The buzz that even Bach would have loved

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Ntaria Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg, NT, conducted by David Roennfeldt. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / CIMF Concert 1 – “A World of Bach”, The Fitters’ Workshop, May 3. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

THERE’S a buzz of anticipation in the marquee outside the Fitters’ for the sold-out opening concert of the 25th Canberra International Music Festival.

The doors to the performance space, with its now legendary acoustic, are opened and the audience moves in. Musicians, spread throughout the hall, are playing gentle, very tasteful music. It rises above the chatter, floating through the soft blue-lit space.

The musicians in the first of several ensembles mount the stage. Ethereal sounds begin and soft blue laser-light shapes rotate slowly on the ceiling. The world premiere of “Loure”, by Nick Wales, Bree van Reyk and Jess Green creates a kind of pre-dawn, gradually building in intensity as it announces the beginning of the festival. It is reminiscent of the rising sun announcing a new day.

Ngunnawal elder, Wally Bell, in his welcome to country, tells the story of his people caring for the land in the region for 25,000 years. He sings a spirit song that brings the good spirits and exorcises the bad ones.

Korneel Bernolet on harpsichord, Roland Peelman conducting. Photo: Peter Hislop

Then it’s time for the music of JS Bach. Bach Akademie Australia mounts the stage to play his concerto for oboe and violin, BWV1060, featuring Emma Black playing a lovely baroque oboe, and Akademie leader, Madeleine Easton, playing a period violin. In much the same vein, the harpsicord concerto, BWV1052, follows, with Korneel Bernolet doing a masterful job as soloist. The period instruments create a beautifully-balanced and warm sound, transporting the mind perhaps to a soiree in some Leipzig nobleman’s drawing room.

The second half of the concert starts much as did the first. From the rear of the hall, master of the didgeridoo, William Barton begins playing his composition, “Kalkadunga Welcome”, evoking a sense of mystery. Making his way to the stage, his audience is enveloped in the vivid imagery he creates with his vocal sounds over a continuous driving rhythm.

But Barton is not the only indigenous musician to perform. From Hermannsburg in the NT, The Ntaria Choir sings Lutheran hymns, often with a strong connection to Bach himself, but translated into indigenous languages – Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara. Their naturally pure and perfectly-pitched voices, in both unison and harmony, beguile their audience.

Trio SR9, playing three marimbas, perform Contrapuncti III and XIIb from Bach’s famous set, “Art of Fugue”. The interactions of the deep, resonant tones of the marimbas create sustained patterns of harmony that hang in the Fitters’ acoustic, taking Bach to a new level.

William Barton and the Berlin-based sax quartet conducted by Roland Peelman. Photo: Peter Hislop

And the harmonic complexities of the saxophone adds a different dimension again as the saxophone quartet play Contrapunctus XIII.

Stealing the show is Roland Peelman’s arrangement of Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor”.

Peelman takes the audience completely by surprise in the opening, with a single saxophone introducing the work, continuing through’s four registers, and concluding with William Barton’s didj right at the bottom leading into the arpeggiated run up to the majestically-resolving D-minor chord.

Then it’s off on a most awesome adventure, with Matías Piñeira doing some extraordinary double-tonguing on his French horn, SR9 in some amazing fugal antics on their marimbas, and Barton achieving impossible melisma-like effects on the didj.

Through it all, the Bach Akademie provides a foundation so profoundly – well – musical, it brings the whole work together.

Bach probably had never even heard of didgeridoos or marimbas, and the saxophone wasn’t invented until 90 years after he died. But, to hear this arrangement of his work, Bach certainly would not be turning in his grave. He would be sitting bolt upright, listening in awe at how his music can be interpreted, and looking forward to what else is in store over the next 10 days of this festival.

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