Sensitive balance of new, old and favourites – Huntington Festival reviewed

HUNTINGTON MUSIC FESTIVAL
Huntington Estate Winery, Mudgee, November 25-26
Roger Covell, Sydney Morning Herald
November 29, 2011

THE Huntington Music Festival, in a format planned by Musica Viva, has drawn bigger attendances than ever this year, with sold-out audience space for its five-day duration and no sign that a very rainy opening could dampen the collective sense of discovery of performers and listeners.

A sampling of three of its eight concerts confirmed the sensitive balance with which the 2011 festival has brought together new, favourite and little-known older chamber works and given singing voices, whether solo or concerted, the consistently prominent place they deserve.

That last statement is true, at least, when the festival’s resident choral group is as impeccably co-ordinated as Carl Crossin’s Adelaide Chamber Singers and the solo singer as versatile and communicative as the American baritone Thomas Meglioranza. Such singing appears without apology in programs also harbouring the Modigliani String Quartet, exemplary in tuning and in the musical integration of its players’ powerfully independent personalities.

The Modigliani players were at their enterprising best in rescuing the early 19th century Basque composer Arriaga from underestimation. Arriaga died just before he turned 21. Despite the handicap of a life as short as his full name (Juan Crisostomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola) was long, he managed to write three string quartets, the third of which revealed itself as always technically adroit, a harbinger of Romantic scene-painting in its slow movement and, in its quick finale, a worthy prophet of the kind of slim, sure lyrical optimism that Mendelssohn made famous.

The Adelaide Chamber Singers visibly and tonally took on something of the character of frisky Baltic villagers in the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s loving re-creation of traditional courting music. They later produced, in conjunction with Alice Giles’s scrupulously tickled and thrummed harp playing, the kind of freshly icicled tone that goes with Britten’s masterly A Ceremony of Carols.

Meglioranza’s most unusual songs were a series of unaccompanied Holderlin settings by the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. The singer managed to make his delivery of its complex details, unaided by a score, seem a spontaneous revelation of his innermost personal thoughts.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s new piece, Intermezzo Days, combined affectionately twining strings (Sophie Rowell, Rachel Johnston) and an initially pattern-making piano part (Kristian Chong) with so much euphony as to seem, at a first hearing, lacking in direction.

The eloquent, full-toned phrasing of the English cellist Guy Johnston in Frank Bridge’s Cello Sonata in D minor received whole-hearted partnership from Caroline Almonte (piano).

New Zealand’s Aroha Quartet, convincing in Tan Dun’s experiments in relating colour and sound, was less successful in controlling phrasing, intonation and attack in Beethoven.

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