Indigenous sounds to earth Canberra International Music Festival

Ian Bushnell 23 November 2020
Brenda Gifford

Canberra composer and Yuin woman Brenda Gifford’s work Elements will feature at the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo: Supplied.

The work of Indigenous artists and composers will pulse through next year’s Canberra International Music Festival launched today.

Although themed The Idea of Vienna and featuring the works of the great European composers who graced the former imperial capital, the festival takes a long cultural perspective by also including Indigenous works every day of the event and a diverse contemporary offering.

Artistic director Roland Peelman said that from the perspective of 60,000 years of culture, where the notion of Vienna did not even exist, it is only a blip in our history.

”We’re looking at Vienna but through the prism of our Indigenous culture here,” he said.

So while there will be Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert and Schönberg, there will also be a range of traditional and contemporary Indigenous music.

”The presenting of Indigenous artists as part of our festival has become essential,” Mr Peelman said.


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Canberra-based Yuin artist Brenda Gifford will present her long-awaited work Elements (Bagan, Miriwa, Ngadjung and Ganji) which was meant to premiere this year before COVID-19 intervened.

Mr Peelman says Elements is ”a very substantial work, specially conceived for the Australian Art Orchestra”.

The festival gave Gifford her first commission four years ago and she now composes full-time for orchestra and ensemble.

One half of folk duo The Stiff Gins and now novelist Nardi Simpson will present another new work, Possum Song, created on country at Lightning Ridge with other women that will incorporate the percussive sound of a possum cloak made as part of the project.

Violinist Eric Avery will perform new work every day at the National Gallery of Australia and elsewhere, and other artists will include didgeridoo player William Barton, the Tiwi Strong Women and Yolgnu Songmen, the Wilfred Brothers from Arnhem land.

The pandemic is also responsible for two contemporary premieres – one that deals with our secret private thoughts and the other a response to isolation.

Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra will make its Canberra debut. Photo: ARCO.

Katy’s Abbott’s work for voices and instruments Hidden Thoughts ‘Do I matter?’ draws on the answers of over 200 women to a confidential survey about their private thoughts.

It will be an interactive, live-streamed performance at the Fitters Workshop, where audience members there or online will be invited to provide their own hidden thoughts to the performers.

Mr Peelman said one line that stood out both musically and as an idea was ”Do I matter?”, which was incorporated into the title.

”One of the singers sings this at one point and it’s kind of a spine-chilling moment. It’s a very appropriate piece for our time,” he said.

Far and Near is the result of the Australian Voices asking 22 composers to write a response to the pandemic at a time when no one could physically sing together.

Mr Peelman said it was great, diverse collection of mostly Australian composers, from Katie Noonan and her husband Zac Hurren to Tom Thum, covering a full spectrum of sounds from beat-boxing to chanting, from scatting to singing to jazz.


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The Australian Art Orchestra and award-winning Andrea Keller and Sandy Evans are part of the Australian jazz contingent appearing at the main festival stage in the Fitters’ Workshop, as well as in the best jazz venues around town.

Mozart’s Turkish March will open the festival on 30 April and closing it will be Mahler’s masterpiece The Song of the Earth.

The popular breakfast series, Beethoven for Breakfast, will return as a daily treat.

Australia’s foremost period specialists, the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, will make their Canberra debut for a two-concert exploration of Mozart with performing scholar and Aria winner Neal Peres da Costa and awarded Canberra-based flautist Sally Walker.

And after blowing people away with Bach in 2019, Canberra-born violinist Kristian Winther returns to the festival with Beethoven and Schubert.


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While Beethoven gets six outings, Mozart and Schubert are featured with no less than two concerts each featuring their finest work. The Requiem Mass, written on Mozart’s deathbed, is presented in a startlingly new recomposed version by Gordon Hamilton-meets-Max Richter.

The Canberra International Music Festival takes place from 30 April to 9 May. Tickets are now on sale. To learn more visit the festival website.


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