History – the long story
“It was a very special experience for me, to have the privilege of playing for a different audience, attentive and colourful, sitting on grass steps… looking for real music experiences and not attending the exhausted ritual of a ‘normal concert’. An audience ready to react to the most important of the messages, how music talks to souls and bodies with no borders, no class, no race, no age, nothing… just music and living beings,”
As a small arts organisation located on the Far South Coast of NSW, Four Winds occupies a unique place in Australia’s cultural landscape.
Our focus is primarily classical music, however we explore and represent other genres. Four Winds has an impressive history of delivering excellent musical experiences in one of the most unique coastal communities in Australia.
Like many beautiful things, Four Winds began as an idea fuelled by passion. Neilma Gantner of the famously philanthropic Myer family of Melbourne, loved Bermagui, which she called home for many years. In the late 1980s, Neilma gathered friends and neighbours together to discuss the idea of live music performance for the local community. Some in the group which formed around Neilma and her aspirations are still involved in the strength and growth of Four Winds.
First presented in 1991, the Four Winds Easter Festival has consistently been praised for its excellence, musical diversity, outstanding artistic collaborations, as well as the commissioning and performance of new works and creative partnerships.
International artists perform with nationally celebrated, local and emerging artists in a stunning natural setting at Barragga Bay, on the Far South Coast of NSW. This bush site has become known as Nature’s Concert Hall.
While the Easter Festival has classical and world music at its core, the Four Winds year-round program is rich and diverse, growing more so each year. The program presents the gamut of musics – jazz, folk, indie and other influences meld with classical, choral and beat-boxing, indigenous and world music, old and new.
As well as the Easter Festival, Four Winds presents the Spring Youth Festival. As part of this event artists-in-residence compose, record and perform; artists–in–schools teach singing and percussion in local primary schools, and primary teachers are mentored to teach music in the classroom. There are weekend workshops for singing, community choirs and percussion enriches many – young and old.
A series of concerts in winter, the Windsong Series, brings musicians of the highest calibre to this remote and pristine location, and community Christmas Carols are also an annual feature.
Integral to the diversity in performance is Four Winds’ deepening relationship with the local Indigenous peoples, the Yuin Nation’s local communities.
Since the second festival in 1992, Indigenous performers have sung, danced, performed with instruments and shared their wisdom at festivals and events; new Indigenous works have been commissioned – some in language – and Indigenous Elders have been ‘knowledge sharers’ in the Bermagui Project, providing inspiration for visual and musical artists.
More recently a partnership with the National Museum of Australia has allowed Four Winds to employ an Indigenous Creative Producer, respected local artist Cheryl Davison has taken this role.
A Koori Choir, an outstanding workshop to make a possum-skin cloak, and telling of Indigenous stories of our place, all material being gathered and translated, collected and treasured for a major free concert to be performed in Bermagui in the coming months.
Of course music is at the core of what we do, however the Four Winds limbs reach out to embrace many art forms: dance, music-theatre, writers events, poetry readings, conviviums on social issues, ‘radical voice’ seminars, film, visual arts and sculpture.
The organisation is well connected, nationally and internationally, whilst being embedded in the local community, creating art of exceptional quality and relevance. Four Winds is a unique arts organisation with its roots in a stunningly beautiful and remote location.
The Four Winds History
Neilma Gantner and Beginnings 1991 – 1999
In the late 80s, Barragga Bay resident Neilma Gantner, her neighbour John Ellingworth and other friends discussed a shared dream, of bringing high quality music, performed in the open air, to their local, coastal community.
Neilma was the second child of the Melbourne retailer and philanthropist Sidney Myer, and during a lifetime of philanthropy she quietly helped many organisations and individuals particularly in the arts. Admired by many for her generosity, her dignity and passion, Neilma was a published author, prolific letter writer and journaler, avid sailor and nature lover, a non-judgemental, non-pretentious person. She did not want to live in her beloved Barragga Bay without live music.
Neilma is remembered by local author Rodney Hall as preferring to make her contributions out of the limelight. “She avoided publicity and had no interest in power… While this lack of competitiveness undoubtedly put her somewhat out of kilter with the times it also revealed her generosity and the secret to her unique dignity,” Hall wrote in Neilma’s obituary in 2015.
