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Wendish Descendants at the Ballarat Fine Music Festival

by John Noack

The City of Ballarat welcomed some Wendish descendants as performing musicians to its impressive Festival of Fine Music from 8 to 17 January, 2016.

The informative Program Notes contained information in relation to 25 Concerts, which included singing by choirs and soloists and performances on keyboards and on orchestral instruments.  In addition, there was an official Festival Breakfast, a Lunch and a Dinner, as well as a relaxing paddle-boat ride on Lake Wendouree.

The performances were all on a world-class level and the recitalists, including Robert Ampt, Amy Johansen and Calvin Bowman, could claim to have Wendish ancestry.  Robert Ampt, who is the Sydney City organist and a composer of music on the Birralee Publishing label, performed as both a solo and duet player, playing with his wife Amy Johansen.  At his recital at the Carngham Uniting Church in Snake Valley, Robert played Bach’s mighty “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor’ as the climax to his theme, “Bach and His Variation Friends”.  The church itself was built as a smaller version of Scots Presbyterian Church in Collins St, Melbourne.

Robert’s Wendish ancestors, Johann Noack and his wife Anna nee Hondow, lived at Schoenhoehe and at Tauer in Lower Lusatia.  They arrived with their children, including Anna’s children Martin Hondow and Maria Nowsch, and Johann and Anna’s son Friedrich, on the ship San Francisco in October 1850.  They eventually settled on their farm at Peter’s Hill, which is located east of Riverton in South Australia.  Here they raised their family, helped to establish and maintain the Lutheran Church and School and both Johann and Anna are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.  Their son Friedrich later moved to the Victorian Wimmera and then to Hopevale, east of Rainbow in the Mallee region.  Robert’s grandfather, Pastor J. F. Noack, lived and worked in Natimuk.  Robert’s parents Louis Ampt and Dorothy, nee Noack, lived and worked in Horsham, where Robert was born in 1949.  More details about Robert are presented on page 591 in the Noack-Hondow-Schmidt Family History book.

Amy Johansen, who is at present the University organist and carillonist at the University of Sydney, was born and educated in the United States of America.  Her father worked for the Air Force, so her family, which can also claim some Wendish ancestry, lived in various locations, including Texas and Honolulu.  Amy was educated at the University of Florida and at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  Her promotion and performances of the organ works of Composer Naji Hakim have been widely acclaimed.

The “Duo Organ Recital” presented together with Robert Ampt at the large Ballarat Central Uniting Church included the lively “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” by George Handel and “Waltzing Matilda for Four Feet” by Robert Ampt.  Amy also played the organ at the recital at St Alipius Church, which included Gregory van der Struik playing the trombone.  Together, they presented some very lively duet-music of Gustav Holst, Brendan Collins, Antonio Vivaldi and Robert Ampt.

Dr Calvin Bowman, organist, pianist and composer, has been described as “one of the finest musical minds this country has produced”.  He is a Graduate of the University of Melbourne and of Yale University, where he was the first Australian to graduate with a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree.

In Ballarat, Calvin is their “Local Boy”.  Although he was born in nearby Ararat in 1972, he grew up in Ballarat with his sister Nadine.  Both displayed an early interest in playing the piano and Calvin’s interest in performing the works of J. S. Bach led to his mastery of Bach’s organ works.

His Wendish ancestry can be traced back through his mother, Lynn Bowman, nee Friebel, and his grandfather Clyve Friebel of Rainbow to his great-grandmother, Martha Gersch.  It was Martha’s grandfather Johann Gersch, who, as a Wend, was born in Buchwalde in Lusatia, Germany and who, with his wife Hertha and his family, sailed to Australia on the ship Steinwarder and arrived at Adelaide in November 1854.  The family eventually settled at St Kitts in South Australia and from there, subsequent family members moved to many parts of Australia, including Ballarat.  Calvin’s childhood fondness of music and his piano and the violin lessons, are mentioned on page 221 in the Gersch Family History, Of Pioneers and People: The Johann Gersch Story.

Calvin was joined by the Soprano Emma Horwood, a member of the award-winning “Adelaide Chamber Singers” and who is widely “renowned for her purity of tone, musicality and engaging stage presence”.  They presented works by Samuel Barber and works composed by Calvin in homage to Barber.  One of these works was Calvin’s “Seven Songs” from A Childs Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The final item was the world premiere of Bowman’s “Little Prelude after the Master”.

The Ballarat District has hosted this “Festival of Fine Music” for the past 21 years, with the organist Sergio de Pieri OAM as the Director.  The registered participants numbered over 400 and some had attended every previous Festival.

However, the Wendish descendants Lena and Frieda Mirtschin, who in the past have enjoyed many of these excellent concerts, were unable to attend this year.  They are both now residents at the Kirillee Nursing Home in Richards St, Ballarat.  During my visit, they were pleased to be able to hear about some highlights and to inspect some of the 200 photos taken of the various performers, venues and activities during this Festival.  The members of the Mirtschin family are also proud of their Wendish ancestry and origins in Upper Lusatia in Germany and Lena and Frieda have gained much from their own eventual destination of Ballarat.

No doubt the members of the very appreciative audience hope that this Festival can continue well into the future.