The last few years have seen a spectacular rise of smaller, chamber-type concert offerings in the Adelaide Hills to the point where the Hills now rival the plains in the quality of what is available.
Located in the unspoilt rural fringes of Mount Barker, the $7m Ukaria Cultural Centre sets a phenomenal pace with a year-round calendar of nationally and internationally respected artists. Without any exaggeration, only the Melbourne Recital Centre and Sydney’s City Recital Hall on Angel Place can compare. To have recently brought out Dawn Upshaw from the US – the soprano in Górecki’s famous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – and to be presenting Emma Kirkby in a lute song recital this April are but two examples. Suffice to say, if you haven’t been up to Ukaria, absolutely make the effort do so.
But the Hills’ concert scene is currently thriving for other reasons too. A short drive away is The Little Music Room, a delightfully small and intimate 65- seat auditorium tucked away in a rural property at Littlehampton. Unique in its focus on Baroque music, it has become a favourite destination for many of Australia’s leading early musicians, including recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey, violinist Lucinda Moon and cellist Anthony Albrecht. With three harpsichords on site – French, German and Italian hand-crafted instruments – it is the only concert venue outside a CBD in Australia to be so equipped.
Then there is the newly established Adelaide Hills Music Circle. This is the brainchild of Brian Chatterton who departed Co-Opera as its founding musical director in July. Himself a resident of Echunga, he has poured all his energy and passion into creating a series of orchestral, choral and chamber music concerts in ‘Heysen Country’, taking in Hahndorf and the surrounding townships of Lobethal, Mount Barker, Echunga and Strathalbyn.
That’s right – we have a newly established orchestra in the Hills, and it made its debut in December with a fabulous performance of Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas Christmas cantata, with Chatterton conducting.
Adelaide Baroque Orchestra perform at Ukaria in 2018
The idea behind the Adelaide Hills Music Circle, says Chatterton, is to broaden the region’s tourism opportunities and give younger musicians a chance to flex their muscles. It began in September with three rising talents: the multi-genre singer Grace Bawden, who gained national attention as a 15-year-old in Australia’s Got Talent, and the gifted cellist Joseph Freer and clarinettist Anna Coleman.
Chatterton says he plans to promote more such artists to audiences in Circle concerts.
“I want to get a quality musical product known in the Hills, so that it fulfils a community need, and to encourage Adelaide people to make the trip to see these artists.”
For venues, he picks places where wineries and eateries are close at hand, but he is ultimately guided by where he can find a decent, concert-ready piano – though sometimes he has to bring his own.
Two of the loveliest concert spots Chatterton has used are St Paul’s Lutheran church on Hahndorf’s main street, and Strathalbyn’s equally historic St Andrew’s Church with its magnificent spire overlooking the Angas River. At both these locations he assembled an 11-piece chamber orchestra, choir and soloists to perform Saint Nicolas.
The Cologne Chamber Orchestra gives concerts in these same churches when they tour Australia – watch out for them too this January.
Another venue Chatterton has settled on is the heritage-listed Strathalbyn Gasworks. These are an assortment of perfectly quaint old limestone buildings and tastefully designed modern architecture that now operates as B&B accommodation.
“It seats just 50 people, but it has the loveliest ambience and is just ideal for chamber music,” he says. “People can enjoy food and wine on the terraces outside, and stay over if they wish.”
Also, under the umbrella of the Adelaide Hills Music Circle are the Hills Vocal Collection, a quartet of opera-trained singers that Chatterton conducts, and two new instrumental groups named the Bronzewing Quartet and Windsong Quintet. Both resident ensembles of the Royal Commonwealth Society SA Branch, they similarly focus on young players who are entering the professional league.
“My mantra,” says Chatterton, “is that it is not enough to expect graduates when they come through tertiary studies to be able to live off a performance income. They are thirsty for things to do, and platforms like these groups give them an opportunity to build professional careers.”
It really does seem that the Hills are alive with the sound of music. This is especially so when one factors in the Heysen Ensemble, whose line-up boasts several ASO players, and the success of Littlehampton’s Little Music Room. In what they believe was originally a milking shed, co-owners Lesley Lewis and Susanna Bragg have set up a thoroughly delightful performing space complete with rustic touches – right outside, an upturned boat is slung over a sheep run.
“We’ve deliberately left that,” Lewis says. “It’s a leftover from when the property ran livestock.”
The picturesque venue, situated just off a country lane in the outskirts of Littlehampton, has enjoyed capacity audiences to all concerts bar one since it was launched in 2012 by renowned conductor and fellow Hills resident Nicholas Braithwaite.
“We have no trouble filling the place, and similarly we’ve never been stuck for artists who want to come and perform. It is amazing how many contact us, but we try not to move far from Baroque repertoire because of the harpsichord collection we have,” says Lewis, a harpsichordist herself who plays in many of the concerts.
Genevieve Lacey has been there twice, first with accordionist James Crabb and again with Danish harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen and bassoonist Jane Gower to launch her new CD.
Lewis puts the Little Music Room’s success down to its peaceful ambience and friendly atmosphere.
“Ours is a distinctly intimate space,” she says. “We are hearing this consistently from audiences. They love something a little different.
“As visitors step out into the place, they are immediately hit by the beautiful country surroundings,” Lewis says. “A peaceful transformation happens, as it did for us when we first saw this place.”
Enhancing the experience are a complimentary glass of wine and cheese platters served after every concert. And the surprises only continue when patrons encounter chooks and a pair of alpacas in the rambling garden outside.
“Every time we put on a concert, we wonder what have we got ourselves into,” Lewis adds. “We do it entirely on a voluntary basis. But it is meeting with people and doing something to help the musical community that really counts.”