is going down locally – even in the fish and chip shop people were talking about it and the engagement of locals as festival volunteers was impressive.
Although preceded by several exclusive “house concerts”, the program proper began on Easter Eve in the outdoor Sound Shell with an extended Welcome To Country, headed up by Yuin elders and featuring another original composition, this time by Kamilaroi/Tongan singer David Lehar. Crabb told “CityNews” last year: “It’s a fine line to strike the right balance, not just do a two-minute thing”.
Stonework Taiko took their place naturally in this welcome, but the inclusion of Susato’s “foot-stomping Renaissance pop tunes” was ludicrous, and had some newcomers scratching their heads over “that classical stuff”.
Later the mix of Vivaldi, Respighi and Alice Giles performing “Breath Wind” worked well, but Crabb’s eclectic approach was less successful when, in the early afternoon, the audience heard an improbable mix of Pärt, Rich, Lloyd and Piaazolla.
After that was heard a beautiful presentation of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ayre”, featuring the unearthly voice of soprano Emma Pearson. But this refined performance was what Hamlet called “caviar to the general” and saw the departure of quite a few spectators. This would have been more effective indoors.
In the format of the festival, which sees the bulk of outdoor viewers seated in rows for long periods, it’s impossible to duck out as one might in a folk festival.
Crabb’s vision came to its peak with “Sideshow Alley”, in the Windsong Pavilion, transformed into a vaudeville stage. Here, with a modicum of rehearsal, musicians performed hilarious party pieces, held together by Guy Noble as MC/ringmaster. A highlight was double-bass player Rohan Dasika performing a piece designed to make him fail. The kids loved it – one of them did a hi-five with the trombone player and even stern-faced adults fell under the spell of this extended musical joke. Canberrans accustomed to see pianist Tamara Anna Cislovska performing in “The Flowers of War” would have been astonished to see her play the instrument with her bottom.
Crabb will no doubt be considering how he can follow up with something even more theatrical, maybe in a larger performance space.
The final day was a return to the classical foundations of the Four Winds Festival with the exception of a new composition, “Visiting Eucalyptus” by Damian Barbeler, one of the many commissions, which can be considered a high point of the Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival. Here Crabb was on secure ground, catering to the loyal contingent of music who packed up their folding chairs and make the trip to Bermagui.
The question of how to balance popular and elite arts practice has been around for a long time, but the needs of community and the superb outdoor location, far from making it easy, pose a challenge that Crabb, Francis, and the team at Four Winds will have to face squarely.