Opus Posth No. 1: Works by Kathryn Purnell (1911-2006)

Kathryn PurnellSome years back your correspondent published a “Guest Blog” with a view to reissuing (if that is the right term) writings by skilled wordsmiths which seem to merit such rebirth. This current post is different in that the work published has so far (as far as can be established) not previously appeared anywhere. Why Kathryn Purnell? Simply because, apart from being your correspondent’s mother-in-law, she was a fine wordsmith, producing much poetry and prose. You can check out her current catalogue at The National Library of Australia which includes three recently published ebooks, available from Amazon or Kobo. These three novellas are varied in length and present stories set in London, Melbourne and Istanbul. Time poor? Read a novella.

A little background on Kathryn can be found on her Facebook page, but for ease of reference a short backgrounder follows:

“Kathryn Purnell embodied the soul and spirit of a creative writer. She maintained an intense interest in everything around her, the natural and spiritual worlds, the everyday and the eternal, diverse countries and their cultures as well as the human condition (of which she had an uncanny understanding). A gifted educator, she was an inspiration to many aspiring writers to whom she taught creative writing. She believed intensely in the need to encourage women writers, the constraints on whom she felt herself at a very personal level. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1911 and baptised Catherine Isabell (Maxwell), she later morphed her personal names into Kathryn Isobel for reasons never clearly evident. Travelling by sea to Australia with her family as a young woman she met on board and later married scientist William (Bill) Purnell. In a marriage that lasted 72 years the partnership of two highly intelligent but very different personalities was not always smooth, but that notwithstanding the union delivered Kathryn a wealth of opportunity for international experiences rare for most living in those times. Bill Purnell’s work in the early years of UNESCO, as head of its Science Cooperation Division, took Kathryn to Paris to live in the early post war years, then to Cairo and later Jakarta. She travelled widely in Europe and later spent time in South Africa where her younger daughter lived for a time. When her husband’s ill health compelled the family to return permanently to Australia in the late nineteen fifties, Kathryn maintained her international links through involvement with the United Nations Association, and her work with women through the YWCA. It was particularly in this period of her life, with the common pressures of maintaining a family, supporting a husband in his professional life and finding time to create, that she felt most strongly the constraints and limitations placed on the female creative spirit by the societal practices and beliefs of the time. But create she did, both poetry and prose work. She also spent much of her time teaching aspiring writers, mostly women. Active in the Society of Women Writers, in 1998 she won The Alice Award, a biennial award for long term and distinguished contribution to literature by an Australian woman. Previous winners have included Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright, Mary Durack and Nancy Cato. After Kathryn’s death the Society of Women’s Writers Victoria set up the biennial Kathryn Purnell Poetry Prize in her memory. Other awards over the years included the State of Victoria Short Story Award and the Moomba Short Story Prize in 1966/67, The Society of Women Writers Poetry Prize in 1972, Maryborough Poetry Prize in 1975, an award in the Geelong Arts Festival 1976 and in 1979 she was the inaugural winner of the Charles Meeking Poetry Award for women. A resident of the suburb, in the early nineties Kathryn was appointed East Melbourne Writer in Residence. During this appointment she edited “The Beautiful Hill: An Anthology of Writing from East Melbourne”, a collection of short essays and poems written by local identities. In addition to her poetry, Kathryn left a fine legacy of prose writings, much of it unpublished. A current project will seek to redress this by e-publishing some of her novellas, short stories and her singular novel, the latter a fascinating story, with autobiographical undertones, covering the life of a young girl growing up in early twentieth century Vancouver, yet stretching to Cairo in the fifties.”

For lovers of French history the following epic poem reflects on personal elements in the life of Louis 14th of France, The Sun King. The style is very different to Kathryn’s later poetry, probably having been written in the immediate post war years when she lived in Paris. Your correspondent thinks it is a gem worthy of preservation.

 

THE KING WALKS IN THE ORANGERIE

©

Mine is a tired ghost well acquainted with questions

still unsolved; consciously dissatisfied; harried

by avoidable mistakes; dismissing other ethical torts

of my historic times. A strange garrulous phantom

even irreligious now considering the murders I sanctioned in that cause;

the sacred promises I broke like a pagan at midsummer. A pagan

which indeed I have become since I died, rising up and down

from the soil to haunt my garden and spook the decline

of my maligned menagerie. I rarely wander now inside

my palace so perfectly restored with gold from the new

world. Even I cannot approve the recent treaties irredeemably

forced by hate in my long ballroom.

This last is a disgusting century

considering the technical advances

man does not improve

or justify his promise.

I have decided to depart with the last

blossoming tree in this potted

monarchical menagerie.

