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CIMF / New and old music, full of youthful verve

The Ellery String Quartet performing at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / Canberra International Music Festival, Concert 1. At Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Barton. May 1. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

The Ellery String Quartet, a product of Canberra’s vibrant music scene, joined forces with pianist Anna Gao to create a concert of new and old music that was full of youthful verve.

The artists were Brad Tham and Anika Chan, violins; Pippa Newman, viola; James Monro, cello, and Anna
Gao, piano.

Opening the first concert of the 2024 Canberra International Music Festival, Franz Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, with Anna Gao at the piano.

Flowing like poetry, from a cycle composed in 1847, this work offered themes of rebirth and peace. Performing without sheet music, Gao created a sensitive refrain that flowed evenly through the lightest of touches and commanding chords.

With the composer in the audience, for what has become a popular performance piece, Swoop, by Holly Harrison, saw The Ellery Quartet perform what could be described as a fusion work. This upbeat piece that uses multiple effects such as tapping on the cello, slides and harmonics simply rocked.

It’s part Appalachian music, which is synonymous with the use of that fiddle sound found in bluegrass. It rushes at a listener with motion that swings and drives. Exciting stuff played with electric power.

American composer Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte followed. This music has a constant sweeping, undulating construction. It’s a smart work that effectively shows what a composer can do with a simple idea.

It weaves and winds its way through phrases of unique musical thinking. It extends the possibilities of how string instruments have been traditionally used.

These techniques are not overdone or too harsh on the ear. It’s modern and thought provoking. Such as rhythm and melody in one through the use of pizzicato. It gets eclectic and experimental, but it stays on the page, just. The jazz-like, almost
improvisation at the end for solo cello was played so sensitively by Monro.

Darkly dramatic, the first movement, The Ellipse, in another of Shaw’s works titled Plan & Elevation, in five parts, sounded ghostly, but with maybe too much pizzicato, which turned the music into style over substance.

This is a unique sound-world. Styles change every eight bars or so. But it felt disjointed, it unrelaxed. Such is the nature of this highly stylised work, but it needed something for a listener to grasp on to. It didn’t have that. That said, the final part, through delicate and echoing pizzicato in The Beech Tree, set up lush long chords that followed, and the playing seamless.

Finishing the program with Gao at the piano again, she performed a piece that has some of the catchiest opening chords of any piano work, Frédéric Chopin’s Scherzo No.2 in Bb minor, Op.31.

Fast, flowing and completely unified, Gao hit this scherzo like a demon; like it should be played. It was an expression of grand musical composition, virtuosic playing, and extreme contrasts. Its minor key mode brought out that warmth, which unites this one movement work. Gao’s differences in colours fitted the piece perfectly.

There was even a blazing encore in this concert of contrasts. It was a strong opener to what looks like being a fantastic festival devised for the last time by artistic director Roland Peelman.

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