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Review: Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival – Sound Shell Saturday

David Barmby

Eclectic programming ending on a focused high.
Review: Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival – Sound Shell Saturday

Sound Shell Saturday, Welcome to Country. Photo by Riane Brown Sunbird Photography.

This year is the first Four Winds Easter Festival programmed by Scottish classical accordionist James Crabb, its new Artistic Director. ‘I’ve created a festival with the artists that I love to hear in these beautiful surroundings and with repertoire that fits in well with nature,' he said. 'I’ve been very inspired every time I’ve come to this site to work. Ideas come to fruition when I’m sitting in the Sound Shell alone, soaking up nature and giving time to just realise this natural beauty. There are no other distractions. I don’t want to restrict myself with strong themes. It is not that kind of festival. I work with the artists programming music that fits with them. What we have said in this Festival is that “you will be mesmerised, you’ll be entertained and you will be seeing a show that you have not seen anywhere else”.’

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The first full-day program at the Sound Shell at Four Winds Nature’s Concert Hall was a success, though it raised questions about programming structure within each performance. We may understand James Crabb’s thinking in not wishing to be constrained by a theme, but if there is only constant variety of repertoire, style and context, then an indiscriminate melange is a real risk.

On Sound Shell Saturday the day began with a moving and inspiring morning Welcome to Country by the Yuin Elders, the traditional owners and custodians of this land. The large audience were treated to the Djaadjawan Dancers adorned with body paint and shells, an elderly lady carrying a wooden bowl of a burning fungus from the Gulaga (Mother) Mountain used by women in ceremony, while children from the Narooma and Bermagui Primary Schools provided sad yet hopeful songs that spoke of the hunger and dislocation of the stolen generations.

David Lehan, also known as ‘Radical Son’, sang a soulful work commissioned for the 2016 Festival as well as the first performance of a new, rhythmically intricate song, Yuligi baraay, dhuwan, arranged by James Crabb. Percussionist and composer David Hewitt’s newly composed Baronda Taiko 3 afforded an opportunity for the South Coast drumming group Stonewave Taiko to perform alongside the First People dancers. The interaction of these two ancient cultures (Japanese and Indigenous) performing together was a first for me. We then heard the Australian Brass Quintet and Speak Percussion perform a 16th-century Suite by Renaissance Netherlander Tielman Susato. It seemed in this program a strange inclusion and conclusion. Although expertly performed, I could not imagine any possible connection with what had preceded it.

In the next program, a short while later, two classic 20th-century works were performed, the first by Speak Percussion in a highly refined and precise performance of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), while Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) composed five years later mesmerised in a perfectly serene rendition by Jack Liebeck (violin) and Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano), pleasingly ‘accompanied’ by a natural soundscape of birdsong and insects.

American Timothy Geller’s new work Breath Dance, one of four commissions in this Festival by way of the ‘Composing the Future with James Crabb’ campaign, was written for Australian harpist, Alice Giles. A pre-recorded soundscape of wind harps emerged from silence before Giles and young Miller Northam (who later played the rim of a water-filled glass, strummed and rubbed the lowest strings of Giles’s harp) walked onstage together. This fragile and evocative work that also involves the harpist humming, concluded with Giles performing a final delicate ascending glissando as she left the stage, followed by her young companion artist. Only then did the pre-recorded wind harps dissolve into silence. The composer explains the work as 'breath and wind as Spirit are as old as creation itself…the breath of God creating the universe'. This is an exquisite new work that the Festival should be proud to have commissioned.

Thirteen musicians provided a highly accomplished performance in the Sound Shell of Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s brilliant work Ayre for soprano and chamber ensemble (2004). The instrumental ensemble included north African drums, conch shell, a ronroco (a small guitar from South America), hyper-accordion (the sound of Crabb’s accordion electronically manipulated) and live electronics. Despite some early episodic technical issues, in many ways this was the musical highlight of the day and possibly the Festival. Inspired by the famous Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs written for Cathy Berberian in 1964, the work is a delectable reimagining of medieval Andalusian sacred and secular music from Arabic Christian, Arabic Muslim and Sephardic Jewish communities. Sung in Ladino (the lost language of the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim) as well as in Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian and Spanish, this was an absolute tour de force for soprano Emma Pearson whose singing throughout was both accomplished and luxuriously sensuous. The ensemble is called on to let their hair down throughout the work, standing and improvising while Pearson jumped with elation, danced and clapped. The composer hints at his intent in writing the work, as follows: ‘With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian. How connected these cultures are and how terrible it is when they don’t understand each other. The grief that we are living in the world today has already happened for centuries, but somehow harmony was possible between these civilisations.’

The performance was met with a unanimous standing ovation by this large outdoor audience.

★★★★

Sound Shell Saturday
The Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival, Bermagui ran from 28 March to 1 April

David Barmby visited the Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival as a guest of the festival.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.

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