CIMF review / Little fizz in festival’s dour finale

Music / CIMF Concert 23: “Festival Finale: Serenade”. At the Fitters Workshop, May 6. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN

Roland Peelman conducts at the festival finale. Photo by PETER HISLOP

I WAS anticipating a rousing finale concert to celebrate the marvellous music presented during the highly successful 2018 Canberra International Music Festival, but this was not to be.

It wasn’t the playing, which was first class, but the programming – to present a lengthy new work that was particularly challenging for listeners did not seem clever.

Instead of a night of basking in the outstanding artistic achievements of the past 10 days, the dour music of particularly the first half saw heads stooped low, constant shuffling in seats and absolutely no sign of joy abounding.

The concert opened with the versatile Ned McGowan performing a 1985 work for contrabass flute (but actually played on a standard flute) by Salvatore Sciarrino.

The literal translation of the title is along the lines of “How to Cast Spells” and “the work pushes the tonguing physicality of the player to the edge, as if banging at the door of the ordinary”. It quite lost me – an instrument of great melodic beauty being used as a percussive time beater with odd melodic interjections. The work seemed more like an exercise in producing weird sound effects and seemed a strange selection for a festival finale’.

The festival’s composer-in-residence, Australian Mary Finsterer, wrote “In Praise of Darkness” as a dedication to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges who went completely blind at age 55. He had not learned Braille so lost the ability to read. The work intends to “give way to the idea of memory as a fluid series of thoughts held together by slowly unfolding melodies that collide”.

Photo by PETER HISLOP

The work won the Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize in 2009. An appropriate atmosphere was certainly set with the hall in darkness and the orchestra playing with just music stand lights, much like in a theatre orchestra pit. But for me; wrong place, wrong time! The piece meanders along with a relentless rhythmic pattern in similar tempo throughout its 40-odd-minute duration without seeming to reach highs and lows except for piercing interludes from chimes. It is difficult music to comprehend. The composer was present so a short explanatory introduction to amplify the written program note would have allowed a greater chance of understanding.

There was certainly no air of festivity when the interval arrived, prevailing mood seemed distinctively down and dark.

Thankfully, the second half was more fulfilling with world-acclaimed harpist Alice Giles joining the Festival Strings for a delightful and melodic imaginary temple dance written by Claude Debussy.

The rich full tone of the classy string ensemble was excellent with its dynamic control and contrast and didn’t ever overpower the beauty of the harp.

Percussion joined the Festival Strings for the final work, the five-movement violin concerto “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)” by Leonard Bernstein. It recounts a historical gathering in Athens in the year 416 BC.

Past recipient of the Young Concert Artists International award Tim Fain gave an impeccable performance, ably supported by lush strings and excellently rhythmic percussion. There was no doubting excitement here, particularly in the presto 3rd movement which contrasted wonderfully with a “clutching at the heartstrings” romantic 4th movement.

This concert would perhaps have been better appreciated if presented at a central point during the festival. It did end on a high thanks to the Bernstein piece, but was overall a disappointing finale to a Festival that  has seen large crowds enjoying a diverse exhibition of the highest standard of international music performance.

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