Artistic Directors Stefan Cassomenos and Monica Curro did themselves proud again in their fourth festival (which would have been their fifth if not for a certain pandemic and associated lockdowns and travel restrictions). Although we were able to attend only six performances this year, the high standard of previous years has been maintained and at times bettered. How they found time to be both directors and performers, excelling at both, and being present at all the concert venues, is anyone’s guess! We offer our brief reviews below.
Prometheus – Saturday 14 October 11am
Steve Davislim, tenor; Plexus: Philip Arkinstall, clarinet; Monica Curro, violin; Stefan Cassomenos, piano
The performance began with Ganymed and Leda, written for Plexus by Richard Mills. It is a diptych expressing two faces of Zeus: in the first the beautiful youth Ganymede is seduced by Zeus in an “ecstatic encounter with the all loving father”; the second represents Zeus’s “cruelty and indifference to the suffering of the human condition” by his rape of Leda in the appearance of a swan (quotes from Mills’ program note). Mills’ settings capture the contrast effectively and were an excellent showcase for the combination of instruments and voice, the four artists weaving the themes in a completely unified performance. The chemistry between them was remarkable, and Curro and Arkinstall often sounded as though they were a single instrument. Davislim has a mature and engaging voice with a wonderful ringing tone, and his diction is impeccable.
The second part of the program comprised nine lesser-known Schubert songs, arranged by Cassomenos specifically for Davislim and Plexus. These worked so well you could almost imagine Schubert had written them especially for tenor, piano, violin and clarinet! Davislim has the perfect voice for Schubert lieder, and his expressiveness and communication with both instrumentalists and audience was first rate. It was a coup for Curro and Cassemenos to have engaged this exceptional internationally acclaimed Australian artist, who gave us a lesson in superb lieder singing. The theatre should have been full to hear his artistry.
Kawai Saturday Gala: Night Sky – Saturday 14 October 7.30pm
Brenda Gifford Dhawara Miriwa; Plexus: Philip Arkinstall, clarinet; Monica Curro, violin; Stefan Cassomenos, piano
Framed by a glorious projected image of the heavens, Gifford’s Dhawara Miriwa had its world premiere to open this show. Commissioned for Plexus in 2021, this fine piece exposed to us the night sky through small repeated gestures of sound like twinkling stars. The darkness of the space between made for mystery and stillness. Hints of first peoples’ percussion rhythms linked us to indigenous timelessness and storytelling about the stars. This was a lovely piece by one of Australia’s leading First Peoples’ composers, and an evocative and beautifully expressed performance by Plexus.
Francis Poulenc Sextet FP100
Eliza Shephard, Flute; Emmanuel Cassimatis, Oboe; Philip Arkinstall, Clarinet; Matthew Kneale, Bassoon; Rachel Shaw, Horn; Stefan Cassomenos, Piano
This was a wonderful mixture of the playful and the processional – even the hieratic in the last movement (perhaps fitting given the description of Poulenc by the critic Claude Rostand as “half-monk, half-hooligan”!). The players absolutely impressed both as soloists and in ensemble, sprightly, cheeky and shiningly luminous when required. Cassomenos revelled in the brilliant piano part throughout, with a classy vaudeville feeling in the exciting final movement. A top-class performance.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1
Port Fairy Spring Music Festival Chamber Orchestra
It was very fitting that this symphony should be heard as part of the Habitat-themed Festival, as Mahler’s deep love for nature permeates most of his music. This version is one of a number of arrangements of Mahler’s work for chamber orchestra by the German pianist and conductor Klaus Simon. How wonderful to hear it in Port Fairy! Even in its pared-down state there remained the exciting and noisy fanfares and solemn “in the forest” processional moods. The PFSMF Chamber Orchestra played their hearts out to give a truly stirring performance. Fabian Russell conducted with elegance and restraint, coaxing some wonderful playing from each of the sixteen players with gestures and eye contact. A highlight was seeing and hearing oboist Emmanuel Cassimatis following Mahler’s instruction of “Schalltrichter in die Höhe”, holding the bell of his instrument up high over the heads of the players in front to project a more assertive sound. The stage of the Reardon Theatre being rather small, the strings were often overwhelmed by the winds, brass and percussion behind, and though placed at the front of the stage, the electronic “harmonium” was mostly inaudible. The piano sometimes sounded a bit out-of-keeping within Mahler’s orchestral colours. But these are minor quibbles and the performance was a visual as well as thrilling aural experience.
