Review: CIMF Bach in the Central Desert

This year’s sold out Barbara Blackman Festival Blessing concert at the Canberra International Music Festival – named for the writer and arts patron, whose significant support was instrumental to the festival’s growth in the mid-2000s – picked up a number of threads introduced by Artistic Director Roland Peelman in his opening concert.

Véronique Serret and William Barton at the Canberra International Music Festival.

Bach in the Central Desert took place in the National Gallery of Australia’s Gandel Hall, and while the second half was given over to Festival newcomers, the Ntaria Choir, long-standing guest artist William Barton opened proceedings, with the world premiere of Heartland, a collaboration between the didgeridoo player and violinist Véronique Serret that saw breath-sounds, harmonics and music fragments unfold into a work of rhythmic urgency and soaring chant, Barton’s voice ringing out across the hall. Serret’s vocals, sung over her violin playing, provided a delicate contrast in tone to Barton’s, if not quite matching him for sheer projection.

The two musicians returned to the stage – alongside flautist Sally Walker, guitarist Callum Henshaw and percussionist Bree van Reyk, and conducted by Peelman – for another world premiere, Bark of the ‘bidgee by Chris Sainsbury, whose recently launched Platform Paper for Currency House is essential reading for Australian composers, performers and programmers, not to mention critics. Opening with an improvisatory, mysterious flute solo – “suggesting the pristine environment of Aboriginal life prior to settlement,” Sainsbury writes in his program note – the six-movement work explores the Murrumbidgee River as a boundary between Aboriginal and white settler cultures. From the shrouded, almost dancing, menace of muted drum and guitar in Lanyon (named for John Lanyon and his station on the Murrumbidgee) to the splashes of piccolo and violin over the deeper flowing drone of the didgeridoo in Ripple ripple, Sainsbury’s painterly score was both pictorial and enigmatic – the skittering didgeridoo and timbral effects of Deep secrets were entrancing – culminating in a sense of hope in the multi-layered Bach of the ‘bidgee, which saw the musical material of the Aboriginal world in agile conversation with a passacaglia bass-line from Henshaw’s guitar, before a final, brief flute figure recalled the opening of the work.

The saxophone quartet at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Bookending Bark of the ‘bidgee was Bach himself, performed by what Peelman described as “an organ on eight legs”: the saxophone quartet, whose rendition of the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, featured incredibly delicate playing from Adrian Tully on soprano saxophone, and plenty of nimble playing from the lower voices. They followed up the Sainsbury with Bach’s final, incomplete (possibly on purpose) fugue from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus XIX, completed in this case by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Here it was the quartet’s smoothness of sound, perfectly balanced across the four voices, that impressed, the large-scale fugue spooling out in unhurried phrases.

The Ntaria Choir at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

The second half of the concert saw the return of the Ntaria Choir, from Hermannsburg (Ntaria, in the local Western Arrarnte language) in the Northern Territory, where the work of German missionaries sparked a tradition of Lutheran chorale singing that continues to this day and has become an important facet of the push for language reclamation in the Arrarnte community. The Ntaria Choir has released several recordings and has recently been collaborating with other Pitjantjatjara community singers to form a Central Australian Choir, touring to Germany in 2015 to sing in Lutheran celebrations. In Canberra they have quickly become a Festival favourite for their heartfelt performances and the distinctive timbre the Arrarnte language (and also Pitjantjatjara) brings to the German chorales.

Their performance at the NGA spanned Jesuai nhau-urna pitjai (Jesus Christ, turn to us) in Western Arrarnte, after the 17th-century chorale Herr Jesu Crist, dich zu uns wend – which built from a sweet-toned solo voice, to the choir in unison before breaking into harmony – to an original, Godanya Nganampa Myatja in Pitjantjatjara by Petrina Windy, Caroline, Windy and Hollie Webb. Their set included a Pitjantjatjara version of the famous Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd” – from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, with a melody by 19th-century English musician Sir George Thomas Smart, and a Western Arrarnte version of O Bless the Lord My Soul – Enka ntjaap’ra nukai – on a melody by 18th-century English composer Aaron Williams, while Nurna wurlerrama (Thanks to the Lord), a traditional round in Western Arrarnte, saw the choir joined by Barton, Serret, Van Reyk and the perambulatory organ of The saxophone quartet accompanied Kaarrerrai, wurlamparinyai! (Wake, awake, for Night is Flying) – reprised from the opening concert – and a final audience singalong (for those in the Canberra audience who knew their hymns – and there were plenty).

Like the festival’s opening concert, this was a brilliant example of the depth, variety and above all relevance that can emerge – with smart programming – from a theme as ‘simple’ as Johann Sebastian Bach. Followed up by a wide-ranging Q&A led by Peelman with Barton, Sainsbury and Ntaria chorister Marion Swift, Bach in the Central Desert gave us a stunning spectrum of musical traditions new and ancient.