Adelaide Festival Shares in Schubert’s Dream Experience

One has to go a long way back, in fact to 2004, to find a chamber music series programmed in the Adelaide Festival. This year, a series returns in the form of Chamber Landscapes.

The last chamber music program, Beethoven Songline, was held in Elder Hall during Stephen Page’s term as artistic director. This year, lovers of chamber music can rejoice because Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy are offering Chamber Landscapes, a series of 12 concerts and associated events taking place at UKARIA (formerly Ngeringa) over the Festival’s second weekend. Anna Goldsworthy, its curator, was intensely involved in rehearsals with her group Seraphim Trio in a lovely stone farmhouse in Lower Saxony, Germany, when she spoke to The Adelaide Review about the series.

How did the idea of Chamber Landscapes originate?

Neil and Rachel approached me to curate a program at UKARIA. I’ve developed the weekend in consultation with the two of them, and with the wonderful Mary Vallentine.

What is your impression of UKARIA, having participated there since its opening in 2015?

I think it’s a beautiful venue, and it has very much inspired my programming for this weekend. It offers a paradoxical combination of interior and exterior worlds: an intense chamber music experience (due to its size and acoustic properties) alongside a commanding view of landscape.

You’ve been an artistic director before, at the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival. What new ideas will you bring to this event?

I always think that curating a festival or concert series is like arranging a wonderful dinner party: you invite all of your artistic crushes and wait for the chemistry to happen. Both at Port Fairy and UKARIA, I’ve also always sought an overriding theme or narrative. At UKARIA, there’s a focus both on landscape and on Schubert. There’s also a strong Australian current running through the program, much of which references Peter Sculthorpe. I also liked the idea of gradually accruing forces over the course of the weekend: beginning with the solo voice of the late piano sonatas, and adding extra personnel each concert until we get to the Trout Quintet. This tracks a journey between the two poles of Schubert’s art: he was the great poet of loneliness, but much of his music is also a celebration of conviviality.

It seems years since we’ve seen chamber music programmed in the Adelaide Festival. Why do you think this is, and do you think it signals a renaissance of interest in classical music in the Festival?

I suppose every festival director brings their own strengths to their programming but I’m delighted to see chamber music restored to the line-up. Since the Festival’s inception under the leadership of John Bishop, art music has always been a strong part of this, its identity. Particularly today, when festivals proliferate all around the country, I think it’s important to have a clear sense of what makes the Adelaide Festival the Adelaide Festival, rather than a travelling circus that could equally make its home in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth.

Can you tell us about the artists appearing in Chamber Landscapes?

There’s a real focus on South Australian-born or -based artists, as I wanted to celebrate the musical richness of this state. We’ll be hearing from violinist Niki Vasilakis, cellist Simon Cobcroft, soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart, the Australian String Quartet, as well as my own trio Seraphim (founded in Adelaide 23 years ago). Beyond this, I’m thrilled that Melbourne-based pianist Stephen McIntyre will be making a return visit to the Adelaide Festival after many years, and that the expatriate duo of tenor Steve Davislim and pianist Anthony Romaniuk will be joining us from Europe. The Italian period instrument ensemble La Gaia Scienza will join Sydney bassist Kirsty McCahon for the Trout, and we’ll also have the inimitable William Barton on didgeridoo. I think of it as the dream team!

As the focus of Chamber Landscapes, what does Schubert’s music mean for you?

Schubert only ever gave one public recital, and much of his music remained unpublished until after his death. However, contrary to popular myth, he was not entirely unknown in his lifetime, with word of his artistry spreading through Vienna, thanks to a group of devoted friends who met regularly for ‘Schubertiades,’ or Schubert evenings. The conviviality of these evenings is one of the threads of this program, with works such as the Trout Quintet celebrating the joys of musical camaraderie.

At the same time, Schubert was one of the greatest poets of loneliness, and his epic song cycle Winterreise is one of its greatest monuments (‘A stranger I arrived, a stranger I depart’). This is the  ipside of the social Schubert: the Romantic artist adrift in a wintry landscape. Schubert’s work for chamber music exists between these poles of conviviality and inwardness. In his later works (as in Beethoven) there is a deepening of this inward exploration, mirroring the transition from the social values of Classicism to the intense subjectivities of Romanticism.

The pianist Alfred Brendel has said that “in his larger forms, Schubert is a wanderer. He likes to move at the edge of the precipice, and does so with the assurance of a sleepwalker.” Schubert’s early works have not yet assumed this dream-logic, this sense that the form has been generated by the lyrical content rather than imposed from outside. Instead, they announce a starting point of this wandering. In his later works, such as the E flat Trio, Schubert wanders to the extremes of human experience. There are still conversations within these textures, but they recall the vacillations of a single consciousness, poised on the brink of death, and at the same time able to see – vividly – the inverse of death. “Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain,” he wrote in 1822. “And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.” The keen relief of these polarities gives Schubert’s work its extraordinary dimension. He brings us to the abyss, where he sings and dances anyway. Despite their grand scale (Schumann wrote of Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’), his two late trios are also hymns to transience. Schubert was master, above all, of song.

His song lyrics can be read as a Rosetta stone of his musical meanings and speak of his enduring obsessions: love, death, nature, hope, despair. In his mature instrumental works, these melodies are laid out spaciously, in glorious spun-out lines rather than concise motives that can readily be deconstructed. Perhaps this is why he sometimes forgoes
development, as in the final movement of the Trout, or simply reprises his material in another key: by shining another light on it, he finds it differently beautiful.

The critic Neville Cardus described Schubert as “the world’s first vagrant composer”, suggesting “we can think of him as one who strayed when very young into Mozart’s groomed garden and picked a bloom or two, then went along the slopes of the height tossed up by Beethoven’s earthquake, and near the summit found wildflowers in plenty”. Our Schubert project tracks that passage, from those early blooms of Mozart, to an astonishing flowering that is all Schubert’s own.

Chamber Landscapes
UKARIA, Mount Barker
Adelaide Festival
Thursday, March 9 to Tuesday, March 14
adelaidefestival.com.au

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