Now What…? – Saturday 14 October 10pm
Gerry Connolly, piano and raconteur
St Patrick’s School Hall was comfortably full for some late-night classical/cabaret/vaudeville revels with the charming Gerry Connolly, who entertained us for over an hour with delightful storytelling, choral singing lessons and impersonations. He recounted his own early musical life with illustrations on the keyboard (I had forgotten the two-handed joy of To a Wigwam). We were given David Attenborough, Tom Lehrer (several songs), a most convincing King Charles commenting on the relocation of the Commonwealth Games to the Moyne Shire, some “hymn singing” and, in a moment of real seriousness, the slow movement of Shostakovitch’s Piano Concerto, beautifully accompanied by a string group including Festival Co-Director Stefan Cassomenos on second violin. Although admitting that he didn’t have “much control over his piano playing”, Connolly made an excellent fist of accompanying himself, hilariously singing words from The Sound of Music to various Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies. Though the voice might be a little scratchy, his performance of Dame Edna’s That’s what my public means to me while dressed as the suave Mr Barry Humphries was another highlight. What a wonderful antidote to the relative seriousness of the Mahler Symphony we’d heard earlier that night!
Vox Celestis – Sunday 15 October 11.30am
Andrew Bainbridge, organ
Bainbridge offered us a cleverly thought-out program which he dubbed The Byrd and the B(ee)’s, conforming smartly to the Habitat theme of the Festival, the B’s being Bach and Bruckner. It was great to see a full church, with extra chairs having to be set out for a capacity audience. We heard the 1909 Taylor organ put through its paces by a gifted organist. At very short notice, Andrew Bainbridge replaced Thomas Heywood (unexpectedly unavailable for family reasons) in a varied and very engaging program. Bainbridge was a serendipitous substitute for Heywood as he is familiar with the instrument and has played the orchestra reduction on it for four of the annual Port Fairy performances of Handel’s Messiah. The organ behaved nicely despite having been described as potentially “a bit cranky” by Bainbridge in his spoken introduction. It showed some unexpectedly fine sounds – a rich and plangent “oboe” in the Bach Chorale Prelude and some lovely flute stops in the Byrd pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Handel’s The Cuckoo and Nightingale movement from his F major concerto drew audible chuckles from the audience. Tchaikovsky’s own transcription of the Waltz of the Flowers from his Nutcracker Suite was a great success as the penultimate piece in the program – a tour de force showing a wide range of tempi, dynamics and colours. Bainbridge gave us a real musical treat and reminded us again what a valuable but sometimes underappreciated instrument the community has in its pipe organ, especially in the hands (and feet) of an exceptional player.
Sunday Lunch: Diskogesang – Sunday 15 October 12.45pm
Leyland Jones, Bass; Stefan Cassomenos, Piano
The young local bass Leyland Jones from Cavendish (“all the way from…”) was joined by Festival Co-Director Cassomenos in a very entertaining program of stylish parodies of lieder and art song. The first two parts of the proceedings (entrée and main course) were arch, sometimes hilarious settings by Gabriel Kahane of, first, dating ads and items for sale from Craigs List (Craigslistlieder), followed by Twitterkreis, short, pithy Tweets from X (formerly Twitter), both accompanied by suitably epigrammatic and dramatic outbursts from the piano. For his own collection, Diskogesang (dessert), Cassomenos put disco songs into ChatGPT with the instruction to translate them into German in the style of Heine, Schiller etc. He then set them to music by snatching bits from almost every Schubertian lied accompaniment you’ve ever heard. A cheeky reimagining and thoroughly enjoyable pastiche, some of it was also effective and touching. The audience betrayed its age with the traditional arm waving in the chorus of the final song Üpsilon Em Se Ah (Y.M.C.A., The Village People, 1978). Jones had great fun with his most pleasant voice and his German was very creditable. He showed great promise, with a mature and intelligent approach. Cassomenos’s accompanying was as usual masterly.
