Robyn Archer vs. Australian Chamber Orchestra

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 . The Sorensen article is at . 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.


About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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4 Responses to Robyn Archer vs. Australian Chamber Orchestra

  1. Yvonne says:

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought it a strange reaction. And a good point about headlines rarely coming from writer or source. (I remember a very flattering concert review that I couldn’t circulate in photocopy because ours was one of three performances reviewed in the article, and the headline (referring to another concert) was: “Dull, dull, dull.”)

    But I wonder if you distort this particular argument a tiny bit by concentrating on the ACO’s programming of local composers when the question was canonic versus new. Not that you don’t have a point, however I would say the ACO actually does better than many in programming music by living composers from all over the world.

    • johnofoz says:

      Thanks. Yes, I guess I did distort a bit by ignoring the programming of non Australian contemporary works. In an earlier post I made the point that we are actually quite well off overall in terms of local orchestras, both pro and community, playing and supporting contemporary composers, including Australian.

  2. Matthew Davis says:

    Thanks for writing this and for the link back to the ACO blog. I found this because I read the article and was looking for comments in the blogosphere and found this one before the ACO’s blog, which is a little bit hard to find if you don’t know it’s there. I read the article differently from you which is why I went looking for comments. I also read the interview with Robyn Archer in the light of the ACO concert on Sunday, where they played Vivaldi and Haydn but also the Kats-Chernin piece you mentioned and the Australian premiere of a concerto by Mansurian. I had never heard of him before, but this work is very moving and beautiful, and it was by far the biggest work in the program. Robyn Archer’s comment made me laugh out loud because she said what everyone says about the ACO as if that is all they do, whereas the concert the day before showed that they do much much more than that and that they are happy to put new music as the main thing in a concert.The piece by Mansurian qualifies as new music even though it isn’t Australian, and so does Jonny Greenwood for that matter whether it is common or not. I have never seen any other ensemble in Australia play music by either of these composers.

    I agree that maybe the ACO overreacted to this, but I do agree with what the letter part said about dichotomies, and how easy they are to put up when they don’t exist. Robyn Archer wrongly used them as an example of an orchestra who are building up that dichotomy when they are not. You give examples of ensembles who are (or maybe are, I have to say I don’t know them all) but she didn’t use them, she used the ACO. It’s funny that you want the ACO to play that game too by doing events that are only about new music. I’m pleased that they don’t go down that route and instead choose to share new music with all of us around the country as part of their mainstream programming, along with vigorous interpretations of older music. I think Robyn Archer is wrong on this, but I think she made a throwaway comment based on ignorance and the ACO have made it more important than it was by picking up on it.

    The more important point is how she is parrotting what is said behind closed doors in government at the moment. I think that generally is something to be worried about and it is hinted at in that article. When cuts start being made it will be the ACO who are left standing because they don’t rely so heavily on the government, so it is highly commendable that they are taking an early stand against this sort of language on behalf of their colleagues who are more vulnerable.

    Thanks for writing this though as it helped me get a few of my thoughts clear in my head and down on paper and I enjoyed reading your post even though I disagree with some of it. I especially disagree with comparing Shakespeare and his place in the world and his relationship with contemporary theatre with Popper and his place in the world and his relationship with musical technique. The ACO made a few mistakes in their message by trying too hard to make a point and I think in trying to make a point against them you make a few similar errors yourself!

    Thanks very much.

    • johnofoz says:

      Appreciate your commentary. You are quite right about the Popper/Shakespeare reference. It has relevance only at the pedagogique level of technique development.

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