The early vision was simple:
To bring performing arts of the highest quality to Bermagui for the benefit of locals and tourists.
The initial group of friends gathered together like-minded creatives – Sheena Boughen, Michael and Judith Brimer, Bill Caldicott, Zoe Ellingworth, Rodney and Bet Hall. The group was soon joined by John Cooper and Geoff Hammand to form the first committee for an annual Easter Festival in 1991.
At that time the land was owned by Neilma’s son, actor Carrillo Gantner. Carrillo gifted the beautiful site with its natural amphitheatre to the group, and so began the transformation to Nature’s Concert Hall.
For the 1991 Festival, architect Hans Hallen designed three grassed terraces looking down across the lilies adorning the picturesque dam. A small stage was constructed from sleepers with a plywood sound-reflector that could be taken down and used again.
By 1999 a marquee covered a larger stage, and as the festival grew, generators, sound equipment, food and beverage vendors, toilets and the like were all brought on to site. Still the Easter Festival was supported entirely by volunteers.
Standard music works from the western cannon combined with didgeridoo performance, Cretan and Irish folk tunes, traditional and contemporary Chinese music, Gamelan bronze gongs, chimes and drums, the exhilarating rhythms and music of Greece and more. At every festival, new Australian works were commissioned and premiered.
2000 – 2020
The Easter Festival has continued to flourish, supported by the local community and hundreds of volunteers. It has grown to cover many days, a variety of performances and embraces many performance venues including Nature’s Concert Hall, country halls and homes in the seaside village of Bermagui and nearby townships.
Audiences have remained incredibly loyal, many returning year after year. One audience member stated ‘Four Winds makes my spirit soar,’ (2016) another said, ‘This has been, in total, the most exciting, exhilarating weekend journey I have ever had.’(2008).
The Festival consistently displays diversity and excellence, regularly commissions new works, and thrives on the electric dynamic of internationally and nationally acclaimed musicians collaborating with emerging artists. The Easter Festival is always exploring new ground.
The Four Winds Easter Festival is considered to be Neilma’s most lasting legacy, and it flourishes here in her beloved Barragga Bay.
Education and Outreach
In 2006, more than a decade after the first Festival, there was a changing of the guard. Sheena Boughen became Chair of the Board and with Chris Latham as Artistic Director, the Board decided that while the emphasis on diversity, excellence and unusual collaborations would continue, more could be done to engage with the local community – particularly its young people. Initial steps were taken in 2006 which have grown into a major pillar of the Four Winds creative program.
The first education and outreach project was called The Four Winds Barnstorming Tour. The Sculthorpe String Quartet and William Barton (didgeridoo) toured NSW’s Far South Coast for ten days, playing free concerts in schools together with ticketed events in the evenings. An incredible twenty-five concerts were performed and a recording was broadcast on ABC Classic FM. The tour culminated in two free concerts for children at the National Music Festival in Canberra.
As a result of a Commonwealth Government Community Partnerships Grant 2010- 2012, Four Winds rapidly expanded its community engagement through music. There were several aspects to this, and two examples follow.
INSPIRING responded directly to the need for more quality music education in regional Australia. A vital part of our community participation and audience development, it aimed to embed a quality musical experience in the lives of young people, and to inspire them to participate and engage with music. Inspiring 2011 was the result of a new partnership between Four Winds Easter Festival and Sydney Children’s Choir (SCC), with a program of events designed by SCC’s Lyn Williams and Four Winds Artistic Director, Genevieve Lacey. Four Winds commissioned Australian musician, Dan Walker, to write a choral work.
The Singing Stones was inspired by local Indigenous culture. It was rehearsed with school students from Bermagui and surrounds, and sat within a broader program of workshops and skills development for both students and teachers. At the culmination of the program, local children performed The Singing Stones with the visiting Sydney Children’s Choir in Moruya, Bermagui and Bega. More than 450 children from 9 schools participated in the program. Audience numbers exceeded expectations, and concerts sold out.
