A storm in a very small teacup
Can it be another manifestation of the cultural cringe? Why would Michael Stevens, the Artistic Administrator of the Australian Chamber Orchestra accuse Robyn Archer of lambasting preservers of heritage? It seems there was some dire inference to be gleaned from Archer’s reference to the ACO: “If a great piece of Haydn or Mozart in the hands of Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra drums into you in a way that is so fresh you feel like you have never heard it before, go for it, but never at the expense of fresh ideas, because in the end, that is the heart of the creative country.”
Archer’s argument, as expressed by the Australian newspaper article’s author, Rosemary Sorensen, seems to this observer to be one the ACO should not only understand but to which they should also subscribe. There does appear to be a dichotomy between heritage arts and the new. Not only in Australia, but elsewhere. Generally it gives us no concern. The Arditti Quartet can focus entirely on the contemporary (note: they have never been invited to Sydney – no one will take on the financial risk) and the Kronos can do their thing, while the Borodin plays Borodin and the Pavel Haas play, well, Pavel Haas (along with the set piece by Paul Stanhope – the price extracted by Musica Viva for their tour ticket). At the recent World New Music Days seminar on where music was heading, the Venezuelan delegate complained bitterly about how contemporary Venezuelan composers received no recognition whatsoever from the fantastically successful “El Sistema” orchestras. It seems these orchestras only want to play the standard repertoire. At home, the ACO treads a measured course, providing programming that occasionally includes an established Australian composer (Matthew Hindson and Elena Kats-Chernin being this year’s examples). Roger Smalley gets an airing with ACO2, but that’s about it.
Of course the ACO does better than most out of its box office, which reportedly provides around seventy percent of its revenues. This being the case it is understandable they would listen to their audience: “Bach and Haydn before interval, a nice glass of wine, and then Schubert, Brahms or Beethoven. But please, not too much of that Brett Dean fellow”. The ACO also has a good eye for entertainment and seeks a link to the common man through collaboration with the likes of Barry Humphries and Leunig, and performing work by such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
It should be a matter of some shame that the ACO had no link whatsoever to the ISCM World New Music Days programs (except for the emergency, last minute inclusion of Timo-Veikko Valve in a recital of cello works in which he demonstrated, in brilliant fashion, how to scale the heights of contemporary Finnish repertoire).
Perhaps then, on reflection, the ACO does have grounds for sensitivity about how far it goes in embracing the new and challenging.
Michael Stevens makes much of Archer’s comment about the Bard: “I’ve seen all the plays, studied them. I personally probably don’t need to see another Shakespeare”. Stevens suggests Archer “is done with Shakespeare”. Meanwhile, John Bell is surely not losing any sleep over this. He would certainly acknowledge that a performance artist like Archer, who has found a particular voice in, inter alia, Berlin cabaret works, has absorbed, wittingly or unwittingly, many lessons and influences from Shakespeare’s works and is a better performer for that. She no more needs to revisit Shakespeare than Timo-Veikko Valve needs to revisit Popper studies. Just like the ACO, Archer will play to her strengths. Her call to embrace the new and the challenging should be welcomed.
Maybe, just maybe, the ACO might do us a service and put on a contemporary music weekend, doing their bit for the many emerging Australian composers who are seeking some recognition and support. Sometimes, brains in gear is indeed better than bums on seats, notwithstanding the views of the board or the conventional audience. Or the protestations of the Artistic Administrator.
The ACO blog by Stevens can be seen at http://bit.ly/aNGrS2 . The Sorensen article is at http://bit.ly/9rJm7V . Note also: “Brains in gear better than bums on seats” was a headline, no doubt contributed by a headline editor, not by Sorensen or Archer.