Dave's late for the morning rehearsal because he has to shift a fallen branch off a fence in the far paddock before any cattle escape onto the road, but finally his ute pulls up outside. He kicks off his boots and comes in brushing dirt and bark off his clothes, grinning at the good-natured teasing of the others who've managed to get here before him, even though he lives here. "All sorted," he says, and picks up his viola.
What with Julia's double bass, the cellos, chairs and music stands, it's hard to manoeuvre round the lounge room, but finally all nine players are seated and the joking trails off as they settle down to begin. It's a focusing moment when Edie Rens, the conductor, raises a hand, because between them the members of this string ensemble have travelled 1100 kilometres to get here, to this room on this farm in Victoria's north-east. Tomorrow afternoon, after a weekend of practising together, they'll perform a short concert at the local art gallery, come back for afternoon tea and a quick swim in the Broken River, and then disperse again.
"It's really about getting together," says Roy, who lives eight hours away. "There's no string music in the town I live in, so this is my chance to play. The bond between us is there because of the music." Dorothy, who is still a friend of Dave's 25 years after teaching him music at high school, says, "I wouldn't play if it wasn't for occasions like this, and when we all sit down to concentrate and perform together it reminds me of something I keep forgetting - which is just how much I love the music."
The landscape through the window is desiccated with heat, stupefied with it. Mirages roil up off the horizon like the shimmer off petrol. Each car that rolls down the drive kicks up a floating comet tail of dust, and out in the paddocks cows cluster in the thin shade of distant trees. There is nothing as incongruous as the juxtaposition of this drought-stricken setting and the first bars of joyous music which suddenly fill the room. It's one of Mozart's divertimenti: music composed as "light and charming entertainment" for listeners in eighteenth-century Salzburg who needed a short diversion from the demands of a symphonic recital.
"We'll just work on that crescendo between the D and the E," Edie says, raising her hand. It's 37 degrees outside and not much cooler in the room, despite the fans. People stop and wipe their hands and foreheads, carefully retune their instruments, and frown again at the sheet music before them. Swigging water and standing to stretch occasionally, they practise all day.
After long hours of single-minded attention, the mood is buoyant and noisy when the group finally breaks for drinks and dinner. Edie laughs that despite the heat, she'd felt a moment in rehearsal "where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Where it all clicked." They talk about the exhilaration of rediscovering the wordless communication that grows between musicians as they play. Nobody at the table, no matter what their skill level, has ever been interested in being a solo performer. They're nervous but excited about playing in public tomorrow. "You know what I think is the ultimate compliment?" someone asks. "When people don't clap at the end, when they're so moved they're silent for a few seconds."
Carolyn can't stay for dinner: she's got to get home to the kids on the family's wheat and sheep farm, 40 kilometres away. She gets together with Dave, Janet and Julia once a week, practising as a quartet to play occasionally at weddings in the district. Julia's nursing a single glass of wine because she still has to travel home tonight - an hour's journey on a dark stretch of road notorious for its reckless kangaroos. Janet covers around 600 kilometres a week to teach music to private students around the region. For the four of them, though, the few hours of playing music together are, they say, like a little haven in an overcommitted week. "Oasis" is the word they use: something lush and longed-for, somewhere to quench your thirst.
The next day, as the concert hour approaches, they arrange their chairs and music stands in the white-walled, air-conditioned quiet of the Benalla Art Gallery. When people enter the building, you can see the instant relief on their faces as they step out of the pounding heat. The women who take their seats in front of the ensemble wear pastel sundresses; the men, neatly pressed shirts.
There's no program, so Dave stands up to introduce the divertimento. He catches the eye of someone he knows and grins: it's a local woman, a mother of five who's just started learning the violin with one of her daughters. There's another regular concert attendee behind her, an elderly woman who makes the 200-kilometre round trip each time there is a string recital. That happens about five times a year at the gallery, thanks to the dedication of Margaret Brooke, OAM, 86, who sits erect and dignified by the door, welcoming people.
The audience of 60 settles and the ensemble members make quick eye contact with each other, calming their nerves, before they turn their expectant gaze on Edie. Or rather, on Edie's hands, which wait in the air as if holding a fine skein to the light. There is shyness in the players' expressions, something ready to plunge. They raise their bows, and at that first cascade of sound every face in the room is suddenly tilted into absolute attentiveness, leaning forward slightly.
Hands and ankles keep subtle time; heads nod almost imperceptibly, as if agreeing implicitly with everything they're hearing. It's the back of the neck which gives away rural men. The skin is sunburnt by years of exposure to the elements, leathery and cracked as a dry creek bed. Under that collar would be a demarcation line for what they call the peasant tan, the skin below it tenderly pale compared with the weathered hide above. It takes a lot of seasons of working outside to get a neck like that, a lot of long days labouring under a hot sun, but today the men are inside, in a cool room, absorbing music written before Australian soil was even broken with a plough.
Apart from the brief introductions, nobody speaks. The musicians were right about communication without words: a different language is at work now. They power through Elgar's Serenade for Strings, then Brahms's Second String Sextet. David and Carolyn's hands move, as synchronous as two birds floating on the same current of air, their bows dipping and gliding in perfect time with each other. Despite the air-conditioning, perspiration appears through the fabric of Edie's shirt between her shoulder blades as she conducts. The precision lies in her wrists, as if she is balancing something large and weightless between her hands. The musicians glance from what these hands are describing back to their music, their faces naked with self-forgetful absorption.
Finally, they introduce their last piece, Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto. "He must have written this in very good spirits," Dave says to the audience, "and structured it to the skill levels of his colleagues and maybe even members of his own family. You can hear a kind of gleeful generosity as every instrument is given a chance to shine."
Audience and musicians wait, then the first notes strike. The arrangement of the chairs in two semi-circles forms an elongated whole; everyone in the room is transfixed by the centre of this space, by the endless fascination of music being conjured before their eyes. The audience seems to be in a contented, loose-limbed trance, absolved of every responsibility except to listen. Through the long windows lies the glare of the outside world - the temperature hitting 39 degrees in paddocks of parched stubble - but for the moment nobody's thinking about any of that. This moment is a relief, a generous respite.
As the concerto gathers to its conclusion, Edie's right hand extends into the air. Her finger and thumb close slowly, then give an almost imperceptible tug, as if they are testing an invisible knot for fastness. There is a silence, then a spill of applause, changing pitch as a collective realisation seems to hit the audience: applause which goes steadily on and on, like rain on a tin roof.
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