Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

21 February 2013

Australian music: who is doing what?

Australian music: who is doing what?

How much are our major organisations doing for Australian music? Naomi Johnson - a flautist, Mmus student and this year's Words About Music fellow (WAM is a program of the Australian Youth Orchestra's National Music Camp) - takes a close look at 2013 concert programs.

In October 2012, pianist and composer Michael Kieran Harvey used the 14th annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address to give Australian music a scathing report. Almost across the board, he declared, not enough is being done to promote Australian compositions, and only a very few chamber ensembles truly engage with the breadth of available repertoire. What's more, local audiences are for the most part lead by international tastes, and as a result 'Australian classical music audiences still regard Australian music and performers as inferior.'

Harsh criticism indeed, but is it true of all Australia's major music organisations? What do their 2013 concert programs show us?

In the orchestral programs, a few premieres of Australian content do stand out. Paul Stanhope's Piccolo Concerto, a joint commission from the Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmanian symphony orchestras, will receive its first performance in Melbourne on 6-7 June with MSO principal piccolo Andrew Macleod. Concerts in Adelaide (20, 21 and 22 June) with Julia Grenfell and Hobart (26 July) with Lloyd Hudson will follow - six performances in two months in total. Refreshingly, the MSO and ASO are proactively putting such a new work front and centre, programming it in their main 'master' series concerts that tend to feature the more traditional repertoire. In Adelaide the concerto will also be featured in an open rehearsal and pre-concert talk with Stanhope, allowing school groups and broader audiences to engage with the composition process.

An all-Australian works concert - a collaboration between composer Nigel Westlake and singer-songwriter Lior - is being presented by the Sydney Symphony (6-7 September), the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (28 September) and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (11 December). With Lior as soloist and Westlake taking the conductor's podium, they will premiere their joint composition Compassion along with orchestral arrangements of Lior's songs. It is good to see the orchestras' increasing collaboration with cross-genre artists extending to those of Australian origins as well as international imports.

Otherwise, the offerings of the major orchestras are mixed, with some more enthusiastic than others about programming Australian repertoire in their mainstream programs. Each orchestra will give at least one premiere performance, with commissions fairly equally divided between public and private:

Some Australian works are making reappearances, mostly as part of smaller series such as the MSO's chamber concerts, the Sydney Symphony's Tea and Symphony, and educational concerts. Notable exceptions to this trend are Natalie Williams's Whistleblower (2006) taking pride of place in a master series and open rehearsal combination with the ASO on 7-8 June, and a new arrangement of Ross Edwards's Tyalgum Mantras (1999) in a TSO master's concert on 15-16 February. However, it would still seem that most new Australian pieces are destined only to be performed once or twice. Works written only a decade or two ago are far from regular on programs, and the names of older Australian composers such as Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Richard Meale are absent altogether.

There are many possible reasons for this relative lack of Australian repertoire in orchestral concerts. European music still dominates, and audiences seem happier buying tickets to hear music they already know. Contemporary music series such as Metropolis (MSO), Kaleidoscope (Sydney Symphony) and 20/21 (QSO) are not heavily attended as is, and so orchestras are maybe reluctant to program works by relatively unknown Australian composers.

There is also a worrying trend in orchestras of not having a composer in residence, a role now left more and more to educational institutions. The QSO featured Elena Kats-Chernin as artist in residence in 2011/12 and WASO has been actively championing James Ledger's music until very recently, but otherwise big orchestras don't appear keen to develop this kind of intense musical relationship with active composers.

By contrast, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has a strong line-up of Australian works on their 2013 program. Their February and March national tours are heavily focused on Australian composers, with the premieres of Brett Dean's Electric Preludes (featuring Richard Tognetti's new toy, the violectra), and works by Iain Grandage and Tognetti himself. In November there is another premiere - Brenton Broadstock's Never Truly Lost -and ACO2 will play works by Elena Kats-Chernin and Roger Smalley. The orchestra is also promoting some of this Australian repertoire while overseas; they will take both Electric Preludes and their multimedia project The Reef on tour with them to Hong Kong and the USA in March.

Musica Viva has no featured composer in 2013. Australian works have been included in the national touring series, with all international artists except Angela Hewitt (a Bach specialist) and the Academy of Ancient Music performing an Australian piece. In September, the Elias String Quartet (UK) will premiere Matthew Hindson's String Quartet No. 2, and the Tokyo String Quartet will play Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet No. 16 (2005). Both these works were commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside AO QC. Australian works are also championed by many of the groups in the Sydney and Melbourne-based coffee concert series, although not so much in the Musica Viva festival in April.

