Leading the pilgrimage to the bush: we hear from two classical cellists who are trekking though rural and remote parts of Australia, Anthony Albrecht and Rachel Johnston.
To decide to pack up one’s belongings and ‘go bush’ is uniquely Aussie, and doing just that has become a way of life for an increasing number of classical musicians who choose to do the ‘rural circuit’ in preference to concertising solely in the city. Surprisingly, many of them are cellists. Whether it is regional community halls, outback pubs, shearing sheds, or even on the beach, they are finding that playing to small audiences in far-flung areas can be a life changing journey all of its own.
‘Have cello, will travel’: this has become the motto for a string of outstanding cellists in this country. First came ‘the Barefoot Cellist’, Christine Jackson. UK-born, she was hailed as a successor to Jacqueline Du Pre and left principal positions in a succession of leading British orchestras to eventually settle in Far North Queensland, where she started a new life performing in local and remote communities. “Through music I’ve managed to see more places in the world than most people ever dream of,” she remarked. Sadly this much admired musician – who did actually perform in bare feet – succumbed after a brain aneurysm in 2009.
Others have been inspired to follow in her footsteps. One is fellow British and now Sunshine Coast-based cellist, Louise King. This year she toured a series of ‘Bach to Bush’ concerts with jazz percussionist (and aviator) John Morrison through western Queensland as part of the Queensland Music Festival. Another is Julian Thompson, who as a cellist and equally avid surfer was one of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s chosen few to make it to King Island and WA’s distant Ningaloo Reef in 2012 to film footage for the ACO’s documentary Musica Surfica and multimedia concert The Reef.
Some have embarked on even more ambitious odysseys. Hailing from New South Wales, the Juilliard School-trained Anthony Albrecht and Richard Narroway are two outstanding cellists who have been separately journeying around Australia in the last three years, performing the solo cello suites of Bach.
Albrecht, who describes himself as “a passionate nature lover, bike rider, a qualified Railway Worker”, began touring ‘Bach to the Bush’ recitals in 2014 in the Hunter Valley, and he is currently back on the trail across regional NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Next came Narroway, who spent 30 days in 2015 trekking across rural Australia, playing in churches and venturing to Alice Springs, Uluru and even a beach in Darwin. He likened the experience to an Aboriginal Walkabout, describing it as “a life-changing journey that allowed me to grow closer to the music than ever before”. Both he and Albrecht have shared their experiences with Limelight: see here and here.
What is it with Bach and the Australian outback? How do his exalted masterpieces for solo cello adapt to life in the bush?
Albrecht took time out on his way to Kangaroo Island to suggest that taking the suites out of their usual context actually heightens their impact. He believes Bach’s music is able to speak to anyone, in any time or place, and that it is his task to bring the cello works “emotionally, spiritually and culturally” into people’s lives. His aim, he says, is to “create a deep, thoughtful context for listening” that inspires positive change.
“There is so much at stake right now, it’s hard to accept the musician’s role of being a mere entertainer’. The cello, and the music I play in these concerts, do some justice in expressing the beauty and tragedy of the world, and I try to get people thinking about their environmental, social and even political context while listening. I hope concerts that make people’s emotions about these issues come to the surface might inspire them to be more active as change-makers.”
Being constantly on the road does have its challenges, of course. Albrecht says he finds he has to be “a one-person show” and be prepared to do everything oneself, from booking venues to even selling tickets at the door.
“It’s humbling and fun, but at the end of the day each concert has to be at least as good as the last. I’ve lost any fear I once might have had about getting up on stage,” he remarks.
The warmth he receives from local communities always makes it worthwhile though. Albrecht says that one of his most memorable experiences was when he gave a recital at the gorgeous but tiny Girgarre Memorial Hall Victoria’s Goulburn Valley. “It turned out to be the first performance of classical music in that town in living memory”, he recalls. “The thrill of playing in New York City is one thing, but it’s an absolute privilege for me to be able to share the music I love with people who rarely if ever get the chance to experience it.”
Another cellist who has developed a liking for ‘going bush’ is Rachel Johnston. New Zealand born and formerly a member of the Australian String Quartet, she is one of Australia’s most versatile cellists, and is equally at home playing Bach, improvising across different styles, and teaming up with folk and bluegrass musicians in regional festivals and house concerts around the country.
‘In the last few years I made a very deliberate decision to do things beyond the classical mainstream, and this life of touring was part of that decision,” she says. “Outside urban areas, you access a whole different audience who either find the formal concert setting intimidating or perhaps feel excluded by it.”
The more unusual places Johnston has found herself performing in include the forest abode of The Pitts Family Circus in Barkers Vale, NSW, a shearing shed in Maitland, and in the enchanting landscaped Witches Garden in Mitta Mitta in Victoria’s high country. This year, she ventured further afield to Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she joined fellow classically-trained musicians from London’s Royal College of Music and traditional Irish and Swedish fiddlers in a hybrid program of folk and Baroque music.
“It was in a church that had been floated across a lake and rolled it up the other side,” she says. “After the concert there was a picnic outside, and I announced I might go to the pub following the picnic and play some more. The whole audience came along!”
This special intimate rapport with local community is what Johnston says she most values. She says it can make the concert experience more meaningful: “The more you get out of cities the more one feels connected to local community.”
“As a musician one can’t always tell why people come to hear a concert, and it can be a cold exchange. But in the smaller scenes, you can actually feel how people are sharing in the music and finding it enriching. For the performer, there is also the recognition that you are actively coming onto somebody’s land, and respect builds out of that. The opposite are formal concert halls where music can become a pre-made product and not so personalised to the needs of the people coming.”
So much of the Australian identity is wrapped up in the outback and the bush. Musicians gracing our “land of sweeping plains” could become an enduring part of that identity, thanks to the enterprise and passion of these individuals and others like them.