For me the flowers, animals and birds have easily deposed

ambitious men. I was encircled by them.

Women are softer if mischievous even gardeners

desire them. I am at depth a gardener. This garden

unlocked me season following season in carefully

constructed promenade, spring blossom, summer fruit,

the red glow of autumn, winter resting white, the constant

parade of flowers, the trees I know as friends.

Women so seasonal in beauty wit and laughter

were my necessity like the oranges I removed with plans

from Fouquet who stole from my treasury. He was the collector

of artists, Le Vau, Le Brun, Le Nôtre, destined for Versailles.

I was the gardener. Historians

may say Le Nôtre

made the garden.

It was I, Louis Quatorze, son

of Anne, taught by Mazarin, I

the fourteenth monarch ageing

from agile gay to sullen melancholy

made it grow. I was the gardener.

The menagerie was also mine.

The inner lodge of the chateau was always my retreat

from vulnerable childhood. Secure inside these woods

I could not hear the wild street cries of Paris. True

the mob came here to seize my final heir and Antoinette:

the demons stripped the palace but not the stones and brick

and not for a hundred years when even my eminent ghost

walked on the inner stair advice ignored and wraith unseen

by the sixteenth and his Queen. She built a little farm

for her pretence. His neglect included the half mooned

circle of my menagerie. Versailles was my sanctuary;

around it rose my glory, the great façade. Three hundred

seventy five elongated windows for the fabled view

across one hundred steps to the thousand fountain jets.

 

While I endured the levy my children played on the double stairway,

danced above the Orangerie, giggled at the gondoliers

imported from Italy to sing of Venetian love in a French lullaby.

How I wanted those children to be happy. Modern children

play but not so often die except in war. I sired seventeen;

have trouble now remembering the wisps beyond the seven

who survived and they took full life pride from the wombs

of several women. While princely young I loved Louise.

Her beauty produced a beautiful daughter. In my next phase

the wit of Montespan presented me with two. I recall three

adorable girls brought up by Maintenon who guarded my progeny

until her earthly end within the bigotry of her religious creed,

remember with an acute compassion the children who lived

to be my heirs. Madame the Queen bedded year by year

to leave my only son, raised by my brother Monsieur

for the safety of the crown until the Dauphin was grown

mature enough to produce a son of his own, my beloved grandson,

hope of my middle years, pleasing for the succession

protecting for the perpetuation the divine dynastic

right of kings, who loved my little one, the petite Bourgogne.

My favourite Marie Adelaide

whom they brought from Savoy,

delightful imperious child

of eleven betrothed to my heir

young Burgundy. It was she who

fell in love with my menagerie

which I gave her gladly.

How we adored her.

In her embroideries

she smelled sweeter than Le Nôtre’s

roses. She was a passion like my flowers.

Her youth like mine cherished the menagerie. Mine

the power of a young king even then older than Adelaide

the year she died. When she arrived thirty reigning

years had spent enthusiasm; filched me away

from that first fascination, recaptured in her face.

I remembered that the King of Portugal had sent the elephant;

that I studied biology in the beginning, paid out

a hundred thousand gold Louis, made my menagerie

richer in fur and feathers than any other.

Secure and proud had opened the doors to public view,

a mistake of twenty years duration. Once an offer

is made it is difficult to cancel. It was the people broke

my spirit, hooted, bellowed and roared derision, trampled

the flowers, drunk with wine abused exotic elegance,

fouled the way in their hollering heard in constant din

above the roar of the lion.

I was over sixty when

she watched the menagerie with me,

my little Marie Adelaide come

to be married at twelve.

She adored the peacock strut, Quagga that rare zebra

now extinct; like me she stared fancifully

into the amber eyes of cats. The keepers loved her.

She had the tempers to make men laugh and yet obey,

a royal trait too shrewd for thoughtless edicts. She

cajoled Colbert and me to finance the menagerie

when costs grew inordinately heavy. Only they who

have fed a zoo can know the cost. She and I

would walk together at the sunset hour, an ageing King

bitter with memory, hand in hand with a vain humble child

preparing to be a Queen despite a disposition too loving.

She talked to me, cajoled the boy who was her husband,

spoke to the gardeners, the keepers, her favourite

fowls and animals in the menagerie, trying to please

them all. I see her still standing by idly absorbed

with hens and cabbages while I argued with Le Nôtre

who raised legumes instead of blooms in my greenhouses.

So it was not for me her small

white form returns. I hurry to speak

but she is gone like quicksilver.

Strange I should remember best

the love without desire.

It is not for me she searches.

She died of measles, a scourge

like the pox and faster,

a night and she was gone

still a young woman.

