How one rural Tasmanian town is thriving with a community music festival


For 51 weeks of the year, the small pretty seaside town of Penguin is a haven for those seeking the quiet life. With a population of just 4,132 people and a rookery of penguins, there isn’t much to disturb the peace. But for one memorable week in October, Penguin rejoices in the sounds of fine music. Musicians of all ages and levels of ability, from Tasmania and mainland Australia, converge on this beautiful little town for the Nova Muse Festival. 

I was there from 9-14 October at the invitation of Susan Collins, the festival’s artistic director, to write some reviews. But mere concert reviews couldn’t possibly do justice to the flavour of the week, so instead I wrote about the whole experience.

Concerts, masterclasses, and ensemble playing all feature in a packed schedule that begins at 8.30 in the morning and runs almost continuously until 10 o’clock every evening. The main centres of activity for this year’s festival were the North West Christian School for the teaching parts of the day, and Mount Gnomon Farm for the evening concerts. Remarkably, there were two of these every evening – a Masterworks Concert and a Candlelight Concert.

There can be no fine music without a solid grounding of technical proficiency, and so the days began with an 8.30am technique class, taken by one of the festival’s outstanding mentors. Even at this early hour, there was no shortage of willing participants. As any instrumental teacher knows, this is extraordinary in itself, persuading a student to devote time to technical work.

The outstanding quality of mentorship probably explained this phenomenon. Violinist and internationally renowned performer and pedagogue Susan Collins had put together a team of some of Australia’s finest performers and pedagogues. To have musicians such as Susan herself, violinist Michele Walsh, violist Patricia Pollett, cellist Gyorgy Deri and pianist Alex Raineri, all together in Penguin for a week is little short of miraculous, and participants appeared more than appreciative of the privilege.

Festival president Sarah Scheermeijer single-handedly performed the organisational work of an entire team to make sure the week ran smoothly, as well as directing one of the more junior ensembles and performing in the evening concerts. Her twin sister Luisiana Morton worked wonders with the youngest ensemble. The sisters work together at NWCS throughout the year, with Luisiana teaching classroom music and taking the choir, while Sarah is responsible for the outstanding string program.

There were about 80 participants for this year’s festival, drawn from Tasmania’s thriving amateur music community, and students of all levels. Many of the young people were students of Sarah’s, and she believes the festival is an important extension to their musical lives, and helps keep their motivation high.

Motivation was perhaps the most singular characteristic of the week amongst mentors and participants. There was a wonderful thirst for learning, and willingness to share insights, that equalised and created an immensely supportive music community. The style of teaching contributed to this, with the mentors presenting musical learning as a sliding scale: wherever one may be on the spectrum, there is always more to learn.

After technique class there were masterclasses, and I was struck by the variety of teaching styles. Gyorgy Deri was very gentle, with a lovely blend of technical help and musical understanding that was perfect for performers and audience. Patricia Pollett’s teaching was dynamic and inspirational, while Michele Walsh had a sort of wizardry with her explanations, making the seemingly unattainable appear possible. What all these teachers shared was an ability and willingness to meet each player at their own level, and progress them just one step further along that spectrum of music-making. There was no judgement, no feelings of inadequacy, no impatience – just the respectful acknowledgement of a shared purpose.

And so to Mount Gnomon Farm for the concerts. The restored barn at the farm was a wonderful venue. With a bar at one end, trestle tables for those who were sampling the excellent food, and more traditional concert seating at the front, there was something for everyone. The early concert featured masterworks of the chamber music repertoire alongside some lesser-known works such as Parry’s Lady Radnor’s Suite. I didn’t hear all the concerts, but highlights for me were Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, and Brahms’ first piano trio. With very minimal time for rehearsal, the musicians nonetheless produced performances that were infused with a joyful love of music.

The Twilight Candlelight Concerts were a beautiful, peaceful end to the very busy days. Mostly Bach, the candlelight created a feeling of religiosity very fitting for that most profoundly religious composer. I also had a strong feeling that this is how I would have experienced his music back in the 18th Century, although perhaps not in a barn.

These concerts were advertised all over Penguin – in coffee shops, on community notice boards –anywhere, really, that a poster could go. And the community came, to support, to enjoy, and to socialise. Word spread, and people came from Burnie, Devonport, even Launceston. The Nova Muse Festival, only in its second year, had clearly embedded itself into a community that welcomed and celebrated it.

Douglas Coghill, Tasmanian luthier and dealer in stringed instruments, was in residence for most of the week. His room became a hub where participants came to hang out, try instruments and bows, and watch Doug work. It was a lesson to me never to underestimate the powers of discernment of young players, in particular. They had very definite ideas about what worked for them, what didn’t, and what they were looking for. Having so many instruments to try and compare was a learning experience, even for those who were not planning to buy.

The final concert was a showcase of all that had happened throughout the week. Each ensemble presented the music they had worked on, interspersed with selected young soloists who had played at masterclasses. I don’t want to single out individuals, although there were some outstanding ones — it would seem to be not in the spirit of the festival. Though, I do need to make special mention of pianist Alex Raineri, who played almost constantly throughout the week. He accompanied young students at the lunchtime concerts at NWCS, performed at all the Masterworks concerts, and then at the final concert accompanied young soloists. With no forewarning, he played everything the participants handed him with consummate artistry.

The Nova Muse Festival is still in its infancy – this was only its second year. Among her plans for the future, Susan Collins would like to include some Tasmanian musicians in the line-up of mentors, and perhaps include a double bass stream.

On this year’s showing, I think this festival has the potential to become a highlight of Tasmania’s musical calendar.

Learn more about the Nova Muse Festival online.

Images supplied.

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