“We have kept it separate from Sanguine. So the first thing was to establish an artistic point of difference because there are lots of artistic festivals out there, and it occurred to us that the COE, which has not been in Australia for 30 years, would be an extraordinary thing.”
It is clearly a coup to attract the COE, which has agreed to send several musicians a year, giving both sustainability and infinite variety for future years, Penny says.
Bendigo is a beautiful city, a historic city, now positioning itself to become an arts hub and poised to really, really blossom.
Howard Penny, co-founder, Bendigo Chamber Music Festival
He has been a member for 30 years and, like all members, has divided his time between the COE and other music-making– in his case with his own piano trio, with baroque specialists Concentus Musicus Wien and other orchestras, and teaching historic performance practice in Salzburg.
Howlett, also a gifted cellist, divides his time between playing, being chairman and artistic director of classical music FM station 3MBS, running four music festivals, and taking classical music to China. Fully, 142 concerts and operas are scheduled for 2020.
Nothing like the COE existed when it began, Penny says, “so we’ve been writing the manual as we go”.
“It’s a specialist chamber music body in terms of the sense of individual responsibility but also flexibility, openness and curiosity,” he says. “That’s why so many great conductors and performers, such as [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt and [Claudio] Abbado have chosen to do important work with the COE.”
The musicians are expert at contextualising a piece, reading a score appropriately, and stripping away accretions of so-called tradition that may be mere decades old: “That innate understanding and approach to music, looking at familiar music with fresh eyes, and finding the value and magic of what is not necessarily well known – that is perfect as the musical backbone for a festival.”
The carefully curated program includes plenty of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Dvorak, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and a smattering of modern pieces. Howlett says most works in the program are lesser-known gems by great composers.
“It’s amazing how many of the great works by big composers never get played – we only get five or 10 per cent of it,” he says.
For example, with Beethoven, the program focuses on the year 1802 when, Howlett says, Beethoven began to get frustrated at his increasing deafness and wrote his famous Heiligenstadt letter expressing his despair to his brothers.
“We are looking at a selection of works Beethoven wrote in 1802, including the second symphony in his own arrangement for piano trio. There are songs that are never done, little piano works that are never done.”
The 14 concerts are played by seven COE musicians, five from Europe and two Australian-based (Penny and Sydney Symphony principal bassoonist Matthew Wilkie), plus Australian pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Daniel de Borah, tenor Andrew Goodwin, soprano Merlyn Quaife, Melbourne Symphony co-concertmaster Sophie Rowell, Sydney Symphony principal violist Tobias Breider, violinist Lily Higson-Spence and Howlett.
Tickets, Howlett warns, are selling fast, with the highest premium level already sold out.
Bendigo Chamber Music Festival runs from February 5 to 9, 2020. bendigochambermusicfestival.com.au
Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.