After a three-year pandemic-induced absence, the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival was back with a vengeance! Taking place in six different venues, all in easy walking distance from one another, 32 events took place from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. There was a huge variety in programming, from the light-hearted to more serious music making, and apart from a few special events, each was about an hour long with dual sessions running in most time slots. As in the past, the small town was overtaken by festival goers, with all accommodation booked out. Despite the rain in other parts of the state, Port Fairy turned on a sunny and almost warm weekend. The streets were bustling and cafes and shops were busy as people combined concert-going with some excellent eating establishments and a spot of retail therapy in between events. This was a Festival where one saw a Musica Viva luminary in the clothes shop, another sitting outside at a café table with Eric Siblin’s Cello Suites ready to read, and one of Australia’s best clarinetists shopping in the IGA.
It was the second full Festival for directors Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos after their first in 2019 (although they kept their hand in with some online programs in 2020 and 2021, and credit is due to the Moyne Shire Council who maintained their funding during those two years despite there being no Festivals). They have optimized the use of technology; the program and Festival brochure were online, and an environmentally friendly alternative to throw-away program notes was provided, which instead were available to download in advance.
The quality of the musicians that Curro and Cassomenos attracted was outstanding, even world-class. You could go to many a festival in the UK, US or Europe and not hear better. Also laudable was the way they drew on the talents of local and regional musicians. In our judgement, the festival was an overwhelming success and a worthy return to the annual tradition. We attended 13 events with little free time, often trotting speedily from one venue to the next, and below we provide mini-reviews of each.
Sadly, the Victorian floods stymied many would-be attenders and some musicians, and many would have been caught out like us as the V/Line trains and coaches were cancelled and we had to drive down – the Warrnambool train is usually packed with Festival goers on the Friday.
Brief individual concert reviews
Songmakers: Nostalgia Friday 8pm
As promised in the program note, bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos enchanted us in a joyous Argentinian homage to Piazzolla, accompanied by the wonderfully expressive Andrea Katz. Their Argentinian (Katz) and Spanish (Dinopoulos) background showed in the flair with which they conjured up the spirit of Buenos Aires. Dinopoulos was by turns lovelorn, nostalgic and even a little crazy, and his Spanish accent was impeccable.
Babkas, Bagels & Black Forest Cake Friday 10pm
Hope Csutoros (violin), Judy Gunson (piano accordion) and Jo To (doublebass) comprise the Melbourne-based Stiletto Sisters who took us on a late-night klezmer excursion into Yiddish, Hebrew and Sephardic musical territory, in gypsy costumes to suit. “We have come from far, far away!” Their tongue-in-cheek Gypsy-ness was expressed with extreme musicality, with singing and playing of the highest standard. The mood ranged from deep sorrow to frenzied hilarity. These excellent musicians induced in me a reflective mood, pondering on how the carefree cabarets of 30s Berlin turned to the horror of war for the Jewish people. But not all was melancholy – we finished with a rousing Hava Nagila and couldn’t stop smiling.
Rejuvenation Saturday 10am
The members of the youthful Wattleseed Ensemble are Meg Cohen (Baroque violin), Katie Yap (Baroque viola), Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba) and Nick Pollock (theorbo), with repertoire ranging from the Baroque, to folk, to contemporary music. According to their program note, they aimed to “tell the story of the hope and fear of re-emergence – green shoots after fire, but also wounds that take time to heal”. The program was mainly Baroque, but also included an arrangement by Michael Bakrnčev of a Ukrainian folk song, Plive Kacha Po Tysyni, in tribute to the people of Ukraine, and a lovely piece for solo viol, The Spirit of Daphne, written for Vaughan by the young Australian performer and composer Brooke Green. Their playing was exemplary, with beautiful intonation (and frequent retuning) and excellent communication between the four players.
Brunch with St Brigid Saturday 10am
The morning consisted of two concerts interspersed with a wonderful traditional country morning tea in the church hall.
Speak Percussion: Bell Curve
This was a gem of an immersive experience. In a cold church on a damp but sunny Saturday, twelve mightily disciplined local teenage musicians (in partnership with One Day Studios Warrnambool) performed a marvellous work with the Federation Bells in a work by Eugene Ughetti, director of Speak Percussion. The long possibilities of silence and the different ways of producing a sound from a bell were explored. Bells were struck then waved, in different configurations, bowed, stroked, muted on the carpet, separately and together. I’m sure the old St Brigid’s church in Crossley, now being beautifully restored as a performance space, has never heard anything like it.
