Canberra International Music festival gives voice to remarkable sounds

Canberra composer and Yuin woman Brenda Gifford’s work will open the 2020 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo: Supplied.

A global legend in contemporary folk music, a Filipino-Australian indigenous rapper and drummer, and a classically trained violinist who sings in his Ngiyampaa language from the Top End have been announced as part of a remarkable Canberra International Music Festival line-up for 2020.

The Festival’s theme is Giving Voice and indigenous musicians lead a program that includes the Tiwi Island Strong Women, eminent didgeridoo artist William Barton, ‘Dreamtime opera diva’ Delmae Barton, Yolgnu songman Daniel Wilfred, rapper Dobby and violinist Erik Avery. The Festival will be opened by Yuin woman and Canberra composer Brenda Gifford, who was recently nominated for an ARIA.

While many classically oriented music festivals offer a predictably comfortable program, the Canberra International Music Festival has been an innovator throughout its 25-year history. Beginning with a group of local music lovers who held concerts in their sitting rooms, it now attracts more than 8000 people with a rapidly growing interstate audience.

Creative director Roland Peelman says the idea of structuring a festival around Giving Voice has been bubbling away for a long time.

“For at least the last three years I’ve been thinking about inequality, about class and the divisions that just don’t go away,” Peelman said. “This wasn’t about grandstanding, but I couldn’t let go of the idea that with music we can give a platform to voices that have been silenced for far too long.”

The Festival has had a consistently strong indigenous presence for some time and Peelman says that creating a platform on the concert stage is an important aim for him. “For way too long that’s been the privileged space for white Western classical music,” he says.

Brenda Gifford’s remarkable work, based on the elements in Yuin culture, bagan, miriwa, ngadjung and ganji (earth, wind, water and fire) bears testament to the Festival’s long commitment to innovation and exploration. CIMF gave Gifford her first commission in 2017, allowing her to buy a computer that was essential to her growing practice.

“Brenda was in New York last month. Her voice is starting to be heard internationally,” Peelman says. “Here is a person with a hell of a lot of music locked up in them that we have to let out.”

Sam Amidon

Multi-instrumentalist and folk innovator Sam Amidon is a star on the CIMF program. Photo: File.

Sam Amidon, one of the towering figures of the contemporary folk world, is a huge acquisition for CIMF’s program. Born into a family with deep folk roots, the musician takes traditional music, works it down to its bare bones and pairs it with jazz, chamber orchestra arrangements and even pop music.

He’s an innovator who knows his material deeply and uses it as a springboard for work that can be playful, startling but always thought-provoking.

“We don’t only want to do chamber music,” Peelman says. “We want to open up the notion that music is much more than that. The vernacular music that lives amongst people has as much to say as the music that is passed down in beautifully presented scores.

“Sam will give us, effectively, an anthology of American folk music from Harry Smith’s 1952 compilation. These are stories about poor white people and their music, the rich Scots Irish tradition, and building for contemporary times on that fertile ground.”

Roland Peelman

Creative director Roland Peelman has shaped CIMF around the theme of Giving Voice. Photo: File.

There’s no lack of the classical greats: Hayden’s oratorio, The Creation, will be performed by the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, the brainchild of the late and much loved Richard Gill, and Sydney Chamber Choir under the direction of German violinist-conductor Jacob Lehmann. The Creation will be performed twice in the Fitters Workshop central venue.

There are also no less than 10 world premieres and new artistic collaborations. Melbourne’s Kate Neal is this year’s composer-in-residence, while percussionist Bree Van Reyk’s premiere celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Australian Botanic Gardens and the opening of the new Banksia Garden. Moya Henderson has also been commissioned to celebrate 50 years of the National Carillon.

Beethoven’s 250th anniversary is marked with a series of breakfast recitals across Canberra, and daytime events take music into Canberra’s national institutions, historic and natural sites, and new venues including Kambri and Belconnen Arts Centre.

“Festival-goers will hear the great standards, performed to an exceptional level,” Peelman says. “Come to Canberra and be stretched, challenged, think a bit about what our culture is and enjoy the capital city.

“A festival should be a joyful event where you come together to hear great music performed at an exceptional level by musicians and artists who love nothing better than to share what they have learned.”

The Canberra International Music Festival will be held on 1-10 May 2020.