He who was my grandson followed

her soon after refusing to recover.

Outlive my heirs! It broke my

heart for as I lived I buried

every one except the wide eyed child

of five they brought to me

for blessing before I died.

He was a good king,

often we walked together here

where he was born and died. He

was always at home within my presence.

He shared my humours, grateful

I haunted the Regent when he

was young. As well his Queen

Marie Leczinska breathed her blood

into these roots with ten offspring

to place above the glory of mistresses

who were beautiful women. In that

he was more fortunate than I, yet

finally I had rather the menagerie

I made and the garden of Versailles.

My tulips, my daffodils, my stocks and jasmine.

Useless, Le Nôtre said agreeing with La Quintinie

smiling among the variety of vegetables raised for my table

arguing amiably while watching my face. Vegetables

with berries are beautiful food for birds and love as equally

are lilliums. Who in my day could say what was useless, not Le Nôtre

or Le Brun or Le Vau or even my clever exploiter Colbert

who played his part in this garden.

I did what I could for his sons.

He was a snob my brilliant financier

One never felt him satisfied.

How could he be?

Money was his forte. To me money

meant the satisfaction of my Orangerie:

Chinese they told me when I was first entranced.

When the oranges die I will go through their roots to the tomb

of Apollo, three hundred metres down the stairs

under the green carpet where the steps are mossy now and the border

trees velvet with golden lichen. At night now

only the satyrs stare at my apparition. The gates are locked. Moderns

may expect me there for by day I scare nobody. I am not

an unsightly spectre. My shade is friendly, haunting the Orangerie.

The worst I am called is vain. An artist leaves a painting,

a poet a poem. Musicians can be performed continually.

Only recently a performance of a petite suite in A

composed by me was mechanically recorded in the conservatoire.

Any peasant can leave his seed, the woman makes the child.

Knossos, Persopolis, Chambord, from roses and fleur-de-lis

monarchs build palaces. I the Sun King Louis,

out of everything I saw and knew, from moulding,

beading, panelling, gilding, water and symmetry,

using stone and ornamentation with inlay,

ormolu, enamel and clay, from leadlight,

parquetry, archeries and fountains I made Versailles,

fashioned gardens with waterways and my menagerie.

Depart a tired ghost

with the last tree in my Orangerie

I, Louis Quatorze who made Versailles.

 

Kathryn Purnell (1911-2006)

 

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The Case of the Disappearing String Quartet: 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (@MICMCompetition)

It seems your correspondent hasn’t been paying attention. Blame it on the recently passed silly season. But a recently arrived invitation to the launch of the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition prompted a recheck of the participating ensembles. What a surprise! The initial announcements in 2017 listed one Australian string quartet, the Barbaro. This particularly caught attention because first violinist was none other than Kristian Winther who has a varied string quartet history embracing both the TinAlley and the Australian String Quartets. Indeed Tinalley competed in the 2007 MICMC with Winther as first violinist. 2007 was the last time an Australian quartet with any previous performance history on note was selected to compete in the competition so it was pleasing to see a local group get up. So far so good. Except that no one seemed to have heard of the Barbaro. Apart from a couple of videos on Youtube there was no obvious backstory. And no apparent ongoing story. Usually competitors in international competitions work flat out and get as much performance practice as possible during their preparation. But if Barbaro did so, it wasn’t well advertised.

Then, today, your correspondent thought it would be a good idea to remind himself of the non Australian competitors. Surprise, surprise! There were eight listed on the Musica Viva website, but no Barbaro. Who knows what may have transpired, but string quartet life can be stressful it is said. Perhaps the pressures of developing a new ensemble in a short timeframe just became too much. Whether this is a loss to our musical life we will never know. Many past participants have ceased to exist (Paizo, Barbirolli, Finzi), or morphed into other forms (Badke). Even the previous Musica Viva and Audience Prize winners, the all male Giocoso Quartet, now have a female violist. They are part of the MVA International Series in 2018 and their rather impressive photo is being used as part of the MICMC promos. (The photo has a bit of Helmut Newton about it.) But, apologies for the digression, it is a long time between drinks for Australia. No long surviving local quartet has competed since 2007 (TinAlley) and it is necessary to go back fifteen years to the competition at which both Tankstream and Flinders Quartets competed.

This may say something about the difficulties and risks of forming and developing a young quartet. It may also say something about the programs in conservatoria around the country. It is after all only fairly recently that even the Australian National Academy of Music has placed any focus on quartet development. And since 2007, only one young ensemble, the Orava Quartet, has stood out as one that could be MICMC worthy. Perhaps others are in development. Let us hope so.

