10 June 2009
Music beyond the sandstone curtain
© Anni Heino
Elizabeth Rogers of Regional Arts NSW writes about some of the challenges faced by regional arts organisations and gives a quick overview of some major festivals and events in rural and regional areas.
Every Easter, the country comes to the city for the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Amidst the traditional displays of livestock, ring events and show bags, music does not automatically come to mind.
Music in the country is often supposed to be just that – country music – exemplified in the minds of our city cousins by the annual Country Music Festival in Tamworth in January. But that is not the limit of musical choices for people who live beyond the sandstone curtain. All genres of music are enjoyed by regional audiences, and festivals play a big role in presenting local, metropolitan and international performers that attract music lovers from the city as well as regional towns and rural areas.
Of all the challenges facing music production and presentation in regional areas, the lack of built infrastructure is the biggest, followed by the lack of financial resources to underwrite regional and remote touring. For the communities themselves, having access to professional teaching, either in schools, community colleges or studio teachers is restricted by a shortage of funds.
The southern part of NSW is still in the grip of the one of the longest droughts in our history. When farm incomes are depleted, so too are the incomes of the towns that service them. Mining jobs are swiftly disappearing in places like Broken Hill and Cobar. High-growth regions like the NSW Mid North Coast may be inundated with water, but the demand by families for music tuition cannot be fulfilled. The Conservatorium in Coffs Harbour is in dire need of a suitable building while many music students from the Great Lakes area further south have to travel to Coffs Harbour or Newcastle for professional tuition.
Programs such as Mark Walton’s Music Hub actively encourage recent graduates from major music institutions to relocate to regional and remote areas. The program gives them peer support and mentoring as well as assistance with business and skills development. For those who take up the challenge, the benefits of closer community networks, affordable housing and no traffic offer a great lifestyle choice. The innovative use of new technologies including video conferencing and skype to deliver lessons to remote students and teachers are key to this program.
Country towns with an active and visible cultural community are those that are most likely to thrive and attract much-needed skilled professionals to live in these areas. What is the cost of bringing a doctor to live a country town? In some cases, the salary of a resident music teacher.
The 17 regional conservatoriums play a key role in the delivery of quality music education in regional NSW across a broad range of musical styles. Programs offered include instrumental and vocal tuition, musicianship and theory, tuition for people with special needs, performing ensembles, professional development for teachers and performers, schools programs, music technology and early childhood music. At the same they also provide a rich musical experience for regional audiences with annual programs of concerts and recitals featuring student groups, recitals from teaching staff, community musicians as well as visiting lecturers, guest performers and touring ensembles, and are often the only places in town with facilities for concert performances.
Regional conservatoriums can be found dotted across the state in Albury, Wagga Wagga, Deniliquin, Goulburn, Young, Orange, Bathurst, Dubbo, Muswellbrook, Tamworth, Armidale, Gunnedah, Grafton, Lismore and Coffs Harbour. Closer to Sydney they are in Gosford and Wollongong
One of the larger classical music festivals is the Four Winds Festival in Bermagui on the far South Coast of NSW. This award-winning biennial festival is inspired by the beautiful coastal location of its purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and presents a diversity of fine classic and contemporary works every second Easter weekend. The next festival will be held in 2010 under the artistic direction of the acclaimed recorder virtuoso, Genevieve Lacey.
Travelling north, the Camden Haven Music Festival provides another coastal classical music experience. Nestled in the Hastings Valley, the Camden Haven Music Festival presents its annual festival over two April/May weekends in a range of venues including churches and historic halls in Kendall, Laurieton, North Haven, Wauchope and Port Macquarie. The program is mainly classical music ensembles from Sydney, with a sprinkling of world music and jazz. The 2006 festival was awarded the Classical Music Award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Music in a Regional Area.
Moving west from Sydney, the Huntington Estate Music Festival, a five-day festival is held every November in the Barrel Room of the Huntington Estate Winery. Celebrating its 20 th year in 2009, the festival, originally associated with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is now managed by Musica Viva and its artistic director Carl Vine.