Unfortunately, as much cannot be said for Opera Australia and the Victorian Opera, whose 2013 programs don't feature a single full-scale Australian opera, new or otherwise. Of course, the cost of staging an opera is much greater than that of performing a new symphony or concerto, and a contemporary opera can't be balanced with a more well-known piece in the way that an orchestral work can be. Opera Australia's website states that they 'hope to do a new Australian piece every three years', so hopefully the next one is just around the corner. Victorian Opera, who generally manage a new Australian work just about every year, has their October children's opera The Magic Pudding written by Calvin Bowman to a libretto by pianist Anna Goldsworthy. If their 2012 program is anything to go by, Chamber Made Opera will continue to stage a variety of smaller-scale Australian works in 2013.

In the realm of chamber music, however, Australian music does get rather more focus. The Australian String Quartet will premiere Andrew Ford's String Quartet No. 5 in September's national tour, while the Flinders Quartet have an Australian piece in each of their three touring programs. Other new works in 2013 include Nigel Butterley's Remembering Pierrot (Australia Ensemble, 12 October), Damien Ricketson's Clique (Ensemble Offspring, 13 April) and The Prophet, a collaboration between Joseph Tawadros and The Song Company. These ensembles and many others are often the most enthusiastic collaborators (often working with composers within the ensemble), but must do so on limited funding.

So are Australian ensembles doing enough to promote their own music? Michael Kieran Harvey certainly feels that the 7% of Australian works on orchestral programs is not enough, and that classical music needs to be looking forwards rather than backwards in order to attract new audiences. Others would say that audiences want to hear classics, and that these pieces have gained their status for a reason. Perhaps the best way forward is to aim for a better balance of the old and new, the Australian and the international. Rather than being taught to shy away from the untried, Australian audiences should be encouraged to explore the diversity of works that local composers are writing. By learning to seek out the new and unusual in any art form, audiences allow it to grow and develop, at once appreciating its heritage and securing its future.

AMC Resources

AMC 2013 Calendar

Further Links

14th annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address by Michael Kieran Harvey

Naomi Johnson is a flautist and Mmus student at the Melbourne Conservatorium. As a 2012 Australian Youth Orchestra Music Presentation Fellow, she has gained experience writing for the Australian Music Centre, Sydney Symphony and Radio National (the Music Show).


Add your thoughts to other users' discussion of this article.

You must login to post a comment.

Toadying piffle

What never ceases to amaze me is the fact that the people sticking up for these organisations and their pathetic figures of Australian content are the very people who are so discriminated against. It is like a religion where the laypeople are bedazzled by the pomp of Rome! These meagre droppings of Australian content are not good enough for the amount of Australian taxpayers' money lavished on these organisations. Any young Australian composer perusing these rare works of Australian music in the vast seas of foreign works presented as the bulk of orchestral and opera performances, and any young Australian performers perusing the lack of opportunities for Australian performers can come to only one conclusion - Australians are not wanted. My arguments are vindicated by this naive and toadying article - this poor woman will probably never be booked by these organisations as a player or composer, despite her desperate attempts at ingratiation, and she has my complete sympathy. 


Some background

Hi Michael - thank you for your very direct response. If at all possible, I'd like to encourage experienced and respected Australian musicians to adopt a friendlier and more constructive tone in their criticism of young, aspiring writers' work. To provide a little bit of context, I asked Naomi, who recently spent a week at the AMC as a Words About Music Fellow (this is a program of the Australian Youth Orchestra) to look at the 2013 concert programs by these major organisations and put her findings in an article. This is what she did, and the results of her work make it possible for the rest of us to see how much Australian music is performed by orchestras around the country without having to browse through pages and pages of season programs. The results speak for themselves to a certain extent, and the tone of the article is of course a reflection of the writer's personality and experience, in the same way as the tone of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is a reflection of your personality and experience. Both contributions are valuable, and debate should be encouraged, too – I’m just afraid that extremely sharp commentary may stunt the debate rather than encourage it.

Thanks for the article.

It's good to have such a clear article outlining what's going on. Such tallies are valuable for keeping track of who's doing what, and for tracking longer trends. It's fair to say that based on the lists here, that the commitment to new music is a bit thin.

There are a couple of ideas that struck me.

Firstly. 'Contemporary music series such as Metropolis (MSO), Kaleidoscope (Sydney Symphony) and 20/21 (QSO) are not heavily attended as is, and so orchestras are maybe reluctant to program works by relatively unknown Australian composers.' This is a familiar argument, used by those wishing to reduce contemporary music and by those wanting more. As long as the basis for programming is attendance numbers, nothing will change and the argument can go no further. There are concerts which in the past have been vital for a generation, which have been defining events that lead to new ideas and practices, but which had very few people attending. There are also musical events that never had an audience, but did have a congregation, for example... Focussing on audience numbers is clearly a sensible outcome (indeed, the only outcome) if the aim is to attract audiences and nothing else.

