Playing in the sunshine

By William Dart

Piers Lane is artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville. Photo / Andrew Rankin
Piers Lane is artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville. Photo / Andrew Rankin

Auckland music-lovers are more accustomed to seeing Piers Lane on the town hall stage at the Steinway than under tropical palms enjoying Queensland sunshine.

Currently in Townsville, he's putting the final touches to the upcoming 26th Australian Festival of Chamber Music, his tenth as Artistic Director. The festival is a nine-day programme of more than 30 concerts and special events and attracts chamber musicians - and aficionados - from all over the world.

In our previous conversations, Lane - the soul of affability - has discussed the intricacies of playing Chopin and the joys of working with fellow musicians; today he's in equally affable promoting Townsville's annual music gala and very satisfied to see how this festival has grown.

"Every year there are increased ticket sales and there's a real buzz around," he tells me. "People are really beginning to know about it."

With Aucklanders steeling themselves for the winter ahead, Lane knows just the magic words to tempt would-be punters across the Tasman.

"The average Townsville temperature is 21 to 26 degrees and the weather is downright balmy," he cajoles. "Gorgeous climate and top-drawer musicians are always going to be the perfect festival combination."

During its quarter-century, this musical banquet has certainly boosted the city's cultural profile.

"I remember when I was a performer here and the taxi driver asked me if I had come to visit the reef," Lane reflects. "When I told him I was here for the Chamber Music Festival, he roared with laughter and said, 'You can't have a posh wedding in this town any more without a string quartet'."

Local community and visiting artists come together in many and sometimes unexpected ways. Take, for example, English violinist Tasmin Little who returns this year for a number of concerts, including a sonata with the winner of this year's Sydney International Piano Competition.

"Tasmin's always a big hit," Lane enthuses. "I remember her buying a dress in Townsville for one of her concerts and, when she walked on stage for that final appearance, it earned her a standing ovation before she played a note."

As a very pro-active artistic director, one of Lane's popular instigations has been the regular morning Concert Conversations, in which he talks with visiting artists, "interacting on a more intimate basis than you can in a more formal concert."

Auckland soprano Patricia Wright, whose Schumann and Bach at the festival some years back is still remembered, describes her Concert Conversation as marvellously laid-back and comfortable.

"It was wonderful to talk to interesting and interested people," she adds. "People with a genuine sophistication, who know and love music."

This year, Lane is excited about a musical guest list that includes the Goldner Quartet, offering the second instalment of its late Beethoven series with the composer's Opus 127.
The same concert features five pianists, including Lane and Sa Chen, sharing Schubert's last waltzes and British baritone Roderick Williams singing Schumann.

The Goldners also play Beethoven in one of three events in the festival's popular Sunday evening Concert Crawl.

"We tried all kinds of things for this spot, including cabaret, but nothing worked," Lane remembers. "This proved perfect - three half-hour programmes, each with food and wine, with the audience walking between venues.

But he adds that it's a tough call for the Goldners: "They have to play their late Beethoven quartet three times in a row."

In among classy candlelight concerts - and an outdoor 1812 overture, with a participating audience providing the "cannon" effects with paper bags - there are real gems. One has Roderick Williams singing Schubert's Winterreise song-cycle interspersed with readings from Scott's Journals; in another, guitarist Karin Schaupp joins actor Tama Matheson weaving music and words around Byron's Don Juan.

Lane is particularly pleased to be presenting the opera The Happy Prince by the late Australian composer Malcolm Williamson in a Saturday afternoon Families' Concert.

The festival first embraced young people's theatre with Britten's Noye's Fludde four years ago and Lane still appreciates this music "by a composer who really knew what he was doing, combining amateurs with professionals, young people and adults in the same work."

Williamson's 1965 opera is "such a sad, moving and wonderful version of the Oscar Wilde fairytale," he sighs, reminding him of his own associations with its composer, "playing the Third Concerto in a radio broadcast with Williamson just feet away from the piano."

Is it time then for Australia to celebrate Williamson as one of its great composers, I ask him.

"He was so huge in the 1960s and '70s but mainly in England," Lane muses. "Maybe he didn't have the Australian voice of Peter Sculthorpe - his language was more universal. But he could write a good tune, which is more than you can say for a lot of modern composers.

"Yes, it's definitely time for a Williamson revival," Lane asserts, and perhaps this year's Australian Festival of Chamber Music might just trigger it off.

What: Australian Festival of Chamber Music
Where & when: Townsville, 29 July - 6 August

- NZ Herald

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