Be all that as it may, for those of a nationalist bent who like to support the locals, at least Australia is represented among the piano trios, with the Clarendon Trio  (Skevington, Bekes, Brozgul) competing, and Australian violinist Brigid Coleridge, currently New York based, will play with the Merz Trio.

Musica Viva, as the new presenters of MICMC, have also reworked the place for Australian composers with all ensembles having to play a work specially commissioned for the event. Rising star Holly Harrison was awarded the commission for the string quartet work, with financial support from Silo Collective.

Roll on July. Your correspondent wishes all participants well, local and foreign alike. The program will undoubtedly be a rare feast of chamber music. Perhaps he will see you there?

Posted in Chamber Music, Musica Viva | Tagged | 2 Comments

Subtle Moments – Scenes on a Life’s Journey by Bruce Grant (Monash University Publishing): An Occasional Review

 

Subtle Moments

To dip into the realm of the autobiography is something your correspondent should do more often, particularly if it can uncover thoughtful and interesting reads of the calibre of the work of journalist, foreign correspondent, author, diplomat, arts critic and government advisor Bruce Grant. Indeed he has been all these things since his boyhood in country West Australia in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties. This was clearly a time when people lived in their societal silos: protestant, catholic, country, city, Pommy, Ozzie, when differences were settled mostly by poking out ones metaphorical tongue. Although the major part of the book is devoted to a working life, one of the great joys is reading of the early years and the influences and societal factors which played a role in Grant’s personal development. The simplicity yet harshness of country life, its demands of attention to the uncontrollable or the unpredictable is beautifully portrayed, while at the same time pointing to the early development of a keen observational ability and a sense of the spiritual, qualities essential to the role of a journalist and writer. A scholarship to Perth Modern School was undoubtedly a factor in the development of strong academic skills. At the same time Grant’s story of his handling of differences with the headmaster which led to an early departure from the school underlined an early response to the strictures of the overly conservative and hidebound attitudes of a country yet to throw off the colonial cringe.

In describing the long arc of Grant’s life, there are some key elements to which he holds strongly and discusses at length: the challenge of the swing from a British protective embrace to a United States embrace, the up-ending of the role of the state and its subjects, the issue of developing a useful voice as a middle power at a time of changing power structures around the world and particularly in Asia, as well as the growth of the movement for a republic. It is a tribute to Grant’s skill as a writer that he makes these themes interesting, particularly through stories of his working relationships with men of influence in the newspaper world and government. Similarly his abiding love for Indonesia has been a strong influence in both his life and work. The book is a reminder that Grant was amongst the first to recognise the importance of the Australian/Indonesian relationship. But more than recognise, he also demonstrates his understanding of the country, its challenges and contradictions.

The chapter devoted to India is particularly interesting. Grant’s observations, whether personal or professional, are perceptive and still of relevance today as the relationship between India and Australia reaches new intensities. Not be ignored however are the comments about Sir John Kerr which bear witness to Grant’s understanding of his fellow human beings. Clearly he sensed in the man some serious failings. Then the events of The Dismissal prompted him to leave India so as to have a more active role in steering the political future of Australia. This had perhaps faint echoes of the decision to leave Perth Modern School early: a sense of carefully judging the ethical and moral issues at a time of significant change.

On a more personal level, the autobiography portrays an outgoing and personable individual, not a dry intellectual but one with a wry sense of humour. The range of friends and acquaintances referenced is encyclopaedic. Photos undoubtedly show a handsome man, not without sex appeal. Grant is clearly attracted to highly intelligent women. He talks about what the readers must assume are his four great loves, his first wife Enid, Bambi Shmith (Patricia Tuckwell who became Countess of Harewood) , his second wife Joan (nee Pennell) and Ratih Hardjono whom he also married. Grant writes sensitively about these relationships in what is, to your correspondent, an important element of the autobiography. It is obvious from the latter part of the book, where there is a natural ending to the arc of professional life and the writing becomes more like a series of essays, that Grant valued his family above all and has managed to maintain a homogeneous and devoted extended family notwithstanding the complexity of his marital affairs.

In his final musings, which perhaps ramble at too great a length, Grant seems to express some sadness that the work he undertook to guide thinking on Australia’s potential as a middle power with special status in Asia has had limited traction, with politicians now more interested in narrow domestic quarrels.

Apart from those with an interest in the trajectory of Australia’s foreign policy over the 20th century this insightful (and very well indexed) book is a must read for young diplomats and older politicians so they may better understand their role in the future development of a truly independent voice for Australia.

