Shostakovich Piano Trio in E Minor No. 2
Australia Ensemble

Dean Sextet (Old Kings in Exile)
Australia Ensemble

Vasks String Quartet No.3
Goldner String Quartet

Iain Grandage, composer of the onstage score for last year’s Adelaide Festival hit The Secret River, was invited to return to the 2018 festival in a different, yet just as inspiring role. This year, he thoughtfully curated and presented the Compassion: Chamber Landscapes series of concerts with evocative and confronting music performed by some of the world’s best chamber musicians. Grandage stated that the music for this suite of concerts was chosen because of its ability to conjure sentiments of compassion for our fellow humans in all its forms – whether compassion came in the form of grief, consolation, love or warmth in the face of adversity.

The setting for Monday’s concert was the awe-inspiring and acoustically-divine cultural venue, Ukaria, at Mount Barker Summit. I could not think of a more perfect way to spend the late morning on a lazy public holiday than in such majestic yet intimate environs, reflecting on the fragility and fortitude of the human spirit as conjured up by the works of Shostakovich and contemporary composers Brett Dean and Peteris Vasks.

Watching the wind breeze through the eucalyptus tree tops behind the chamber musicians whilst listening to the emotive strains of Shostakovich Piano Trio in E Minor No. 2, was an unforgettable experience. The technical brilliance of the three members of UNSW’s Australia Ensemble was astounding, playing with dynamic precision throughout, but particularly stellar efforts with the excruciatingly-demanding second movement which was performed with great elegance and fortitude. The emotive interpretation of the final movement left me despairing at the cruelty of war, yet hopeful for the beauty of human ingenuity – as the composer himself might have hoped.

Brett Dean’s (2010) Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) was an extraordinarily-confronting piece of contemporary music written whilst Dean was caring for his father who was wrestling with Alzheimer’s disease. A variety of intersecting techniques were used by the percussionist, strings, pianist and woodwind players to evoke a mesmerizingly-haunting walk through hallucinations, nightmares, anxiety and fear. Paper clips on lower strings, pizzicato plucking of piano strings, the use of a super ball on a bass drum and gong – these all created an uneasy and uncomfortable feeling in the audience, yet we felt reassured by the tempered, controlled and measured stamina of the musicians. The star was percussionist Claire Edwardes whose hypnotic energy and skill heralded an aplomb and brilliance by which the five other musicians could measure themselves. Whilst not my most favourite piece, it felt appropriate in its inclusion, as Grandage reassured us; sitting with the discomfort is another method of coming to terms with the complexity of human spirit.

The final piece, by Latvian composer Vasks yielded a resolution of sorts from the disquiet of the previous work. A melodic first movement heralded Vasks’ fascination with nature and was reminiscent of some of Mahler’s rolling symphonic themes. Vasks certainly wrote his music from the perspective of being an instrumentalist himself, and as Grandage stated, he knew strings “from the inside out”. Finishing this collection of works on a quietly consoling note was reassuring, calming and much needed after the frenzied and at-times discordant previous pieces.

Grandage conducted us beautifully and skilfully through this landscape of exile and compassion, introducing each work with humour and complementary gravitas. One of a dozen concerts, if this selection is anything worth going by, the other concerts including a commissioned work by Lior and Nigel Westlake, would have been just as inspiring. The venue itself was also a star of the performance and I will certainly return and prepare to be moved by the sun setting over the summit whilst listening to evocative and enthralling chamber music performed on this impressive stage.

Adelaide Festival Review by Kim Burley