Another example involved Indigenous singer/songwriter Lou Bennett (from Black Arm Band) working with the local Yuin communities, writing songs in language which were performed at the Four Winds Festival in 2012. A notable piece to emerge from this creative process was the song Gulaga and Gadu, sung by local primary school children.
This was followed in 2013-14 by song-writing workshops with Shellie Morris that culminated in the most extraordinary ‘Welcome to Country’ at the 2014 Festival that completely recast this powerful event.
In 2015, as a result of Arts NSW funding, Four Winds launched another major flagship – the Bermagui Project (described below). Shellie Morris returned with Archie Roach to continue the creative composition work with local Indigenous musicians and in 2016, David Leha (Radical Son) continued Shellie and Archie’s work, with performances at the 2016 Four Winds Festival. Leha returned in 2018 to perform and record a new arrangement of his 2016 commissioned compositions.
Nature’s Concert Hall
An exceptional achievement was the completion of what is now called ‘Nature’s Concert Hall’, our two superb and unique performance spaces on the coastal bushland site.
When Sheena Boughen assumed the role of Chair in 2006, she began the drive to create permanent performance spaces on the Barragga Bay site. At the 2010 Festival a fund-raising appeal was launched and a Challenge Grant from a private donor was announced, matching any donations, dollar for dollar. The permanent Sound Shell (an outdoor amphitheatre seating 2000) was designed pro-bono by architect, Philip Cox, and it was opened at Festival 2012.
The Windsong Pavilion, (a superb indoor performance space seating 180 with world-class acoustics) designed pro-bono by architect Clinton Murray, was opened at the 2014 Festival.
The opening and celebration of Natures Concert Hall provided the impetus for a full-year calendar of events. Further, it drove Four Winds to broaden its vision:
To create music and other artforms to inspire the imagination, foster creative talent, and so enrich lives and encourage active community participation. We believe in the power of music and the arts to transform lives.
The stunning location sprang to life with the music and voices from international visiting artists to local community singing and instrumental ensembles, artists-in-residence and recording sessions.
Hundreds of young people of all ages have experienced performances and participated in Windsong events, from Musica Viva touring shows to festival artists working with small groups, from live-streaming from the Sydney Opera House, to creative workshops and master-classes. A partnership with the Australian National Academy of Music since 2013 has brought outstanding young musicians-in-residence to Four Winds twice-yearly, to perform, inspire, teach, and work their musical magic within the community, particularly with local youngsters.
In 2017 the education streams blended with our Indigenous partnership when Deborah Cheetham composed a song, Mother Mountain, partly in language, with a group of 36 Indigenous children from three of our local primary schools. ‘It is our story, I feel so proud’, said one young participant. This song, now regularly sung by local primary school children, is part of an evolving Four Winds Song Book (a brainchild of current Artist Director James Crabb) being composed for young people based on our place.
For the Youth Festival in 2019, Yuin Indigenous composer Brenda Gifford was commissioned to write songs for the newly formed Bega Valley Youth Choir. Yuin Elder, Warren Foster Snr, worked with Indigenous young people to create a new work, The Wetlands Song, which was performed and recorded at the Windsong Pavilion involving the Bermagui Primary School. Lisa Young also wrote new songs for the inaugural Youth Festival in 2018. Together with Dan Walker’s Singing Stones, and Lou Bennett’s Gulaga and Gadu, these are also now part of our Song Book of commissioned pieces based on place and sung by the hundreds of young people who gather for the Youth Festival.
After Sheena Boughen stood down as Chair of the Board in 2016 she was awarded an Arts Leadership Award from Creative Partnerships and an Order of Australia for her role in the development and expansion of Four Winds.
Michael Darling became the Chair and has been a key driver for the creation of the Annual Spring Youth Music Festival, which commenced in 2018. This youth festival is the culmination of much of the educational activity throughout the year.
Michael also led discussions which resulted in the Easter Festival being staged annually once again, as well as the development of increased digital content being created from Four Winds live events.
In September 2020, with restrictions on live performance in place, a new ‘Digital First’ team was created in order to produce high quality video works around the Windsong Concert series and Spring Youth Music Festival.
These video works are being shared across the Four Winds digital platforms for all to enjoy.
Story-telling with the community
Telling the stories of our place, and translating these into creative responses, has been central to what we do.
