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29 July 2010

Vale KennethTribe AC

6 February 1914 – 16 July 2010

Ken Tribe Image: Ken Tribe  
© Photo by Bridget Elliot from the 2010 ISCM World New Music Days in May.

Ken Tribe was a visionary figure whose impact in the cultural life of Australia cannot be overestimated. The music community has been deeply saddened to hear of his recent death, at age 96.

What sort of person could inspire the three largest music organisations in the country - the ABC, Musica Viva and Opera Australia - to put on a birthday party for him? Or to commission his portrait from the famous artist Nicholas Harding? How many people have, ever, received three Orders of Australia awards - AM, AO and AC? Ken was one.

Ken's energy was legendary. Most of the work for which he is most famous was not done for payment - his day-to-day job was as a solicitor, yet his legal knowledge was of great benefit in all arts-related activities that he took on.

Ken's education at St Andrew's Cathedral Choir School, where he sang for thirteen years, left him with a solid core of musical repertoire and an ability to discern between excellence and mediocre in music - a valuable asset. As a young man, he sang with Fritz Rice's madrigal group and with the NSW Conservatorium Choir, but gradually ceased performing. He did not consider taking music as a profession, especially in those years of the Great Depression.

From 1955 onward, Ken was the vision behind the development of Musica Viva as the flourishing entrepreneurial organisation it is today. He promoted policies that brought Australian performers together with overseas groups, encouraged both new and early music, whilst continuing to provide audiences with the standard 19th century repertoire that they expected. Through Musica Viva, he commissioned many new works from Australian composers, and instituted composer residencies. As an active promoter of Australia's composers and performers at a time when 'cultural cringe' had full sway, he was a major force for change.
In recent years, Ken personally commissioned five new string quartets, and had plans for more at the time of his death.

The stimulus for chamber music in the second half of the 20th century was largely the result of Musica Viva. The emergence of groups such as Synergy, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Leonine Consort (now The Song Company) and the Renaissance Players was inspired by Musica Viva artists from overseas, tours that had almost always been initiated by Ken Tribe.

Ken was a pioneer of new policies concerning public funding of the arts, through his role on the first Australia Council, the first Music Board and the Advisory Council of The NSW Arts Ministry. He was also in a position to work out legalities concerned with establishment of small, not-for-profit music groups. Frequently, he would do the legal work for them, pro bono - the amount of his pro bono work over the years will never be known.

One of Ken's major undertakings was as chair of the committee that produced a report for the federal government on Australia's orchestras - the 'Tribe Report' - which recommended the devolution of the symphony orchestras from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This has had a major impact on the musical landscape in Australia.

In a step away from his usual area of operation, he took a temporary management role at The Australian Opera (sic), at a time when major internal problems were requiring solution. Ken had a reputation of being calm, diplomatic, insightful, and a good problem-solver - qualities that were, no doubt, very necessary in that situation.

From his position on the Music Board, Ken initiated, with Don Banks and James Murdoch, the Australian Music Centre. At the time a considerable battle had to be fought with adversaries on the Australia Council before this important body could come into existence. Ken, with his usual foresight and perspicacity, stuck to his guns, because he believed it was a logical and necessary body to support Australian music into the future.

Ken was part of a team that planned the development of the Sydney College of the Arts and the Canberra School of Music; he was chair of both for a while. He was an obvious choice to be asked to chair the jury for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (now called Chamber Music Australia). He chaired the first three competitions, which entailed hectic travel overseas to audition prospective contestants. He relinquished jury duty in 2000, finding it too strenuous for a man of 86.

A role that required much astute thinking and action was the evolution of the Lowin Prizes as Australia's most important classical music awards. That the prizes are now so valuable is due directly to Ken's sagacity.

Other involvements, artistic and/or legal, were for Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia, Australia Ensemble, Goldner String Quartet, Brandenburg Orchestra, Roger Woodward's Sydney Spring Festival, Nimrod Theatre, Macquarie Trio and more.

Most people in the arts know nothing about Ken's forty years (1942-82) working for the profoundly deaf. His major achievements in that area were the building of a large Deaf Centre in Stanmore, promoting action on captioning, and Theatre of the Deaf. Also in a non-arts field were chairing boards of the Winifred West Schools, and for the Centenary Institute for Cancer Research and Cell Biology.

Will there ever be another like Ken Tribe?

Further links

Ken Tribe: A celebration (Musica Viva)

On Sunday 8 August 2010 at 5.30pm, Musica Viva will host a concert at City Recital Hall Angel Place, to celebrate the extraordinary life of Ken Tribe. For further information, please see Musica Viva's tribute page.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Gwen Bennett is Ken Tribe's biographer


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37 years of connections

Starting with the first Music Board of the Australia Council in March 1973 where he and I were both members, going on to setting up the Australian Chamber Orchestra with John Painter and other Music Board members one lovely sunny Sunday morning in his Double Bay (?) apartment and the Australian Music Centre with James Murdoch, Mary Vallentine, Kim Williams et al, on to his brave rescue of The Australian Opera (I was a director) – a giant pillar of support in all the above and many more. His legacy lives on.