Mungala, Madrigals & Mozart
After morning tea, Sean Marantelli (flute) joined three members of the Partridge Quartet: Mana Ohashi on violin, Eunise Cheng on viola and Daniel Smith on cello. Marantelli began with Mungala, a fine piece for solo flute by highly regarded First Peoples composer Brenda Gifford. Marantelli played and occasionally sang into the flute concurrently from the sanctuary stage, the acoustic giving a gorgeous bloom. Smith then performed the Prelude from Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No 1 in G major. This was played beautifully. Cheng and Ohashi then played three Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, H 313 Martinů splendidly. Violin and viola made magical and imaginative intertwinings – playful, lyrical, just as the welcome sun coming through the stained glass coloured the air, the church’s acoustic giving a golden sheen to all the instruments. “Absolutely magnificent!” whispered a lady behind me. The program finished with a lively and humorous Flute Quartet in A major K 298 by Mozart. The Port Fairy Festival has found a precious new venue to be cherished and used again.
Songmakers: Lauris Elms Tribute Saturday 2pm
Songmakers Australia with their splendid accompanist Andrea Katz is one of Australia’s preeminent vocal groups. The program was a tribute to the Festival’s patron, Lauris Elms, and comprised a wide variety of songs that Elms had performed herself as well as pieces that she loved by Schumann, Britten, Purcell, Cole Porter, and the Australian composers Linda Phillips and Alan Tregaskis. A highlight was the complete Les nuits d’été of Berlioz, which Lauris had sung many times. What is always notable about Songmakers Australia is that Merlyn Quaife (soprano), Christina Wilson (mezzo), Brenton Spiteri (tenor) and Nick Dinopoulos (bass-baritone) are soloists in their own right, but when they join forces as an ensemble the blend and expressive communication among them is close to perfect and, as The Age once put it, they sing with “a superb synergy”. This performance was no exception.
Papa & Pejačević Saturday 3.30pm
Past Festival director Anna Goldworthy (on piano) joined forces with Helen Ayres (violin), Mana Ohashi (violin), Christopher Moore (viola), Svetlana Bogosaljevic (cello) and Jill Griffiths (double bass) to introduce us to a Piano Quartet by the little-known Croatian composer Dora Pejačević, written when she was only 22. This was a remarkably mature piece, lively and vivacious in most parts but with a lush and romantic second movement. The “Papa” of the concert title was of course Papa Haydn, and the group gave a fine rendition of his Piano Concerto in D major. Goldsworthy played with tenderness and passion, and joyous flourishes in the highly decorated solo line in the last movement. The little Reardon Theatre is a good venue for chamber music and Goldsworthy and her friends played with great flair, although sitting in the front row with the cello at ear level and eyes at bow level was a mite disconcerting and unbalanced, but we quickly got used to it.
Reflections Saturday 5.15pm
The program opened with Stefan Cassomenos playing In Reflective Mood, the first movement from a short work by Michael Easton, co-founder of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival. In keeping with Easton’s emphasis on lieder as an integral part of the Festival, the remainder of the concert was a program of Mozart art song and Schumann’s Liederkreis Op 24, with Cassomenos accompanying the young and highly accomplished tenor Louis Hurley with great sensitivity. Hurley’s effortless technique, excellent phrasing and warm and lyrical tone set him firmly in the tradition of the great exponents of lieder – he especially recalled to mind Peter Schreier.
Saturday Gala: Goldners Saturday 7:45PM
The highly-acclaimed Goldner Quartet (named after Richard Goldner, founder of Musica Viva Australia) made a welcome appearance at the Festival – their first. The quality of the individual players makes for a formidable ensemble. Dene Olding (violin), Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola) and Julian Smiles (cello) opened with String Quartet No 1 of the impressive young Australian composer Harry Sdraulig (in attendance for the performance). Sdraulig has received numerous awards for his work and this splendid quartet showed that these are well-deserved. It was somewhat reminiscent of central European music, and unusually for string quartets, finished with a slow third movement that was mesmerising and gently beautiful. We were then introduced to a little-known string quartet from the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, which Olding likened to both Shostakovich and Pärt. This demonstrated some virtuosic playing with sounds of bird calls in the third movement and a wonderful passage of unison playing from three of the instruments. After an interval, the Goldners gave a masterful reading of the Schumann String Quartet No 3in A major, finishing with a selection of the Goldner Variations, a set of 25 Variations on Beethoven’s Ode To Joy which were commissioned for their 25th anniversary in 2020.
Cairo Club Orchestra Saturday 10pm
A rather exhausting Saturday concluded with a wonderful late-night concert of swing and dance music from the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Peter Milley who has been leading the Melbourne-based group for more than 35 years. A line-up of saxes (also playing clarinets), trumpets, trombones, bass, banjo and drums, all in black tie, entertained us hugely and ran well over time as the enthusiastic audience clamoured for more. The only down-side is that it would have been even more fun if the organisers had opened the bar!