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Fluxus, Dick Higgins and Danger Music: A Couple of Hours at First Draft, Woolloomooloo (@firstdraft_)

There is a nondescript “flatiron” building at the bottom of Riley Street, Woolloomooloo next to the PCYC. It is an uninviting building which until recently didn’t even carry signage to alert passers by to its purpose. Since 2014 it has been the home of First Draft an artist run creative space with a thirty-year history around Sydney.

Last night your correspondent wandered down for a glass of wine, a free sausage and some performance art. It was a fascinating evening. The prompt was an email indicating one Geoffrey Gartner would be performing Dick Higgins’ Danger Music. Gartner I knew from his work playing contemporary cello. But, at the risk of eliciting contemptuous eye rolling from students of the contemporary, it must be admitted Dick Higgins was not known. Nor the other names and words your correspondent learned last night: Fluxus, George Maciunus, “intermedia”. John Cage? Of course! Everybody has heard of John Cage, but the “Fluxists”, students of Cage formed their own movement which questioned the meaning of music. A glimpse of their approach was delivered in five separate elements plus two displays put on by Liquid Architecture, an organisation for artists working with sound.

The night’s first element was a performance of Dick Higgins’ Lecture Number 4. In this Gartner presented his prepared text, miming and delivering the emotional content through expressive movement, facial expression and timing. Thus, unless the audience member could read lips, the experience was one of a very pure interaction between presenter and individual audience member, each of whom clearly responded in very different ways depending on their own interpretation. At one level it was like being profoundly deaf: with intellectual and didactic content removed, the experience was unsettling. Was it mime without a storyline, or something more sinister? At another level it made your correspondent think of the work of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions which suggests an interesting link between musical performance and oratory. A musician is as much an orator as a barrister or politician, having to sway the audience as much by communicating appropriate emotional content as with inspiring words and music. As referenced in an earlier blog Renaissance orators were taught a special language of the body (stance, hands, feet) along with the tonal qualities and facial expressions necessary to deliver great emotional impact. Here, however, the words and music were absent, demanding even greater skills of the orator. Geoffrey Gartner’s performance was exquisitely crafted. There was not a sound except for occasional laughter (humour was probably not intended). But the audience was entranced. Was there some influence here from John Cage? Perhaps. Higgins was a member of Cage’s experimental composition class in 1969.

It is instructive to read some of the unheard words to get some context for the evening. Gartner had written “Danger Music focuses on words; it focuses on the voice… The good voice. The bad voice. Your voice. My voice, issuing from me as it speaks to me, doubling back to be heard by me – both me and always beyond me. When we lose the voice and set it upon words, we make a space for listening, between the deed and the attention: a place that’s dangerous, where sound might smuggle itself in.”

The second element was delivered by Tasmanian sound artist Andrew Harper. Standing in a circle of found objects (portable radios, speakers and the like linked by amplifier) Harper developed a sound aura, starting with his own non verbal sounds then adding, element by element, additional pieces, religious texts recorded on the radios, which slowly built in intensity to a Tower of Babel like conclusion. The raucous whole was the antithesis of the preceding work, while still addressing the context of the voice as music in a different frame.

Element three brought Geoffrey Gartner back, still in white tie and tails, to search, again silently, for something hidden. Eventually a colourful guitar was found in the rafters. Placed on a plinth, various hammers were selected to “play” the guitar. This was not a violent deconstruction: only strings were stroked by hammer claws and then broken. The stroking sounds were soft and belied the violent nature of hammers, while breaking strings brought occasional intensity. Eventually an exploration inside the guitar produced a notice, a work title, tying the wordless process to the written word.

Danger Music

During intermission audience members were invited to participate in the execution of two works. One, a bowl of cheese squares and a pile of fresh eggs enable participants to don plastic gloves and experience the sound and feel of smashing eggs on the table. While acknowledging there may be music and emotion in this sort of madman’s kitchen, your correspondent was left bemused. The second work, Danger Music Number 12, however, presented a clearer opportunity to create with large score sheets and felt pens available to produce silent text scores in the manner of each “composer” individually.

Danger Music 12

The penultimate element was a monologue about smoke. Standing in a smoky room with a small smoke generator emitting puffs at the whim of the speaker, it seemed as if the intent was to unsettle, perhaps even to invoke fear. It worked less well than the other elements and the link to Fluxus was difficult to identify.

Finally Gartner, in a performance of great intensity, descended a flight of stairs, filling a narrow stairwell with wordless noise. Was it the howling of a madman? The descent of the demented into hell? Or simply another soundscape? Music to a devil’s ears perhaps, but whatever the audience took from the performance it was clearly unsettling and reactions were very individual: amazement, embarrassed laughter, compassion, fear. Indeed that stairwell was, for a few moments “a place that’s dangerous.”

