Meet the music man who speaks volumes with his hands

Talking points

  • The artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival expounds his vision
  • How the city has changed 
  • And why Bach is on the way – from Africa and central Australia

Judging by the way he talks, Roland Peelman could have been a Frenchman.

He uses his hands as much as his mouth in that classic, no doubt cliched, French way – all enthusiastic gestures and shrugs.

He is a conductor of conversation as well as orchestras. He is a charmer.

As he sits in a bistro in Ainslie, he gets so excited about the Canberra International Music Festival that he directs that his arms wave in excitement.  His joy – and his hands – are unbound.

In conversation. Canberra International Music Festival artistic director Roland Peelman.Credit:Steve Evans

In fact, he's not French. He's Australian, but with roots in Belgium – not the French speaking part but the Flemish section.

He also speaks with his hands through the keyboard, particularly when he plays the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on the piano in the corner of the festival office in the Ainslie Arts Centre.

Bach will be the star of the 2019 festival on its quarter-century anniversary.

Peelman says the choice of the composer is a gift to the patrons and sponsors who have supported the festival in Canberra over its 25 years.

"The focus on Bach is everything to do with these people", he said. "This is my birthday present to all of them."

He says the festival is "modestly" funded from the public purse and the sponsors have made a difference, bumping it up from a good local event into something more prestigious which draws people from afar.

"We are very underfunded and we punch above our weight," he says.

"The kind of program that we aspire to – the depth of thinking – goes way beyond the financial means available.

"We have a very healthy group of private donors and sponsors and patrons who have stood by us."

So, the donors will get a feast of the German master. Sometimes a breakfast feast, with six cello suites played by different musicians in different venues. And sometimes a mid-morning feast with concerts at the Mount Stromlo Observatory under the title Bach on the Mountain.

And a lot of unusual and interesting fayre.

Like Bach in the Central Desert, a concert featuring the Ntaria Ladies Choir and a Berlin-based saxophone quartet.

The voices are from Hermannsburg in central Australia, and the language is Arrente – the German of Bach having been translated to the indigenous Australian language.  In 1887, Lutheran pastors created an Arrente-language hymn book from the same biblical texts which Bach used, and the music has been sung that way since.

There's some political mischief, reflecting on the turmoil in Europe, in that one of the concerts is called Brexit Blues (referring to Brexit, the British exit from the European Union which has thrown both sides of the negotiation into turmoil).

Peelman says the choice of the title and program was intended to provoke thought. The concert will feature the British Brodsky Quartet playing music by Elgar, the quintessentially English composer, and France's Quator Voce playing a work by Cesar Franck, a Belgian with a German surname who worked in France. The French string quartet will be joined by a Russian pianist.

It is an international festival, so many of the musicians play Bach on non-European instruments. There will be, for example, a rendition of classic Bach keyboard works played on a marimba – a set of wooden bars hit with mallets found in Latin America.

There will be an African kora, or type of African harp, in a concert called Bach in Africa.

This year's program is focused on Bach, but has been allowed to morph in imaginative ways. Peelman says he's seen the festival grow in stature along with the city.

He says when he arrived in Sydney as an immigrant in 1985, "people would say, 'Oh, don't go there'."

He feels it was a cultural backwater then, but now "it's very different. The general public here loves music. You don't work in a mental vacuum here so that's great news for someone like me and it's an opportunity."

He will take full advantage of that opportunity next year, overseeing his fifth festival, between May 2 and May 12, 2019.

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