Moving further west, 120 kilometres from Moree on the Queensland border, the small town of Mungindi, will hold its third biennial music festival on the first weekend in October. With a population of around 600, and surrounded by wheat and cotton fields, this outback celebration of music combines a host of visiting guest performers as well as contributions to the program by the community. Led by Mark Walton, a man whose passion for bringing music and music education to the far-flung reaches of this state is legendary, the program is a mix of classical, jazz, world music, and yes, even a wee bit of country.
Many other regional towns have groups of classical music lovers who present concerts by visiting performers. These groups may be arts councils, music societies or even just passionate individuals with entrepreneurial skills and a good network of like-minded mates who book the local hall (could be a School of the Arts, community centre, small arts centre, the town hall or the local church) and sell a bunch of tickets through a local retail outlet in order to hear a live music performance in their town. The Musica Viva Countrywide program offers such groups a menu of artists it has contracted for regional touring. In other cases, the organisers just pick up the phone and call the agent of the artist they want to hear.
Opera all over the place
Opera buffs have also turned entrepreneurial with operatic concerts in regional locations. There is the Hunter Valley’s well known Opera in the Vineyards at Wyndham Estate – an upmarket event which has been going since 1996. Further afield, up near Inverell, there is Opera in the Paddock, a more laid-back event with audiences bringing picnics to ‘Mimosa’, the rural property of former Opera Australia singer Peta Blyth and her husband Bill, to hear some of Australia’s big names in opera in performance. Since 2002, audiences have grown from an initial 700 to over 2,000 and the Blyths have now established a non-profit company, Opera North West Ltd, to take performances to other regional areas.
Very small towns have also been successful at putting opera on the bill. Moonan Flat, in the foothills of the Barrington Tops, 50 kilometres from Scone, has presented Opera in the Hills. Here audiences were warned to bring their own rugs and doonas in addition to their picnics, as the temperature in the unheated local hall would be freezing. Undeterred by this advice, the hall was packed to its 150 capacity.
Possibly the most courageous regional opera presenter is the small village of Morundah with a population of only 18. Located just off the Newell Highway between Narrandera and Jerilderie, the Morundah Bush Entertainment Committee first presented Oz Opera’s production of Carmen in a purpose-built pig shed in 2006. It was a black tie event that attracted audiences from all over the Riverina as well as from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Such was the success that Victorian Opera performed Cosi fan tutte the following year, and last year Oz Opera returned with Madama Butterfly. The shed now bears the glorious name ‘Paradise Palladian Theatre’ and is the venue for all kinds of musical events. Such is the interest in opera in the district that they are now running operatic workshops for children.
Co-Opera, based in Adelaide, regularly performs in regional NSW. The company has a commitment to tour opera to Australia’s regional and remote communities where there is never an opera house and rarely a decent theatre, so their productions are designed for alternative venues. This year’s tour of The Magic Flute was performed in theatres, parks and gardens, school auditoriums, churches and bowling clubs and travelled to Goulburn, Cowra, Forbes, Orange, Cobar, Quirindi, Coonabarabran, Tamworth, Walgett, Casino, Taree, Eden and Lismore, in that order.
Through festivals, subsidised touring, entrepreneurial locals, educational facilities and dedicated community groups, regional audiences can enjoy, engage with and participate in all forms of music – classic, opera, jazz, folk, choral, rock, hip hop, world, and (you guessed it) country music.
And yes, you can get a decent coffee - out west, up north and down south. It’s a great indication that there’s a thriving regional arts community.
Regional Arts NSW (www.regionalartsnsw.com.au/)
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Elizabeth Rogers joined Regional Arts NSW in December 2006. She has a very broad base of arts management and arts marketing experience, gained in over 20 years of work in the field in both metropolitan and regional areas. Previously she worked as Manager, Marketing & Communications with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and the Director of Canberra Arts Marketing, representing a large diversity of arts organisations from national cultural institutions, to touring companies, festivals, venues, galleries, museums, music ensembles to community arts groups.
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