St Cuthbert’s Anglican, Darlington

It was the perfect way to celebrate the first sunny weekend this spring. The bush was bursting with blossoms under a bright blue sky as I drove up the hill to Darlington on Saturday morning. A capacity crowd had gathered in the quaint stone St Cuthbert’s Anglican church for the inaugural Darlington Chamber Music Spring Festival.

Cellist Jon Tooby began the Darlington Chamber Music series fifteen years ago and has built a loyal audience, an extensive network with WA’s best chamber musicians, an impressive team of volunteers and a reputation for sumptuous catering. With this backing Tooby launched the spring festival on October 22nd, showcasing not only fine music but also his thriving hills community.

Tooby’s canny knack for pairing interesting repertoire with the perfect venue became apparent over the weekend. The intimacy of St Cuthbert’s church made it a great venue to check out the newly formed Darlington String Quartet. Although it is a new ensemble the quartet – Semra Lee-Smith and Zak Rowntree (violins), Sally Boud (viola) and Tooby – have been playing and studying together in various configurations for decades.

I had high expectations so the unsettled opening to Haydn’s String Quartet Op 33 No 3 caused me some worry. Differing tempos and scrappy phrase endings made me wonder if this was going to be a weekend of disappointments. The accents and contrasts in the second movement were a welcome distraction and by the the third the players (and I) relaxed into a well paced Adagio, lulled by Lee-Smith’s sweetly doleful violin. The zesty energy of the finale flourished in the resonant acoustic with cascades of semiquavers delivered immaculately.

The standard had been set and the quartet didn’t look back from here. The ensemble’s musical empathy became apparent as the concert progressed. Lee-Smith led with subtlety and beautiful sonority with clean support from Rowntree while Tooby and Boud added a dose of intense expressivity. Their performance of Janacek’s String Quartet No 1 dived into the confronting depths of a deeply psychological composer. The  melancholic melody was juxtaposed with aggressive interjections delivered with weightiness and tremendous volume. One of the great gifts of chamber music is the physiological impact from sitting so close to the performers. The 80+ audience members sitting just metres from the quartet experienced Janacek in our chests!

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op 12 was a well-chosen work to end the program, performed by the quartet with achingly romantic elegance and a brillante flourish to the finale.

Darlington String Quartet

Later that evening the festival continued at Guildford Grammar School Chapel. I wasn’t able to attend the concert but reports were unanimous that the soaring purity of soprano Sara Macliver singing Baroque repertoire was perfectly suited to the splendour of the gothic architecture.

Sunday was morning was yet more pristine and by now the audience had a friendly familiarity as we gathered at the Darlington Estate Winery. The festival buzz was heightened by the impeccable hospitality of the restaurant staff and the relaxed manner of the musicians. A four course feast was interwoven with a three-part concert to make a decadent, leisurely lunch. The sultry and cheeky tangos of Piazolla (arranged for piano trio) were enjoyed over antipasto. A Rossini duet for cello and double bass featured Tooby playing alongside his brother Mark Tooby as a light-hearted accompaniment to soup. Main course (I had oven-roasted chicken with green pea and dill risotto) was completed by another bit of magical programming: Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet performed with sheer delight by the now well-fed musicians. The ‘Trout’ runs the risk of being over-played but on this occasion it fitted perfectly. Gazing out over the forested valley I couldn’t think of a better depiction of spring than Schubert’s effervescent, buoyant writing. The clear delineation of the inner cello and viola voices avoided any muddiness while Graeme Gilling’s supple touch and elegant pacing on piano lifted the performance to another level.

Darlington Estate Winery

It was a fabulous weekend. Perhaps next year (I am hoping and presuming the festival will become a regular fixture on Perth’s musical calendar) music by an Australian composer will be included on the program. It was the only oversight in an otherwise outstanding celebration of music and community.