It is not entirely clear to me why I feel compelled to write something about Ken Tribe, whose death on Thursday night , well into his nineties, will prompt many eulogies from those more qualified through long friendship or association. We were but passing acquaintances. A concert hall foyer here. A festival there. And only in the last few years of his life. Perhaps it has something to do with the palpable love with which he seemed to be embraced by those around him, whether colleague, friend or family, a sort of acknowledgement that I have seen very rarely.
Others will list accomplishments and roles. This has nothing to do with his lifetime of personal service to the arts. It has to do with the strange effect of an old man’s smile, an incisive wit and a fiercely perceptive mind, right to the last. He was a man whose support for music and musicians was far more personal and individual than even his many formal roles might suggest.
My first personal contact with him was at a Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2003, long after he had withdrawn from his past role as jury chair. He was, in the nicest possible way, tearing strips off the leaders of the Christian churches in Sydney for their handling of things he held dear, such as choirs. But it was also clear his mind was analysing the ensemble performances with as much care and concentration as he would have brought to his jury role in the past. Did anyone seek his views? “I’m just here to make sure they don’t make any mistakes”, he said with a smile.
Two months ago I wrote, in this blog, a review of Ross Edwards’ second string quartet, premiered at a Musica Viva Coffee Concert. Ken’s absence was noted. He had decided that, at his age, one event per day was all he could handle and since a family member was being invested with an honour at Government House, there was no question which event he should attend. The premiere was the culmination of a commission by Ken for three of Australia’s foremost composers to write string quartets. Perhaps nothing surprising in this, except that they were commissioned as a living obituary. It was a mark of the man that he thought it altogether sensible to be able to enjoy the works himself, despite the intent of the commission. And he was indeed able to hear the Ross Edwards quartet, live, some days later at a repeat performance in Campbelltown during the ISCM World New Music Days.
From time to time a chance and seemingly inconsequential meeting will result in some moments of pleasure, which remain in the memory for reasons that defy explanation. I enjoyed such an experience at the last Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition in Melbourne, when, with three friends, I joined Ken for a nightcap at the Langham Hotel. The conversation was light, of the old and the new. He treated us as if he had been a friend all his life. This is how I will remember him.