For the first time since I’ve been going to the Four Winds Easter festival, the forecast threatened rain. The weather goddesses were kind: they justified the forecast, but only delivered seven drops and and that was in two instalments.
What a feast of a festival! Two days of music, four concerts a day. Seven very well known composers, four premieres, at least four commissioned pieces. Aboriginal dancers, Japanese drums, brass, strings, piano, percussion, classical accordion, harp, wine glass, conch-shell, voice. Two standing ovations. An appeal for donations for people in Tathra who lost homes in bushfires a few week ago, just a few kilometres down the road which harvested $30000, to be matched by the Four Winds Foundation.
On Saturday morning the amphitheatre filled slowly. The lagoon behind the sound shell rippled in a light breeze. A moorhen paraded through the yellow waterlilies on the far edge. A dragonfly darted across in front of the stage.
At 10 am the leader of the local Taiko drum group beat the summons to seats on one of the big drums, sticks and arms whirling.
An Aboriginal Elder welcomed us to country, walking through the tiers of the amphitheatre carrying an abalone shell containing fungus from the women’s place, Gulaga, for the smoking ceremony. Children from Bermagui school sang Aborginal songs after a week of music with two Aboriginal singers, Candice Lorrae and Kristel Kickett, as part of the Four Winds education program.
Djaadjawan Dancers, a group of Aboriginal women, ages ranging from 6 to 60, danced a traditional welcome, a whale dance, and a special dance created for the festival. They were dressed in blue, arms and feet painted with white ochre, a wide plaited belt dangling with shells, headbands of feathers, accompanied by boomerang clapping sticks and energetic beating of Japanese drums by the local Stonewave Taiko drummers.
After that stupendous opening, so many more highlights.
David Leha (stage name Radical Son), an Aboriginal man born at Wallaga, the aboriginal community quite close to the Four Winds site, had such presence as I have never felt before. He sang mainly in language, a powerful voice and a powerful statement of self. I knew straight away this would be one of my favourites. Nothing I could find on the Internet matched what I heard from the soundshell.
A strong contrast to this was Breath Dance, one of the world premieres, part of the Composing for the future with James Crabbe campaign. composed for harpist Alice Giles by Timothy Geller, a piece for harp and wine glass. Recorded wind from Antarctica was part of this music, created when Giles set her harp beside a frozen sea near Davis Station and recorded the sound.
More Aboriginal song, this time from Jessie Lloyd’s Mission Songs Project. She’s been collecting songs sung on the missions, set up around Australia in the 19th century, usually by clergy, to “house, protect, and Christianise” Aboriginal people. The songs express the indigenous experience of hunger, exploitation and displacement, and the spirit that can survive these things. The voices of the singers were rich and harmonised in that wonderful way of voices that set up a vibration.
The song cycle ‘Ayre’ by Argentine-Israeli-Russian composer, Osvaldo Golijov, draws on traditional Arabic, Christian and Jewish cultures, with contemporary South American rhythms. It gave soprano Emma Pearson incredible vocal scope and brought the first day to a rousing end. The photo shows only part of her instrumental backing – it also included double bass, flute, clarinet, conch shell, classical and hyper-accordion, percussion and ronroco.
As we left the parking area for the sound shell on Sunday, voices soared up through the amphitheatre to greet us. One of the benefits of pathological early arrival is the chance to encounter artists in rehearsal. On this occasion it was the five singers of the Song Company, who introduced Day 2 with an hour of 16th century music, sitting around the table quaffing and chatting in Latin (translated for those without fluency) and merging their voices to “find the communal pulse” (“tactus” in Latin).
Guy Noble, the MC, was inspired to introduce the next concert in plainsong, one of his more successful acts of clowning.
Arvo Pärt’s Fratres provided an elixir of calm as each slow note lead to the next with absolute clarity: Bach’s Cello suite, refigured for guitar, was stately: Magnar Am’s Gratia for harp and strings turned grace, gratitude, graciousness and receiving love into music: Pēteris Vasks’ cello concerto Presence “took over your mind smoothly and led it gently”. This segment was contemplative, until a return to the energy of the 15th Century, where clapping became an instrument in songs found buried in Sydney University library and resurrected here.
I can’t possibly begin to do justice to, or even mention, everything in this astonishingly varied and rich festival. It provided enough music to sustain for months. But, given my passion for eucalypts, I have to mention Damian Barbeler’s Visiting eucalyptus, commissioned by a couple from Tathra so they could watch the process of composition. Unfortunately they couldn’t be at its premiere because of the aftermath of the fires a few weekends ago. It was played by a ten-piece ensemble.
The finale was a wildly dramatic piece, The three dancers, by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, inspired by a Picasso depiction of a love triangle.
Thank you, James Crabb, and musicians, and volunteers, for creating a marvellous festival.
If you want to see the scope of the festival and what I’ve left out, here’s the program.