Secondly, there is very little sense of the history of music in the way that the organizations discussed programme, especially when it comes to programming Australian music. And the result is that works get collected into concerts for reasons that are often hard to fathom. Why, for example, is the Elias String Quartet not championing Britten in this year's musica viva tour? They have an excellent CD of his music, and its in their repertoire, and there are Australian composers who might be sensibly played alongside his music. I can imagine a programme of Britten and Tippet and Butterley being enlightening (and popular, if that's necessary). But having heard their playing, Hindson isn't the composer who springs to mind. (Exton, maybe? Does anyone remember him?) And the opportunity of a major centenary is an opportunity to programme history, to find new ways of listening to connects of places (Musica Viva's a touring organisation, right?), or from composer to composer. (Has anyone played Britten's Holiday Diary alongside Butterley's Letter from Hardy's Bay? I think that might be a rather fun pairing, given how different they are.) Here's a curious idea: a concert of quartets by Sculthorpe, David Matthews (his 10th) and Lumsdaine - although I'd keep their different takes on Australian birdsong out of the programme notes, and keep that discussion musical. Throw in Britten's 3rd quartet too. There's plenty of contrast in that programme, and plenty of room for some surprises too.

From my perspective, there are many Australian composers connected to musical practices that are shared internationally. Indeed, some of the best works are successful because of this. You mention Richard Meale (a far better composer than PGH for me): why hasn't his music had a renewed place in programmes of French music (Debussy, Boulez, Messiaen…)? Some of the continuities that could be drawn through such programming might also reveal some of the ways in which his music is different, which might in turn be the basis of an argument for 'Australian Music'. But currently that argument is rarely made musically, and mostly through quotas, rights issues, the criteria of funding schemes… and then we are back to the attendance problem (since that attendance problems are financial, dependent on rights issues, funding schemes…), which them feeds the idea that Australian Music is unpopular and therefore a problem. Time to rewire that circuit.

Not forgetting...

... the fact that the Elision ensemble, one of Australia's most internationally successful and acclaimed performing organisations in the area of contemporary music, was basically forced by lack of funding support either to cease operations altogether or to relocate its operations to the UK, where, naturally enough, it isn't called upon to perform as much repertoire by Australian composers as previously. What does that say about the commitment of the relevant Australian institutions to innovative artists in the country, not to mention their commitment to Australia's cultural independence?

Proceeding through the 21st century by regressing through the 20th

Hear hear Richard Barrett. What's even more depressing about the music by locals listed in this piece is that the vast majority are unadventurous paragons of retrospectivity. Why are the handful of Australian composers creating genuinely new music being continually overlooked - real composers (not mere pasticheurs) like Michael Smetanin, Chris Dench, Liza Lim, Adam Yee, Matthew Shlomowitz etc.? The sheer conservatism of a lot of what is being proferred here is truly nauseating.

Thanks Naomi

An interesting snapshot.

I reckon there's more going on, once everything is taken into account. Just in our little patch at the Australia Ensemble at the University of NSW, we are actually premiering two newly commissioned works: the one you mention (Nigel Butterley's 'Remembering Pierrot') and a new piece by John Peterson. In addition, we play two works of mine, plus two further  pieces by Butterley and one by Martin Wesley-Smith. This would be about normal for us, or perhaps a little under our long term average, although we are rarely, if ever, mentioned as a group that champions new music. Also, we do regularly revisit older commissions, going back eons (seemingly), so that most AE commissions do get dusted off and given second, third and sometimes mutiple airings over the years, depending on how much we actually like them, if it's permitted to be so candid.

I see that the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, again, are premiering a new work, this one by Benjamin Martin ('Trinitas'). That, surely, deserves a mention.

At the Huntingon Festival, there will be a premiere of my new piano trio, commissioned by Musica Viva stalwarts John and Jo Strutt to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

I'm getting just a little tired of hearing audiences criticised, mocked and insulted, and the new music which they do like, derided. In my experience, personally and professionally, people, generally are not stupid - far from it. And they do give things a go, new things, things they don't immediately like but are prepared to try to understand. Once, at the Adelaide Festival a few years ago, I sat next to a farmer as we listened to the premiere of Ross Edwards Symphony no.4. He told me that he put his farm into the hands of his manager for a week each year so he could come to hear "the new stuff". He could hear the "old stuff" on the radio any time. Whether or not that work, or any other, might meet the prerequisite 'newness', 'relevance' or 'innovation' necessary for the approval of this person or that person is immaterial. It's the fact that new works are being written and performed, every year that matters, and they are. Frequently, prominently, adventurously enough? By and large, absolutely not! In particular, I think that the great failure is the historic lack of a regular platform for larger scale works (the lack of even a semblance of an operatic commission programme at the AO is a particularly egregious artistic failure), or a really coherent appreciation of all our music from way back to some of our excellent earler composers, but it's no mystery why that's the case. Money and risk. Even if it is often other people's money...