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.

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
This entry was posted in Arts, Chamber Music, Goldner String Quartet and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Whither The Australia Ensemble? (@AusEnsemble)

  1. Dear John,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the Australia Ensemble (AE). I would like to make a few comments in regard to some of the matters you raise. It’s a pity you didn’t seek out some official comment from the Music Performance Unit as we could have helped in answering some of the questions you raise.

    As you suggest, there is quite a bit of change happening at UNSW and it seems likely there will be changes to the way the AE is organised in the future. The ensemble will continue to give quality performances at UNSW and there is a push to perform in some more external performances in the future. I can’t comment too much as to these changes as the University has not yet made final decisions as to their nature. So watch this space!

    I would like to address some of the reasons as to why things are currently as they are and have peaked your curiosity.

    1) Our Clarinet ‘Associate Artist’ David Griffiths. I can see why this might seem strange to you. David was appointed initially on a 1 year contract when Cathy McCorkill unfortunately needed to take leave (and eventually retire from) the ensemble. The university has continued this arrangement until the end of the contract cycle it has with the other players, which is at the end of this year. David has made a fabulous contribution to the ensemble (as you may have recently heard in his performance of the Adams Clarinet Concerto ‘Gnarly Buttons’ and in the Mozart Clarinet Quintet) and we hope he will continue to do so. As to the nomenclature – it’s all about following the contract.
    2) Artistic Chair. Some history: Roger Covell was Professor of Music at UNSW and then retired from this position, holding onto the position of Artistic Chair of the AE until 2013 when he retired from this role. I now hold this title which is so-called because the Artistic Chair essentially chairs meetings of the artistic committee which comprises all members of the ensemble (including David). Everyone has an equal say on the committee and therefore it is not an Artistic Director’s role. This is the structure that has been in place for a long time and handed on into the present time.
    3) Performing outside UNSW: Yes you are right in that used to happen a lot more often. Your comments as to the changed landscape of performances and ensembles in Sydney is perceptive and I agree with all of that! The reasons why AE persists with the present model of 6 subs concerts plus lunch hour concerts at UNSW is because this is what the players are contracted to do. UNSW has players on salary to fulfil these roles and there is little or no budget to pay for hall hire etc outside the university. The other issue is to do with the fact that the players are all constantly busy performing under other banners (such as the Goldner quartet which operates under an independent organisational structue) and their availability is currently very tight. In other words, the players are all doing what they are contracted to do and, as you point out, the quality is excellent. Performances outside of UNSW do happen from time to time, but they have to be ‘buy-ins’.
    4) I don’t accept your characterisation of the concerts as being a 1950s model. Look at the number of women composers we are now featuring and the vibrancy of the new works including performances with dance and with multimedia (see our September program). The ensemble is also not a specialist new music ensemble, but there is a solid commitment to commissioning new Australian work and also introducing unfamiliar works to the audience. There is also not much to change about a concert format, apart from a few style changes as you suggest (some more talking to the audience – fine!). This is why we are consulting with our audience in the survey. Most of the push-back from some audience members is usually along the lines that they don’t like the new works, so if we were to follow the populist line, the programs would head backwards rather than forwards. There is yet more potential for different sorts of collaborations, performances on and off campus and in different formats which you rightly suggest. Once again, watch this space.
    5) The ensemble has re-commenced recording after an overdue absence in this area. There are plans for a collection of commissioned works to be recorded and this process has begun. We have also begun trialling the ‘live-record’ model that orchestras often use – so using a live performance plus some patches to release online. These things take time and it will be a couple of years before the final results are ready to release. There is also a recording project of more traditional French repertoire which has commenced. For all these projects, the AE needs to try and find extra funding which is challenging in the present environment.

    I do think the AE needs to do a better job in communicating some of these things – especially the recordings initiative. I welcome the attention to these matters and am happy for them to be discussed. The future of the ensemble is secure and its potential to explore a more varied performance landscape is there.

    Regards,
    Paul Stanhope – Artistic Chair, The Australia Ensemble

    • johnofoz says:

      Thank you Paul. It is heartening to hear that some change may be in the wind. I do understand the strictures of delivering change in a university environment. It took years before audience members could get an interval glass of wine! And I have no doubt, for example, the UNSW Foundation prevents the likes of the AE from running an Australian Cultural Fund or like campaign for a special project or commission. The fear of cannibalising other university campaigns is almost certainly unreal. Whatever the reason, in my experience, the only fund raising activity on behalf of the AE has been a request printed in the subscription brochure. But it is always more than money. At least you indicate a number of initiatives are underway. If the will is there I am sure the AE will again build on its considerable past reputation.

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