First launched in 2016 by an inspiring leader at St Matthew’s Church Albury, Fr Peter Macleod-Miller, a lover of music, theatre and community, the Albury Chamber Music Festival was a fine showpiece and balance of both Chamber Music and Festival activities. Directors Sally-Anne Russell and Mario Dobernig bring charismatic and infectious enthusiasm (next year’s November festival is already selling tickets), with their own world-class musical experience drawing a team of talented colleagues and colourful audience members to warm, sunny Albury.
Loosely stretching the theme of “My Favourite Things”, phrases from that popular song were referenced for each event, allowing performers to share their best-loved works and personal musical inspirations. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, with its powerful settings of Bavarian monastic texts, allowed conductor Mario Dobernig to excel in precise and passionate leadership, opening the Festival with vibrant and soul-stirring music involving local and regional musicians and interstate soloists. “Bright Copper Kettles” brought together dramatic percussion and kettledrums into the spotlight in a tight and emotionally stirring performance. Combined voices from Lux Alba chamber choir, Murray Concert Choir and vocal quartet Jackpot presented a well-rehearsed team, showing precise and clear detail in pitch and enunciation. Soprano lines were confident, an authentic buoyant Bavarian style was felt in precisely conducted folk-rhythms and changing meters, and explosive climaxes from pianists Konstantin Shamray and Raymond Yong brought the audience to their feet at the conclusion. More well-loved artists, soprano Sara Macliver and baritone Michael Lampard, were a powerful and expressive presence adding much vigour, vibrancy and controlled dynamics. Macliver’s glorious vibrancy and high notes were significant, and the sopranos in the choir also confidently hit the heights with confidence and purity. In a festival, performers need to “wear many hats” on different stages, and the voice of the dying swan (by the inimitable countertenor Stephen Marino) came with the singer making a gently whimsical entrance wearing a delicate black swan. (Kudos to milliner Phillip Rhodes.)
Returning to the Church for a subdued and evocative candlelit setting, we put on “Warm Woollen Mittens” for Rosanne Hunt’s story of her favourite thing – her 1710 early Italian instrument, built and played by a student of Amati. We enjoyed a sensitive and nostalgic journey to another time and place, hearing two Bach Suites and an early charming improvisatory-styled Ricercar by Renaissance composer Gabrieli. Hunt’s well-loved cello has been restored with gut strings, giving quite an authentic Baroque tone with a lighter sound. It was easy to close one’s eyes from the outside world and be lost in the moment. How beautifully intimate and peaceful this was, a total contrast to the next two concerts programmed in St Matthew’s fine performing space.
Dr Calvin Bowman says his favourite things are Bach, counterpoint and the fugal process, and he was pleased to share his pure enjoyment with the restored Létourneau Pipe Organ, even if he wasn’t used to playing recitals at 9am! With the Church being damaged by fire in 1991, this important organ was restored in 1994, with 33 stops, 40 ranks of pipes with 2040 pipes and a significantly clean and silvery sound. The audience appreciated Bowman’s introductions to the design of four Bach works – the challenging 19 Canonic Variations, 2 Chorale Preludes and his final triumphant F major Toccata. Fugue from Three Pieces by Jacques Ibert showed that colourful, warm and very French flute orchestrations were possible on this instrument. Bowman had spoken of the likeable touch and action on this organ, and we were treated to a magnificent display of his masterful, technical brilliance and joyful understanding of Bach’s work. Visual screens for the audience held our attention and admiration for Bowman’s impressive and fast footwork racing smoothly through lengthy bass lines.
For “Whiskers on Kittens” – “the cats certainly got the cream” – we were privileged to hear a winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition Konstantin Shamray in a performance that was simply overwhelmingly breathtaking. In four pieces by Rameau we heard a unique vocabulary of colours and effects not imagined by many pianists – a variety of pristine semi-detached styles, the smoothest lengthy trills, varied musical personalities in melody and rhythm, the airy delicate fluttering of birds, the lyrical confident and warm nature of the village girl, the percussive foot stamps of the tambourin and the spirit of the people of Sologne. Mozart’s Variations on a theme from The Barber of Seville gave us great joy with Shamray’s fine control of softest ornaments and richly expressive timbres. Liszt’s Fantasia on two themes from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro became an imaginative whirlwind of fragmented shapes and virtuosic patterns with new sounds, flashing lights and remarkable silver and golden colours. From Shamray, we could hear not two hands but four! Chopin’s Valse in A flat Op. 64 No. 3, was given a special poetry and buoyancy, with contrasting and simultaneous melodies given prominence and warmth. But then it was the passionate display of powerful and darker textures of Ravel’s La Valse, which led to a tumultuous ending with a well-deserved tumultuous standing ovation.
Julie McErlain reviewed Concerts in St Matthew’s Church, presented as part of the Albury Chamber Music Festival on November 17–19, 2023.