“Let the BCMF good times roll!” were the enthusiastic words from festival directors Chris Howlett and Howard Penny before the launch of the 4th Bendigo Chamber Music festival, an event spanning five days and featuring fourteen concerts in Bendigo’s iconic historical venues. A gala event is the place to welcome, celebrate, acknowledge and applaud the planning achievements of all involved, and Chris Howlett always delights in revealing cheeky achievements such as how he enticed Kawai to lend him, not just one, but three high quality concert grand pianos for this year’s events. Mission accomplished. Howard Penny gave an overview of the expansion of the Festival’s achievements with its educational programs, master classes and community concerts, performances that include two world premiers, and a new and ongoing partnership with the Young Classical Artists Trust in London to bring young talents from Europe exclusively to Bendigo over the coming years.
The Gala opening is the place to introduce the musical depth and breadth of the international guests and Australian musicians in a very high quality chamber music festival. Classic FM’s Rising Star 2022, clarinettist Jonathan Leibovitz, was the featured soloist accompanied by a star-studded string ensemble to open the music with Spohr’s Fantasia and Variations on a Theme of Danzi, Op. 81. With all musicians standing, this was exciting to watch as there was a sense of physical freedom and musical enjoyment shared between musicians and with the audience. Leibovitz is a passionate communicator, mastering these showy, virtuosic variations with ease and fluency. He slipped easily from being centre-stage as an expressive soloist, to blending with the ensemble showing a new warm and sensitive tone, allowing solo violin melodies in particular to glow and project.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn – “St Anthony Variations” is a popular work, more well known as an orchestral piece, but tonight a showcase for two outstanding pianists, regular BCMF soloist and accompanist Daniel de Borah, and international young prize-winning London-based pianist Ariel Lanyi. On the Capital’s stage, the sight of two concert grand pianos was impressive, with the removal of the lid from the front instrument giving a balanced and clear view from the audience perspective, and for the fine camera work of the Australian Digital Concert Hall’s streaming team. Ariel warmly introduced the Variations, outlining their individual separateness from each other, a feature very prominent in the duo’s enhancement of orchestral colour and widely contrasting timbral settings for each of the eight variations of the chorale theme. The pianists showed fine intuitive partnership with seamless blend and equality in dynamic changes and tonal expression. Lively, percussive timbres added excitement to Variation 2 (Piu Vivace), while the 4th variation’s minor key had a special warmth and tenderness, as did the soulful lyrical waltz-like feeling of Variation 7(Grazioso). A grand finale allowed the duo to show their four-handed virtuosity in a complex interplay of rhythmic and thematic dynamism, closing with a triumphant and soul-stirring orchestral-like setting of the Chorale theme.
Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi, (1877-1960) was also a concert pianist, so the choice of his four-movement Sextet in C, Op. 37allowed another young rising star, Australian pianist Laurence Matheson, to join Jonathan Leibovitz – clarinet, Sophie Rowell – violin, Tobias Breider – viola, Howard Penny – cello, and Nicolas Fleury – French horn for an exciting and entertaining ensemble. Known as a “new Romantic” in the 20th Century, Dohnyani was introduced by Sophie Rowell as a composer who looked backwards to Brahmsian and Romantic harmonies. There were many fresh elements worked into the Romantic heritage of waltz-like sections, panoramic themes and colourful sections, with gorgeous horn solos giving a lush, pastorale feeling, but surprising 20th Century ragtime jazz elements – off-beat syncopation, irregular shapes of melodies and much jocularity. While the opening movement’s Allegro Appassionata, with its waves of repeated accompanying arpeggios, did bring much passion from the players, Sophie had prepared the audience a little for the quirky ending to the final movement Allegro Vivace, Giacoso. In a seemingly unrelated key, the piano featured with sparkling lines and short staccato motives, an irregular waltz-like melody made a brief but strong appearance, and in a theatrical manner the piano sparkled and finally flew up a scale as if to finish the work. Surprise surprise – two bars of silence kept us in suspense with two unexpected quick chords resolving the work suddenly back in the principal C major key. Short laughter and astonishment followed, with the audience showing much admiration for the talent seen on The Capitol stage tonight.
The Bendigo Chamber Music Festival continues to Sunday 5th February in various venues.
Julie McErlain reviewed the Opening Gala, Summer Night Series, of the Bendigo Chamber Music Festival, performed at the Capital Theatre on February 1, 2023.