Review: 2023 Coriole Music Festival

Coriole Music Festival’s new artistic director Simon Cobcroft delivered a powerful and intense weekend of concerts themed around experiences of isolation and reunion.

May 22, 2023, updated May 22, 2023
Notable finale: Soprano Sofio Troncoso joined an ensemble of strings musicians for 'Les Illuminations'. Photo: Jamois / supplied

Notable finale: Soprano Sofio Troncoso joined an ensemble of strings musicians for 'Les Illuminations'. Photo: Jamois / supplied

If there is one reassuring thing that emerged from the pain of COVID, it is the realisation that the fullest enjoyment to be gained from music comes from people actually being physically present together and sharing in the experience of hearing it. One appreciates this more and more as we emerge from the pandemic and try to put it behind us.

Coriole Music Festival’s return, tentative at first but accelerating each time, has therefore been most heart-warming for those who have come to know and admire this annual event. At the same time, it pays to look back and see how the pandemic affected our lives – because of course it did, very profoundly.

As Coriole’s incoming artistic director, Simon Cobcroft took on exactly this perspective in the concerts he richly devised. So in a trajectory of darkness to light, of adversity to reaffirmation, listeners could retrace a journey as expressed through art that maybe we have all been through.

Well known to many as the ASO’s principal cellist, Cobcroft brought along a wonderful company of fellow musicians to accomplish this program. His own chamber group, Lyrebird Trio from Queensland, took a prominent role, but many colleagues came from the ASO and elsewhere from interstate. The musicianship they showed was superb throughout: intense but elating, and punctuated at times with sheer unbridled fun.

What people may not have known, until Cobcroft took to the microphone, is just how eloquent and well-read he is across all the composers who were represented. He had many illuminating stories to tell relating to the three concerts of “Longing”, “Reunion” and “Savage Parade”.

Serving almost as a blank canvas for everything to be drawn upon, Monteverdi’s madrigal in praise of the nightingale, “Dolcissimo Uscignolo”, sounded pure and distilled in Paul Stanhope’s arrangement of this song for soprano, piano, violin and cello. Lyrebird Trio – comprising violinist Glenn Christensen, pianist Angela Turner and Cobcroft – then delivered an electrifying performance of Stanhope’s Piano Trio “Dolcissimo Uscignolo”, a work that takes the same madrigal into increasingly manic territory. Offering quirky, even unruly fun at times, Nielsen’s Wind Quartet, Op.43, was a joy thanks to outstanding playing from Julia Grenfell (flute), Joshua Oates (oboe), Dean Newcombe (clarinet), Mark Gaydon (bassoon) and Adrian Uren (horn).

A mighty two-piano performance of Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances” played by Kristian Chong and Daniel de Borah took all breath away in the thrilling excitement and exceptional discipline these pianists brought to this most wonderful work. It was intriguing to see how differently they treated line and phrase – de Borah more analytically, Chong more gesturally – while combining faultlessly in terms of timing. To pull this off so well is a prodigious feat, as it is indeed comparable to Stravinsky’s two-piano version of “Rite of Spring” in rhythmic complexity.

Daniel de Borah and Kristian Chong presented a mighty two-piano performance of Rachmaninov’s ‘Symphonic Dances’. Photo: Frank Lynch

The second concert took the listener into a world of aloneness, via various solo works that culminated in a triumphal affirmation of camaraderie in Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44. Some of the solos perhaps over-emphasised the idea of isolation in their meditative stillness, but Newcombe’s performance of “Abime des oiseaux”, from Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, was immensely expressive and superbly done. The Schumann quintet was one of the triumphs of this festival. With consummate chamber playing from Lyrebird Trio joined by violinist Alexandra Osborne, violist Justin Julian and Daniel de Borah, this scaled the true heights of chamber music.

Cold, wintry weather posed no real obstacle during the weekend, and audiences were treated to a trio of new works and a truly spectacular finale on the Sunday. As this year’s commissioned composer, Anne Cawrse contributed a highly memorable “Anniversary Trio” in honour of festival patrons Don and Veronica Aldridge. Flowing abundantly with inspiration and infectious rhythmic drive, it is very impressively written for the medium of violin, cello and piano. Along the way we heard intriguing quotes from Beethoven and Billy Joel that, as Cawrse explained, acknowledge the musical preferences of its dedicatees. It is probably her finest work to date.

Two other very enlivening Australian works put fire in the belly. With touches of Ravel and jazz, Joseph Twist’s “Dancing with Somebody” for string quartet had a terrific rhythmic drive and level of excitement; and Justin Williams’ “Three Intermezzi” for piano was delightfully whimsical in its contrasts of jumpy rhythms and romantically-laden melody.

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A trickier listen, Stravinsky’s Septet for mixed ensemble is a vexatious work, full of astringent, dotty complexity that seems to intentionally try to unseat the performers and confound the listener. Its circus-like hijinks and “controlled cacophony” proved yet more fun due to great ensemble playing from the performers.

Every notable festival needs a notable finale, and this time we had one that may have surpassed anything Coriole has previously offered. Britten’s “Les Illuminations” is an extraordinarily arresting song cycle for soprano (or tenor) and string orchestra based on quite disturbing surrealist poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. It was riveting here in a magnificent, hugely dramatic performance by Sofia Troncoso and 16 strings. The intensity was nail-biting and beyond anything one could have imagined. What a marvellous singer Troncoso is, and how well the strings worked together without the need for a conductor.

When Coriole Music Festival resumed in 2021 and 2022 under Anna Goldsworthy’s astute stewardship, it felt as if some sort of human victory had been won. Now under Cobcroft it feels doubly so. We can only look forward to more wonderful experiences next year and the following under his direction.

The Coriole Music Festival was presented on May 20 and 21 at Coriole Vineyards in McLaren Vale.

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