Closing Gala: Requiem for the End of Time – Sunday 15 October 2pm
Peter Luff, Conductor; Merlyn Quaife, Soprano; Liane Keegan, Contralto; Christian Smith, Bass-Baritone PLEXUS: Monica Curro, Violin; Philip Arkinstall, Clarinet; Michelle Wood, Cello; Douglas Rutherford, Bass; Stefan Cassomenos, Piano – And a cast of thousands: Vox Plexus, PFSMF Chorus, PFSMF Children’s Chorus, Port Fairy Ring of Bells
The buzz among the audience leaving the final gala concert was huge: exclamations of “wonderful/ terrific/ great” – people were smiling, excited, touched. This was the perfect Festival finale.
Stefan Cassomenos’s entrée before his Requiem was his arrangement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Peter Luff conducted the Vox Plexus singers, who provided a solid reading of verses from the three psalms that make up this “Symphony”. Ironically, Stravinsky’s original orchestration omits violins and clarinets altogether, so the Plexus instrumentation of that very combination (with piano) rather turned the originally conceived sound world on its head – but in a good way. Despite being very different from performances of this work that one might have heard before, it was beautifully played and very effective considering the modest number of performers involved and the relatively small size of the auditorium.
The main event was the Requiem for the End of Time, composed by Cassomenos. The stage was filled to the brim with the three vocal soloists, Cassomenos (born 103 years after Stravinsky!) as orchestral pianist, Plexus, Vox Plexus, the PFSMF chorus, the Children’s Chorus (drawn from the two local primary schools) and the Port Fairy Ring of Bells, who joined for the last movement of this extravaganza.
Cassemenos conceived his Requiem as a juxtaposition of the text of the traditional Christian Requiem Mass with excerpts from the Book of Revelation. Bass soloist Christian Smith took the role of John of Patmos, chanting and reading with fine gravitas, describing John’s “confronting surreal revelatory experience” (Cassemenos’s program note) with suitably Greek Orthodox inflexions, although he was occasionally partly obscured by the instrumental sonorities. The choirs sang the traditional Latin in various configurations with repeated rhythmic patterns, managing with great success a variety of styles and choral techniques. They also played the part of the angels from Revelation heralding the end of time, led gloriously and impeccably by Merlyn Quaife (in sparkly black) and Liane Keegan (resplendent in what looked like a magnificent red tabard). Peter Luff conducted expertly, driving it all along with a keen understanding and appreciation of the work.
The Dies Irae, at first frightening in its anxious broken up words, returned jubilantly at the conclusion. The cheeky piano vamped, tangoed and arpeggiated throughout. The Plexus instrumentalists provided exciting accompaniment. The excellently prepared children’s chorus shone. The bells joined in at the Luceat eis, adding most beautifully to the comforting harmonies. Clarinet and violin substituted for trumpets most effectively for the Tuba mirum. And after the variety of effects that had come before, at the end we were still surprised to hear the ominous twang of prepared piano, an other-worldly sound as we arrived at the End of Time.
Cassomenos fearlessly infused into the piece various popular styles and rhythms – from South American dance to American musicals and Music Hall, all having their place along with modern classical idioms (John Tavener and Benjamin Britten anyone?) as if “we’re all in this together on this serious but joyous journey of life and we will all come to dust, but we can have fun along the way”. The whole brought to mind a great Byzantine mosaic. It was a super experience, so involving of community, and perfect for the last offering of the Festival.
Photo credit: Justin Williams
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed a number of performances given at part of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival held at various venues in Port Fairy from October 13 – 15, 2023