Music review: Orange Chamber Music Festival

A rural music festival with great coverage and ambition.

There are few rural music festivals that could hope to attract musicians and audiences from at least three states, let alone find not one but two state arts ministers in enthusiastic attendance! But the Orange Chamber Music Festival managed to pull this off, despite being only three years old.

I should explain that Don Harwin, now retired from Parliament, was there in a personal capacity, having begun funding the Orange Chamber Music Festival when in office. But Ben Franklin, current Minister, must have torn himself away from electioneering in the imminent NSW Election, staying overnight to make sure that his 2023 grant from Create NSW was being well spent – also perhaps hoping to pick up a few Liberal votes in independent Orange.

The Festival itself has a magical foundation story. Two musos were visiting one of Orange’s renowned wineries and put it to the vigneron that the town was ripe for music. Tom Ward agreed, and set to to accommodate this whim. Four years later, he’s Chair of the Board, Carmen Nieves is the Festival Director, and her husband Jay Byrnes is both on the artistic committee and performing several times with saxophone in hand.

At the Festival Gala, for instance, Byrnes’ baritone instrument was wielded in front of Queensland’s visiting Camerata chamber orchestra for the world premier of Nicholas Russoniello’s Saxophone Concerto. Actually, it was for Baritone, Strings and You – and an enthusiastic audience in the vast Kinross Wolaroi School Hall was engaged throughout in adding its choreographed actions to the very accessible music.

Byrnes played with panache and the string band more than justified the cost of bringing them all down from Brisbane. For the festival has a policy, where possible, of programming musicians who aren’t normally heard in Sydney and Canberra. For that’s where the organisers want audiences to trek west from. Maybe even Melbourne?

Indeed, there was a merry group organised by Renaissance Tours getting VIP seating in a variety of halls. For that’s another policy – engage many different venues around town, such as a musical lunch in a remote convent building, or a Sunday morning concert in the CWA hall, so that a broad cross-section of the community becomes invested in the Festival.

And is it possible that the Festival’s prominence has lifted Orange’s musicality to the point that the 30-year-old local conservatorium – home of several concerts – now needs to come up with a new building? One could see why, when the Digital Debussy concert featuring the somewhat unconvincing combination invented by the composer – flute, viola and harp – attracted at least three young budding harpists to get close up to Emily Granger’s performance.

This was, however, the least successful event for me, despite another world premiere from Sally Whitwell. Her Pas d’action worked quite as well as Debussy’s sonata, but it seemed that any two of the trio could make beautiful music together, while the third invariably missed out. Still, it was a good excuse to tour the Regional Gallery, with a strong permanent collection revealed and a superb exhibition of English sculptor Laurence Edwards’ monumental bronzes.

Top of the pops for me was David Greco’s Winterreise song cycle at the unhelpful time of 11 in the morning. Despite this, Greco’s resonant baritone was rich, especially in the lower register. And his harmony with pianist Vatche Jambazian was such that their combined theatricality communicated much of the emotion of this angst-ridden journey without a need for surtitles. Greco added to the drama by wondering in his intro whether Schubert was subtly making a political point about diminished freedom in Vienna at that time.

In residence with Camerata is the Orava Quartet. They gave a separate concert in which Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces was the highlight. And during the earlier Festival Gala, the Orava boys added great vigour to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, but slightly deformed the glorious sweep of the strings in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro with their solo participation. It’s a sweep that I can never separate from Ken Russell’s Elgar film, accompanying the young composer riding a white pony across the Malvern Hills via the Royal Philharmonic’s broadest of brushes.

Read: Music review: Angel Olsen, Sydney Opera House

Sunday morning saw the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra in quintet form transport us to Vienna as we perched on delicate golden chairs in the CWA hall. Perhaps not quite as historically informed as claimed, their Mozart Clarinet Quintet certainly showed off the mastery of the basset clarinet researched by Nicole van Bruggen during her years in Europe. ARCO’s tour of this program continues to Canberra and Sydney.

The Festival’s confidence continues with a barcode on the back cover of the program offering the chance to buy tickets for next year’s event, 7-10 March 2024.

The Orange Chamber Music Festival ran from 9-12 March 2023 in Orange, NSW.

Jeremy Eccles has been a journalist for more than 50 years. In Australia he became an arts commentator, increasingly specialising in Indigenous art and culture. He also reviews opera for the European website Bachtrack.