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31 October 2013

Corroboree in Bogotá

Corroboree in Bogotá

On October 10 a signal event occurred in Australian music. It happened neither in this country nor in any of those cities to which we have conventionally, and often fruitlessly, tried to export our arts. It was a concert in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. That was remarkable in itself. What made it extraordinary was that this was not an Australian rock band or pop group, plenty of which have appeared in this city of 8 million souls. This was a symphonic concert and the evening was entirely of contemporary classical works by Australian composers.

Two years ago the Australia Latin America Foundation invited Ramiro Osorio, the distinguished Director General of Bogotá's newly built Teatro Mayor to visit Australia to choose work for an Australian arts season which he was planning two years hence. This was to be a month-long 'festival' ranging over our contemporary achievement in various genres. Above all, alongside dance and theatre productions, Mr Osorio wished to include a symphonic concert to ensure that his audience would have the chance to hear modern musical works of scale - an ingredient which is usually absent from such events. Even when Australian orchestras tour abroad they will take at most one local work. Some take none. But amazingly, Mr Osorio wanted to have all Australian works in his concert. To that end, he was prepared to book the Colombian National Symphony Orchestra and invite an Australian conductor and soloist.

It was a characteristically bold Latin American move. In all probability, none of the players would ever have heard a note of Australian music still less performed any. Certainly, all the music would be completely new to the audience.

On that basis the Foundation approached Benjamin Northey to conduct and asked him to propose a program. It seemed logical to choose works which would, at first hearing, be accessible; that in varying degrees would be distinctive without being jindyworobak and offered a sense of national achievement over the second half of the 20th century, and that featured major names of the period. They were not easy choices.

Together we also wanted to ensure that the works chosen would speak to a Latin American audience in particular ways. Like Australia, the countries of that region have been challenged over time by questions of national identity in which European heritage and indigenous culture have co-existed often uneasily in art, politics and life. Composers like Chavez, Revueltas in Mexico, Villa Lobos in Brazil and Orbόn in Cuba had grappled with that as have their Australian counterparts. Accordingly, John Antill's pioneering Corroboree followed by Peter Sculthorpe's Earth Cry seemed like appropriate starting points to suggest those similarities. Didjeridu virtuoso, Mark Atkins, was invited to be soloist in the second of these. The program was completed by two more 'international' works: Paul Stanhope's Fantasy on a theme of Vaughan Williams and Richard Meale's late work Three Miró Pieces.

That program would have been a high-wire act at home, though sadly it's hard to imagine any Australian management presenting such a concert. Indeed, one struggles to recall when any ever has. Perhaps it takes a foreign arts centre and its enlightened leader to show where we ourselves are lacking in this respect. As it turned out, even securing the parts and shipping them to Bogotá was not without its headaches and many favours were called upon in the process.

On the night, sponsored by a major Colombian energy corporation, the 1300-seat auditorium was crowded. Despite its being the longest established orchestra in Colombia, these days the National Symphony is overwhelmingly young, and with youthful vigour and immense enthusiasm the musicians rose magnificently to the challenge of these unfamiliar pieces and the opportunities to explore which they offered. The audience which had been attentive, even respectful, throughout responded with exuberance and sustained applause at the end, calling both conductor and soloist repeatedly back to the podium and eliciting, as was only appropriate, an encore of Percy Grainger's Shepherd's Hey, thereby adding another great Australian name to the list.

Benjamin Northey comments, 'In terms of broadening international perceptions of Australian music, this concert was one of the most meaningful cultural experiences I've had. It was a wonderful opportunity to highlight four works of important Australian composers and, in doing so, chart a course through the evolution of our original orchestral music of the past fifty years.'

Wandering in the foyer at interval, one could not miss the buzz heightened no doubt by Mark Atkins's dazzling mastery on his variously tuned instruments. Most, if not all, of the audience were hearing it for the first time - perhaps other than in a tourism commercial or on Discovery channel.

Since promoting Australia's contemporary cultural experience was the goal of this entire season, the organisers also took advantage of Atkins's presence by inviting him to bring his jazz/world trio to perform in sold-out recital two nights later in the 300-seat Studio Theatre in a program of entirely original works on keyboards, drums and of course didjeridu That offered the opportunity to feature this ancient instrument in two sophisticated and contrasting settings - the large-scale symphonic and the intimate ensemble, thereby demonstrating both its versatility and its role as very much part of music making in Australia today across the spectrum.

Both concerts were media-streamed through the Library, which forms part of this cultural complex to educational institutions, thereby reaching a wider public than actually attended and making, one hopes, many converts to the idea of Australian music and its composers.

Ramiro Osorio said: 'To create a panorama of any nation's music in another country is a special privilege. We dreamt of doing this two years ago and worked hard to achieve it. Teatro Mayor is proud to have been the platform for such a ground breaking Australian event'.

As a coda: amid all this splendid music there was also the chance for Colombians to gain a little insight into wider Australian life. The Foundation had also programmed a photographic exhibition dedicated to "'the Australian family'. This collection of 58 photos by 26 Australian photographers was the brainchild of Dawne Fahey (who has recently undertaken a similar documentary project for the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Youth Orchestra). The showing in Bogotá offered Colombians a glimpse into ideas of 'family' in the Australian context: across the country, families big and small, complex and simple, traditional as well as culturally diverse. It was a great 'frame' for the music, dance, and theatre. Wouldn't it be nice if next time an Australian PM goes somewhere she or he took some artists along with the business people? It might open up a few more doors than those formal talkfests.

Justin Macdonnell is an arts manager and producer who has been involved in over 50 tours of Australian artists to Latin America in the last 30 years.  The Australia Latin America Foundation is a not for profit agency which promotes cultural exchange between Australia and Latin America.


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