Madelaine Flynn and Tim Humphry were commissioned in 2011 to create a soundscape representing the many sounds and stories of our community. Throughout the year 110 locals from many walks of life participated in sound walks, called Bermagui Talks, which contributed to the final soundscape called The Seagull, which was on show at Festival 2012.
Artistic Director, Genevieve Lacey said of The Seagull, ‘I didn’t know what to expect…I’d never thought about what it sounded like here… being on a boat was like a mediation… I felt like the people telling the stories were talking to me… I’d never thought of voices as music. It’s changed the way I see where I live.’
The Bermagui Project, which began in 2015, celebrates the beauty and significance of Natures Concert Hall and the surrounding environment, from which we all find inspiration.
Our place is nestled between the sacred Gulaga and Mumbulla Mountains on a pristine piece of the Far South Coast, home to eight estuaries and a complex environment, rich in biodiversity. The Bermagui Project draws together the stories, history, Indigenous and scientific knowledge of this place. Through the project we endeavour to inspire the creation and presentation of new works of music, dance, visual art and film.
Our aim has been to stimulate deep understanding as well as to create an exchange of Indigenous, local, environmental and conservationist knowledge belonging to this landscape. So far, the project has engaged with hundreds of artists, from local to international, who have been involved in the creation and presentation of Australian works based all inspired by this special location.
Further stories were told in and around the Easter Festival 2019 when, together with the Bermagui Historical Society, tales from our fishing village were gathered and transformed into a creative performance. Directed by Sam Thomas, combining music, dance, fishing stories and Indigenous knowledge of the sea, and using a 100 year old wooden fishing boat (the Lady Jane) as the backdrop, more than a thousand people attended this free community concert on the Bermagui oval.
Four Winds Foundation
Four Winds has been outstandingly successful. There are many reasons for this, not least critical financial support, especially from Neilma Gantner directly, and then through the Four Winds Foundation which she established in 2002.
Carrillo Gantner offered land for Nature’s Concert Hall to the Four Winds Foundation in the early 90s.
The Foundation, set up by Neilma and Carrillo Gantner, is completely independent of Four Winds the organisation, has provided the only source of recurrent funding for artistic programming in the form of a grant, for which Four Winds applies annually.
As the Foundation has grown, it has also made significant grants for the building of the professional capacity of Four Winds (artistic direction, management and fundraising) and importantly, the extensive development of the two permanent structures that make up Nature’s Concert Hall, including roads, landscaping and other capital improvements.
Success has come to Four Winds in no small part because of some wonderful partnerships that have enabled us to expand our reach.
Examples include: Australian National Academy of Music, Sydney Children’s Choir, fLinG Physical Theatre, the Sydney Opera House Trust, Musica Viva, Merriman’s Land Council, National Music Teacher Mentoring Program, Sydney Youth Orchestra, Bega Valley Youth Choir, South Coast Music Camp, the Australian National University, and the Bega Valley Regional Gallery.
The 2008 Festival, Directed by Chris Latham, was one of five finalists for the Limelight ‘best festival in Australia’ award.
The 2010 Festival, Directed by Genevieve Lacey, won the APRA/AMC Art Music Awards for Excellence in a Regional Area and in 2017 the Festival was one of four finalists for the same award for the 2016 Festival, directed by Paul Dean.
In 2019 Four Winds was nominated for a Classical:NEXT innovation award. Classical:NEXT is an international gathering of the art music industry which takes place in Rotterdam each year.
ARTISTIC DIRECTORS through the years:
Michael Brimer was Artistic Director 1991 to 1993
Carrillo Gantner and Rodney Hall were Co-Artistic Directors throughout the remainder of the nineties.
From 2000 the festival was held biennially with Carrillo Gantner and Rodney Hall directing 2000, 2002 and 2004.
Chris Latham 2006, 2008;
Genevieve Lacey 2010, 2012;
Paul Kildea 2014;
Paul Dean 2016;.
James Crabb 2018 and the new, year-round calendar of events, including an ambitious education programme.
Since 2018 the Easter Festival has been an annual event.
2020 Lindy Hume Appointed Easter Festival Creative Director
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