De Profundis Sunday 10am
It was bizarre at first glance to see this glamorous instrument and the charming genius of Scottish/Australian James Crabb on a church sanctuary stage where moments before a Eucharist had been celebrated. Crabb gave a recital of pieces for classical accordion, and as an added bonus, gave us a brief and illuminating exposition on the differences between the traditional squeezebox and its classical stablemate. The concert began and finished with the familiar sounds of tango from Piazzolla and Kats-Chernin, with three short transcriptions from Rameau harpsichord pieces as a centrepiece. On either side of this were two contemporary works. The concert took its title from Psalm 130, the De Profundis of Sofia Gubaidulina. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I had never heard of her before, but Gubaidulina (now 91) is said to be one of the foremost Russian composers of the later 20th century. The piece, and Crabb, explored the fullest range of the accordion’s expressive possibilities, with startling deep notes conjuring a vision of the Psalmist’s depths of despair, and the tenderest diminuendo providing comfort. After the Rameau, Crabb introduced the world premiere of Talk, a piece created for Crabb by the Australian composer James Ledger and giving full rein to the virtuosity of his playing. I thought this concert was thrilling and exciting, and was disconcerted to find myself behind a couple in a queue later in the day saying they thought it was completely awful modern music!
Critiques Brutales Sunday 12.45pm
And for a hilarious interlude over a light lunch, Festival directors Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos entertained us with a choice selection of savage reviews of what are now some of our most highly regarded and beloved masterworks. These were read by Curro with Cassomenos improvising on the music that had inspired the vitriol – for example Wagner’s Meistersinger being described as “boneless tonal mollusk” and the indictment of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet as “scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife”. A reference to “vastly underqualified critics” gave me pause for thought, as that’s pretty well what I am! The readings were interspersed with trivia questions for the audience, which was a lot of fun (especially when we won twice).
Schubert Swansong Sunday 2pm
The award-winning young Melbourne-based Partridge Quartet gave an inspired and inspiring rendition of the epic Schubert String Quintet in C major, often regarded as the pinnacle of Schubert’s chamber music. Despite being in the front row with a clear view of the sensitive communication among the group, one just wanted to close one’s eyes and revel in the vibrant, expressive and often passionate playing. Jos Jonker (violin), Mana Ohashi (violin), Eunise Cheng (viola) and Daniel Smith (cello) were joined by Svetlana Bogosavljevic taking the second cello part. We had heard them play this work in Musica Viva’s first concert in March (on that occasion with James Morley as guest cello), and their Port Fairy performance easily rivalled it.
Closing Gala: Regeneration Sunday 3:30PM
The weekend’s festivities concluded with a gala celebration from what felt like a cast of thousands on a huge stage in the local sports stadium. It was a vastly improved experience from earlier years in this venue. It must present formidable challenges for the sound people to get the balance right, and this time they pretty much did. A big improvement too was the use of lighting spots on the soloists, so we could see them properly from afar.
There was a mix of professionals and amateurs, supported by some excellent sound engineers. As well as many of the musicians who had given us some wonderful music-making over the weekend, the program included instrumentalists and choristers from all over Southwest Victoria. Michael Dahlenburg was the conductor holding it all together, which he accomplished with expertise. As at past festivals, we marvelled at the high standard of musicianship in regional Victoria, and great credit is due to Curro and Cassomenos for their inclusive programming.
The concert opened with Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music with Songmakers Australia showcasing their talents as soloists joined by Polyphonic Voices and the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival Orchestra (some Festival soloists, members of Corpus Medicorum, the Warrnambool Symphony Orchestra and other regional instrumentalists – and notwithstanding Curro’s description of herself as “second fiddle”, she was a very capable concert master). The performance was first-rate and, despite the large orchestra, there was a pretty good balance between soloists and choir.
Next was the premiere of And the Sweetness Worked Its Charm written by Dermot Tutty in collaboration with the two Port Fairy primary school choirs. Brenton Spiteri impressed as solo tenor, and the children were supported by (although sometimes drowned out by) the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival Chorus (members of Polyphonic Voices, Cantori, the U3A Port Fairy Choir and regional choristers). Matan Franco’s orchestration splendidly supported the accurate and enthusiastic singing. It was a good vehicle for young voices, and I could imagine Tutty expanding it for it to be picked up by an organisation like Victorian Opera for their Youth Opera program.
The remainder of the program comprised a variety of well-known opera choruses and arias including Brenton Spiteri and Nick Dinopoulos as tenor and bass-baritone soloists, and local guest soprano Leah Oswin, who had a lovely voice that alas didn’t carry as well over the large orchestral forces. Some were rollicking good fun, and two were more contemplative, with Oswin doing justice to Vilja’s Song from The Merry Widow of Lehár, and a haunting solo from Monica Curro in Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs enhanced by convincing “harp” accompaniment from Katz on keyboard. Dinopoulos nailed the “Toreador’s Song”, wooing the audience with swagger in a bright red jacket. The concert finished with a rousing performance of the “Drinking Song” from La Traviata, with Oswin and Spiteri as soloists and the audience invited to sing along with the chorus!
A good time was had by all, and judging by the conversation around us, the capacity audience departed to return home very satisfied with their return to Port Fairy Festival.
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed the 2022 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, co-directed by Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos, and performed by a host of musicians at multiple venues in Port Fairy from October 14-16, 2022.