Your correspondent exited into the cold night air determined to learn more of these Fluxists and their non-music.

 

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Whither The Australia Ensemble? (@AusEnsemble)

A couple of years ago your correspondent noticed something strange about photos of the Australia Ensemble. It looked like a clever marketing ploy to obfuscate the fact there was less product in the box. But was there? Well, yes and no. While earlier photos showed seven highly respected musicians who made up the Ensemble, current photos show, well, seven musicians. It’s just that now the Artistic Chair appears in the photos alongside the instrumentalists who now number, it seems, only six. (Artistic Chair? Who came up with this abominable title? It could only come from a university. But I digress). Alert readers who are sufficiently long in the tooth will know that the Australia Ensemble has had seven players on contract ever since a wise Professor Roger Covell convinced the bean counters at the University of New South Wales to contract a second violinist, one Dimity Hall. The Ensemble went from strength to strength. The Australia Ensemble, which was started by clarinettist Murray Khouri along with said Roger Covell, has always had a clarinettist. It still does, doesn’t it? Well, again yes and no. No clarinettist appears in the Ensemble’s group photos. The job has been relegated to that of “Associate Artist”. What, your correspondent wonders, does this mean? It certainly means he does not warrant inclusion in Ensemble photos. Perhaps he has a lesser contract, or at least is contracted at less money. But what is the difference between him and, say, the many other fine artists who come to play with the Ensemble when a horn, oboe, bassoon or double bass is required? The term is worrying too. It is a relic from a long while ago when it was used to cover the poor guy working away on the piano while Dame Nellie let fly or Heifetz belted out the Kreutzer. Modern promoters tend to give all partners more or less equal billing.

Be all that as it may, the Australia Ensemble website says the ensemble has “seven core [instrumental] positions”. It seems, however, that some are more core than others.

This lengthy preamble will serve to set the scene for a cry for change. The Australia Ensemble, managed by the Music Performance Unit at the University of New South Wales, this week sent out a survey to subscribers to seek their input on matters concerning the Ensemble. Your correspondent will respond, but takes the opportunity to make some broader observations.

In 2004 the Ensemble celebrated a remarkable achievement: its twenty-fifth anniversary and 150th subscription concert. A history, written by Professor Covell, was published covering an active quarter century of music making. At that time your correspondent was a member of the Ensemble’s Advisory Committee, and in that capacity penned a paper titled “Going for Gold” with the purpose of encouraging some thought about the Ensemble’s future. Why, you may well ask? For starters there were changes happening at senior levels in the University heirachy, funding cuts were under way and universities were being pressured to show their research credentials. Spending money on a classical music ensemble would surely be called into question. Indeed it was not long thereafter that the Macquarie Trio was dumped by Macquarie University, following a change in Vice Chancellor and cuts to funding. Happily for the Australia Ensemble, the University of New South Wales was a little more accommodating. But the need for a new strategic direction for the Ensemble was overlooked.

In its early years the Ensemble had a stellar overseas touring record. From 1984 to 2000 there were only two years (1987 and 1991) when no overseas touring was undertaken. More than $400,000 of Government funding went towards subsidising this touring program. But notwithstanding the connections and status that such a program had brought, touring came to a standstill. The funding landscape had changed from an active program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to one morphing to an Australia Council driven model. The objectives remained similar but the demands on management changed radically. Where previously an Australian international touring agenda had been managed by Musica Viva on behalf of DFAT, the scene was changing to one where art managers were more and more required to seek international touring support through the Australia Council, other funding bodies and indeed individuals. For whatever reason, the Australia Ensemble stopped international touring. For the record, your correspondent did enquire, some years ago, about the Australia Ensemble’s attitude to international touring. Musica Viva reported having sent an International Market Development Questionnaire to the Ensemble’s management some years previously. No response was ever received.

It was in this environment that the “Going for Gold” paper raised some issues: a changing market where new entrants potentially presented competitive threats and the need to be seen to be relevant, perhaps through involvement in research or other special projects, to a university with ambitions as a centre for research excellence. Was it sufficient to perform a six concert subscription series in Kensington, with associated lunchtime concerts and workshops during concert weeks? Perhaps a higher profile was needed in the new millennium? At the time there were only a few signs of competitive change. Omega Ensemble was new and not particularly impressive; the Tankstream and Flinders Quartets were young; TinAlley would come and go and come again; the Australian Haydn Ensemble was yet to be formed; Ironwood was nowhere to be seen, and the Australian String Quartet was going through a string of management and personnel issues. But the competitive environment was undoubtedly changing. A move to develop a closer relationship between the Ensemble and the Sydney Conservatorium was rebuffed by conservatorium management. And so nothing changed.

But of course a lot changed. The Omega Ensemble found its feet and not only developed a significant following at City Recital Hall but also added additional elements to its concert programs such as lunch time events. The dumped Macquarie Trio morphed into Selby and Friends. A raft of new chamber ensembles appeared, including some with the cream of Sydney’s players. Contemporary ensembles such as Ensemble Offspring began to move into the main stream by dint of hard work and innovative artistic management. The Verbrugghen Ensemble was formed within the Conservatorium and impressed immediately with programming that included challenging works such as Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. The Australian Bach Akademie was formed and attracted more than 300 audience members to its first Sydney concert. Even the Australian World Orchestra started programming chamber music concerts.

In this rapidly changing environment, what did the Australian Ensemble do? Well, they continued to do what they had done well for years: put on six subscription concerts a year at the University of New South Wales and deliver six lunchtime concerts. But even the six workshops eventually morphed into something different. Master classes it seems were easier to manage. There was some talk at one stage of twilight events. But of this nothing has been heard recently. On the plus side, the programming by the Australia Ensemble remained well structured and interesting with good attention to new works and Australian composers. Indeed one of the great legacies of the Ensemble is the catalogue of works which have been commissioned over the years for the Ensemble. Recordings were made, although again mostly in the past, with only a couple produced since 2000 and nothing since 2010. The mantle of the finest Australian chamber ensemble had surely slipped a long way.

Through these years there was a change in artistic direction. When Roger Covell retired a strange decision was taken to seek an external artistic director. Well, not quite an artistic director. The artists being all extremely competent and well versed in their field, needed it seemed, a new collaborator, an “Artistic Chair” to be chairperson in their artistic deliberations. Why a group of seven mature professionals could not themselves manage their artistic direction was never explained. A new Artistic Chair, composer Paul Stanhope, was appointed who has steered a subtle change in programming. There has, however, been no change to the role of the Ensemble in the Sydney chamber music scene, a role which has diminished in the face of rampant competition by other ensembles of quality.

Why the Australian Ensemble has not pursued a more active role in Sydney’s, nay Australia’s, musical life remains moot. Lesser ensembles have built up impressive groups of financial supporters. (Just look at what the Australian Haydn Ensemble has achieved in a relatively short time frame). Why has it not sought to be an ambassador for Australian culture to our near neighbours, or to develop some multi faceted projects around elements of Australia’s great musical heritage. One reason always trotted out in the past was that scheduling was always impossible. The lie to this is that today the Australian String Quartet can operate with a leader who is at the same time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Verbrugghen Ensemble counts the concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony as its leader, and, perhaps most tellingly, the Goldner String Quartet, all of whom are members of the Australia Ensemble, seems to be able to tour internationally and be an active participant in Musica Viva programming and other festivals throughout the year.

The formation of the Goldner String Quartet in 1995 clearly had mixed effects on the Australia Ensemble. Its formation was encouraged by the late Ken Tribe, an astute observer of artistic merit. Roger Covell on the other hand was, reportedly, not enthusiastic, perhaps because he feared the Quartet might detract from the Ensemble from which it sprang. Your correspondent would argue that Ensemble management missed an opportunity to ensure the Quartet was seen as truly embedded in the Ensemble so that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Sadly that did not happen.

Nothing has been done to broaden the Ensemble’s appeal by breaking out of the University and performing in different venues around Sydney and indeed Australia. There seems to be no will to give the Ensemble a new focus in terms of repertoire or programming which will differentiate it in the eyes of today’s audiences. Its performance format remains stuck in the nineteen fifties. Players say not a word. Sure, they communicate well through their music making but something different is needed to excite the modern audience. Why do they not appear in the Utzon Room, City Recital Hall, the Concourse Chatswood or in the raft of other smaller venues other groups use to produce wonderful music and attract new and younger audiences? Why have they not appeared in recent years at any of the major festivals?

Like all universities, the University of New South Wales is under financial pressure. It does not have a music faculty of significant stature. It is a university keen to reinforce its status as a leader in research. The risk is that the Ensemble may be seen as no longer relevant to its Alma Mater. The clear implication is that, if it is to have a future, the Australia Ensemble needs to demonstrate a readiness to reinvigorate its declining status and show not only to Sydney, but also Australia and the world that it is an artistic force to be reckoned with. It used to have that mantle. It has the musicians to achieve this. Failure to change will see an almost certain demise, either by slow death or by university fiat. The Ensemble’s history and quality suggests it is worth keeping. But not in its present state of torpor.

Posted in Arts, Chamber Music, Goldner String Quartet | Tagged | 2 Comments

.@MusicaVivaAU releases its 2017 programs

It is the time of year when all and sundry make their bids for your subscription dollars. Today it is Musica Viva’s turn. Your correspondent will leave it to others to have their say on the detail of the 2017 program. The overall picture does however beg some comment.

In what is a high quality, yet fairly standard, MVA lineup for 2017 (you know them: Angela Hewitt, Takacs and Pacifica Quartets, Sitkovetsky Trio, Aleksander Madzar – this time with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt) there are two rare gems. Lovers of the contemporary will applaud the inclusion of Eighth Blackbird in the International Season. Theirs is the genre of music and performance more likely to be found in festivals. Your correspondent well remembers a wonderful concert at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago when Australian flautist Tim Munro was their co-artistic director. Energetic, intense, thought provoking in their variety are descriptors remembered from that occasion. If concert halls around the country do not have to put up “House Full” signs for this tour it will be a stark message about the nature of Australian concertgoers. The second gem is one cut from a very different stone. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, making its first “full tour” to Australia, will bring joy and anticipation to the hearts of Baroque music lovers and surely others if Gramaphone Magazine’s comment about Artistic Director Rachel Podger is to be believed: There is probably no more inspirational musician working today than Podger”. Hyperbole aside, this ensemble’s inclusion in the program is yet another feather in MVA’s fairly feathery headgear.

2017 is also the year for another Musica Viva Festival. This promises to be another varied event drawing on some top international talent: think Amy Dickson, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, the Elias Quartet and Lambert Orkis. Much stands out, but suffice it to make two comments. Young and early career musicians need to come and sit at the feet of Lambert Orkis. He is undoubtedly one of the great ensemble musicians around and, what’s more, he has the communication capability to pass on his skills in both masterclass and performance. He is yet another gem in MVA’s firmament. And how will the festival conclude? A big finish is always needed. Happily MVA have eschewed programming the ever loved Mendelssohn Octet, and passed the challenge to young South Australian composer Jakub Jankowski whose String Octet will get its world premiere on April 23 to conclude the festival. Congratulations to Jankowski who is not long out of the Elder Conservatorium and, interestingly, has not yet made it into the Australian Music Centre’s listings.

Your correspondent must conclude with a “more in sorrow than in anger” moment. MVA’s ensemble programming for the 2017 Sydney Coffee Concert series has been handed, once again, to the Goldner Quartet. It is not that they are not, arguably, Australia’s finest quartet, but they get a lot of airtime. Think Townsville, Huntington, MVA Festival, and Australia Ensemble for starters. In your correspondent’s view the joys of the Wednesday morning series in Sydney lies in its variety and the opportunity to hear less well known, often young, vibrant talent, like MVA have programmed for the Melbourne Coffee Concert series. Sure, the Sydney series has some repertoire variety and a smattering of Australian works. Piers Lane and Umberto Clerici are thrown into the mix. But for me, after my coffee and undoubtedly excellent cake, Wednesday mornings are not the time for Beethoven Opus 59 quartets or even the mighty Schubert C Major Octet.

Posted in Chamber Music, Musica Viva | Leave a comment

Nothing New Under the Sun (at least not in tax and politics)

Your correspondent does not generally comment on the politics of the day. Wouldn’t want the trolls to get restless. But the current brouhaha over the States taking on some income tax responsibility jogged my memory: did not the inestimable Sir Robert Garran pen a stanza on this very subject? Well, yes.

Are Prime Minister Turnbull and Treasurer Morrison students of history when it comes to considering passing taxation rights to the States? They are, if history is any guide, proposing measures which will again not be accepted. In 1934 Prime Minister Lyons called a Constitutional Conference. Amongst the matters for consideration were financial items. According to “Prosper the Commonwealth” by said Sir Robert, a man who knew a bit about Federation, the Constitution and the early years of the Commonwealth: “All States were dissatisfied with their dependence on Commonwealth grants….. Some States suggested that the Commonwealth could vacate the field of income tax, but when the Commonwealth called their bluff and seriously offered this, there was a marked cooling off. The States have never been blind to the political convenience of letting the Commonwealth have the unpopular task of imposing taxation whilst the States enjoy the privilege of spending the money. Their complaints, therefore…..were seldom pressed home. In the end nothing came of the proposal.”

Except this stanza:

We thank you for the offer of the cow,

But we can’t milk, and so we answer now-

We answer with a loud resounding chorus:

Please keep the cow, and do the milking for us.

One R G Casey, whom alert readers may recall was another astute fellow,  Commonwealth Treasurer at the time, is understood to have retorted that the stanza was the only positive result from the Conference.

It seems there is still much to learn from history, and perhaps even doggerel.

Posted in Australian Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment