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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Vincent Plush (Part 2) : One Thing Led to Another, then Another…

Vincent Plush, the USA and Australia, 1983-88

[This is the second of two articles.]

I had timed my first return to Australia badly too. If I had stayed a few days longer in the USA I would have caught my third consecutive turkey-overdose.  After brief stops in Honolulu and Auckland, Pan Am flight 811 arrived in Sydney on Thursday 24th November 1983, Thanksgiving Day back in the USA. With barely enough time to catch my breath, I took a flight to Adelaide the next day to attend my brother’s wedding. My new sister-in-law thought I sounded ‘too American’.

In Adelaide, I had a lunch with my friends from ABC Arts Illustrated, Gillian Waite, John Miller and Michael Ingamells, and I think it was there, in Casa Mia, a favourite Italian eatery in Melbourne Street, that the idea of Main Street USA was born. I had planned to be back in Adelaide for the Festival the following March and we agreed that I would produce the series then. Barely 12 weeks to sort through dozens of tapes and audiocassettes, recorded interviews and shape the whole thing together into that initial 20-part series. The first 120-minute instalment went to air at 10pm on Friday April 6, 1984. That was my first major project back in Australia. At the time, I didn’t have much of a problem reclaiming my Australian accent.

Main Street USA, cover image of ABC FM Stereo ’24 Hours’, April 1984, image designed by Vincent PlushTwo old friends from Aptos, California, arrived in Sydney around Christmas 1984. They were on their way to Bali but had broken the trip to drop in on their old friend Peggy Glanville-Hicks in Paddington. On Boxing Day, the four of us took the Harbour ferry across to Manly, catching the impressive start of the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race. I recorded another interview with Lou for the ABC and they left in mid-January in a somewhat surly condition, barely surviving the atmosphere in Peggy’s terrace house, impregnated with the smells of her poodle, with the appropriate name of ‘Poo’.

I flew back to Adelaide on Australia Day and began recording the episodes of Main Street in between attendance and reviews of events at the Adelaide Festival in March. Throughout those weeks, a plan emerged, triggered by a chance remark from Anthony Steel, “The Bicentennial isn’t too far away, you know”. Over the next several months, the plan took shape as I shuttled between Melbourne and Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane. I taught at the Queensland Con for several months and somehow managed to compose several new works in the attic of Helen Lancaster’s old Queenslander in Kangaroo Point – Gallipoli Sunrise for Simon de Haan, The Plaint of Mary Gilmore for Elizabeth Campbell and Tony Fogg, FireRaisers for trumpeter Paul Terracini and a choral cycle for Roy Wales, Letters from the Antipodes (only partially performed, to this day). It was probably the most prolific time of my life, but broken by a brief visit back to California for a performance of my Australian Folksongs with Lyndon Terracini at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. Not unexpectedly, Lyndon was a star but, for whatever reason, never really followed up what could have become a brilliant career in music theatre in North America. It was somewhat momentous for me too: for a few nights I shared a caravan with Keith Jarrett on Lou Harrison’s property and the Cabrillo program with Stephen Scott and his bowed piano ensemble from Colorado College. Like every composer who sees this astonishing group, I was determined to create something for them.

Stephen Scott and his bowed piano ensemble in Ian Hanger Recital Hall at Qld Con

Another memory from that Cabrillo Festival: Dennis Russell Davies chairing a composer panel comprising Lou Harrison (co-founder and local), John Cage, George Barati and, making only his second appearance in the USA since 1948, Conlon Nancarrow. Three of the four enjoyed my Folksongs. Not unexpectedly, Cage was unimpressed. “You must purge your music of your personality,” he counselled. I never really became a disciple. We had already known each other for a few years. I took him to an outdoors Grainger concert at New Music America in Chicago in July 1982. In celebration of the American Bicentenary in 1976 (note the nomenclature: “Bicentenary”), the US State Department had designated Sydney as one of twelve cities to stage their worldwide celebrations. The ever-canny Anthony Steel decided to program his 1976 Adelaide Festival around American visitors supported by US State Department funds. Among the guests were the New York Contemporary Chamber Ensemble conducted by Arthur Weisberg, with soprano Jan de Gaetani singing the Madrigals by George Crumb, who, along with his wife Elizabeth, tagged along for the trip. They were very Uptown. Downtown was represented by cellist Charlotte Moorman who was lowered, nude, into Sydney Harbour playing – what else? – The Swan. The retinue included many of the leading figures of the New Action school, the Korean ‘father of video art’ Nam Juin Paik and Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company. Playing as ‘pit musicians’ for Cunningham were pianists Takehisa Kosugi, David Tudor and … John Cage.

This visit to Adelaide, then Melbourne and Sydney was co-ordinated by the Cultural Attaché at the US Consulate in Sydney, Frank Starbuck, who was proud of the fact that he had once played oboe in an orchestra conducted by Wallingford Riegger. Frank seemed to have limitless access to funds for American visitors. I began to suspect that he was something more than the Cultural attaché He helped bring Copland to Australia in March 1978 to conduct the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras. This contact with Frank Starbuck, the State Department, Cage, Crumb and co. consolidated my focus on American music and opened many doors for me in the USA.

In late August, I flew back from California into Melbourne, arriving on the weekend of Barry Conyngham’s 40th birthday. It was also the week of the performances of Fly, the first Australian opera to be performed in the new State Theatre of the Victorian Arts Centre. My arrival, only a few days earlier, enabled Barry to proclaim to the local press, quite truthfully, “People are arriving from all over the world to see my opera”.

Barry Conyngham (with Harry the cockatiel) and Vincent Plush (with Patch), the morning after Barry’s 40th birthday party and the premiere of his opera FLY. Photograph by Deborah Conyngham

The morning after the premiere of Fly, with only a few hours’ sleep, I flew back to Brisbane where I was greeted by a summons from my department head. No enquiry about my recent trip and performances, simply the curt observation, “Some students have complained about your assignments”. Thud! Welcome back to Australia, VPP.

By December I was back in more empathetic surroundings, taking up residence for several weeks in Peter Sculthorpe’s loft in Woollahra.

We set ourselves a special project, which became Peter’s autobiography Sun Music, published by ABC Books in 1999. My self-appointed task was three-fold: 1. Get rid of the academic thesis proclivity; 2. Shorten Peter’s convoluted sentences; 3. Reduce the number of parties and celebrities that appear on almost every page. (Lessons I could well learn in my own writing, I still admit.)

Skimming through Belinda Webster’s Christmas presents, her excellent “Australian Music Diaries” (why did they not continue?), the next 18 months proceed in a rush, in a kind of blur. Early in 1985, Anthony Steel asked if I would be interested in the John Bishop Memorial Award commission for the 1986 Adelaide Festival, but with one proviso; knowing my predilection for historical pieces, he wanted no hint of history in the year of South Australia’s sesqui-centenary. But it was too good an opportunity to pass up. On 5th March 1986, The Wakefield Chronicles with over 200 wind and brass players and all the tower bells of Adelaide nearly brought down the roof of St Peter’s Cathedral. I caught any demurrings by dedicating the work to Steel.

Steel let me choose the program and suggested some American music might be appropriate. So, alongside a bracket of Grainger, there was some Ives and a piece for brass quintet and narrator by Larry Austin, a fellow Ives-ian whom I had met in Dallas. Symbolically, Adelaide and Austin, capital of the state of Texas, were sister cities. “All these inter-connections,” Steel proclaimed. “I see how your mind works.” He was right.

At virtually the same time as the Bishop Award came into view, Tony Fogg suggested it was time I wrote an orchestral piece. I was almost 35 years old and, while I had written quite a few ensemble pieces and even conducted orchestras, I had yet to write a bona fide orchestral piece. Pacifica had several functions: to celebrate the 10th anniversary of ABC FM and the arrival of a new Chief Conductor for the Sydney Symphony, Zdenek Macal. There was the unspoken hope that, with our shared American background, I might help ease the maestro into Australian music, as John Adams had done for Edo de Waart in San Francisco. But the maestro fled Sydney after only a few months – the AUD exchange rate was not to his liking, nor were the frock shops of Double Bay up to the standards of his wife.

Pacifica went on to have quite a history in the USA, but more of that later.

A few days after Tony Fogg’s call, there was another call which changed my life. Peter Sara, the director of the Arts Division of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, wondered if I might be interested in “drumming up some Australian culture” in North America for our Bicentennial. “With all your contacts,” Peter suggested, “you’d be a great marketeer.” I could hardly disagree!

I spent the next few months putting a schedule together. It hinged around a gig in Pittsburgh where my mate David Stock was planning a festival to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his New Music Ensemble. He seemed particularly interested in FireRaisers which matched the instrumentation of his group. Somehow we found the money to import the trumpeter Paul Terracini from Brisbane. In the mock-Baroque splendour of Heinz Hall, Paul was a hit. Many thought he was a much better musician than another international trumpeter, Markus Stockhausen, son of Karlheinz, who writhed around the stage floor in pseudo-ecstasy.

David Stock’s programmes also featured music by Gerry Brophy and Andrew Ford. For some years, David was also Composer in Residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the time, and between David, the Symphony, the Ensemble and Judi Cannava at radio WQED-FM, Pittsburgh was a lynch-pin in my OzMusic plan. A few years later, David came to Sydney when Nicholas Braithwaite directed the SSO in performances of his upbeat orchestral piece A Joyful Noise. David also conducted an all-American concert with the Seymour Group. This idea of ‘exchange’ was a key to my strategy. It addressed the “I’ve-always-wanted-to-come-to-Australia” mantra that we hear so often. If there were public performances of his music, the American composer could claim travel expenses as business deductions for his annual tax claim.

So, with Pittsburgh as my anchor point (the performance of FireRaisers was to be on 19th September), I flew out of Sydney on Tuesday 2nd September, bound for San Francisco. Charles Amirkhanian had scheduled me into his Speaking of Music series in the McBean Theatre of the Exploratorium, around the theme of Australian identity, with John Cerminaro playing my horn piece, Bakery Hill Rising.

After a few days in the Bay Area the schedule took me, in quick succession and in order, to : Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Middletown and New Haven, CT; New York; Pittsburgh,  Philadelphia, Charleston, SC; Jacksonville; Orlando; Houston; Minneapolis; St Paul; Milwaukee; Chicago; Austin, TX; Mexico City; Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Philadephia, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu.

In each of these cities, I set up a series of meetings, many arranged through my composer-network, with directors of orchestras, ensembles, choirs, opera companies and music radio stations, music journalists, festival directors and anyone who might generally be enlisted in helping promote Australian music for the Bicentenary, barely two years away. In late 1986, these folks were just at the outset of scheduling their 1988-89 seasons. But when could they see some scores?

I arrived back in Sydney on 2nd December, just at the outset of Christmas Party season. Not such good timing, but somehow, in the space of two weeks I managed to schedule appointments with Peter Sara, and with others at the Australia Council and APRA in Sydney. In Canberra, I saw folks at the American Embassy and Canadian High Commission and Alan Deacon and others in the Department of Foreign Affairs (as it was then). They had arranged for me to be a Diplomatic Visitor to Mexico (my elementary Spanish had survived since my time in California several years earlier) and to teach at the UNAM university and attend the Cervantino Festival with the Terra Australis ensemble from New York.

Just before Christmas 1986, there was another flurry of activity. I’m not entirely sure how or when this all happened, but it centred around the Australian Music Centre, newly re-located to somewhat déclassé premises in Ultimo. Gwen Bennett was Chair of the AMC Board and Dick Letts had moved from the Music Board of the Australia Council to become the AMC’s Director. Sue Tronser was hired to manage the International Program; I was at the centre of all that, but did I have an actual title? We went about creating brochures and photographs of composers, mass re-producing scores and audio cassette recordings. With John Davis and Stephen Leek, along with other occasional volunteers beavering away in the background, we broke into 1987 at a not-a-moment-to-lose pace. Over in Los Angeles, Bronwen Jones became our ‘agent in situ’. Bronwen belonged to a group of mostly expats led by flautist Mardi McSullea and pianist Lisa Moore who became Terra Australis. Based in New York, for several strategic years they created a dynamic presence for Australian music all over North America.

Back in Sydney, parcels of Australian scores, with accompanying audio cassettes, composer brochures and other materials, were packaged up and sent off to their destinations via diplomatic bags from Canberra. I lost count of how many of these were sent out – at least 50, as I recall – and slowly the replies would trickle in, by fax in this pre-email age. Almost all agreed to programme at least one Australian piece in their 1988-89 seasons. The Aspen Music Festival had been a special target, thanks to the enthusiasm of Music Director Jorge Mester and Artistic Planner Martin Verdrager; the 1988 Aspen programme included 26 Australian pieces, from Grainger to the premiere of Sculthorpe’s newly commissioned Kakadu.

I flew out of Sydney on Saturday 2nd July, having managed to extract myself from Bob Hawke’s Australia for most of the Bicentenary year. In Winter Park, Florida, a small liberal arts school, Rollins College, had an Australian Studies program. They expressed an interest in having an Australian guest each year. Moya Henderson was their first composer, I would be their second, commencing in September 1988. But first there was a Fourth of July fireworks at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and then, the following day, Aspen!

Peter Sculthorpe flew into Denver on Wednesday 20th July for the premiere of Kakadu the following Sunday afternoon. For two weeks he enjoyed the elevated lifestyle enormously. Andrew Ford and Terra Australis dropped in for a couple of concerts too. Jorge Mester conducted Pacifica with the 120-piece Festival Orchestra, and I found myself conducting Bakery Hill Rising with 25 live French horns strewn around the perimeter of the Festival tent.

After Aspen, Peter and I went on a road trip south to New Mexico. We caught a couple of operas at the famed Santa Fe Opera house, including the premiere season of a Penderecki dud, The Black Mask. It is a short drive from Santa Fe to Kiowa, the D.H.Lawrence ranch outside Taos. We stood in DHL’s little chapel, an experience that reduced Sculthorpe to tears. Then further up into the Colorado Rockies to the tiny gold-mining town of Telluride. Charles Amirkhanian had put together a colloquium of around 20 composers from various parts of the world. Sarah Hopkins completed the Aussie triumvirate. Brian Eno swanned in for a single day in his private plane. Peter and I went horse-riding with others, notably the ebullient Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, who would soon become his country’s first post-Soviet Minister of Culture.

Peter Sculthorpe in Telluride

In the first week of November 1986, Barry Humphries appeared twice, on successive evenings, as a guest on The Tonight Show. On the first, host Johnny Carson introduced Dame Edna as “Queen of Australia”; on the second, he introduced a slobbering Sir Les Patterson as “Australia’s Minister for the Arts”. Carson didn’t realise that these were fake characters, played by the one satirist. “Gee, there seems to be a lot of Australians in town this week,” he quipped to his audience of countless millions. At this same time, I was in Cincinnati, with an appointment in the Mayor’s Office to try to twin that city with Canberra, both cities celebrating Bicentenaries in 1988. On more than one occasion, an American official would look at me quizzically. “Say, I saw this guy on Carson the other night,” one said to me. “Do you work for this guy?” It would be several more years before Americans understood Barry Humphries’s peculiar sense of humour.

While I didn’t manage to twin Canberra and Cincinnati (that would have required years of work, without help from Sir Les), I did manage to effect a relationship of sorts on a musical level. Jonathan Kramer, my composer mate, was Composer-in-Residence with the Cincinnati Symphony. That orchestra had been the last post of Eugene Goossens before he moved to Sydney in 1947. Jonathan took a shine to Larry Sitsky and his music. Larry visited there, and Jonathan came to Australia. On one occasion, the Seymour Group performed his knotty chamber piece Atlanta Licks. Stuart Challender, the Group’s director at the time, declared it to be “the hardest piece” he had ever conducted.

When Macal suddenly quit the SSO, Challender was appointed Chief Conductor in early 1988. The SSO was already planning an American tour later that year, the highlights of which would be concerts in Carnegie Hall and the UN General Assembly. There was great excitement attached to that tour, with a considerable Aussie retinue accompanying the concerts in New York, led by Leo Schofield, Hazel Hawke and others. Roger Covell wrote an entire history of music in Australia which spread over two pages of the weekend edition of The New York Times. For the highly prized Carnegie Hall concert, Challender was required to share the platform with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. The Australian press contingent frothed in delight. Not so their New York colleagues. “In the second half of the concert,” penned Donal Henahan in the Times, “Richard Bonynge directed a bracket of French operatic numbers sung by his wife.” The SSO played concerts in several other centres. Elizabeth Campbell was the soloist in these concerts and one of her greatest boasts was singing “Mahler in Vegas”.

Following the SSO tour, I managed to entice Elizabeth Campbell and Tony Fogg down to Orlando, Florida. But they had to sing for their supper. I had written a companion piece to the Mary Gilmore cycle they had performed a few years earlier. This was a song scena, The Warrant of Henry Lawson, for the baritone Edmund LeRoy, Head of Music, at the time. For the first time —and thus far, only time – the two pieces, Mary and Harry, were together on the same programme. More memorable perhaps, was the sight of the nervous pair eating ‘gator for lunch.

Concert program of Australian Music, Rollins College, Winter Park (Orlando), Florida. 11th November 1988.

The Australian Bicentenary celebrations in North America occupied some deal of the 1988-89 concert season. I lost track of the number of concerts by local ensembles and Australian visitors. There was a special Australian tribute from the Albany Symphony in upstate New York. Its Music Director, Geoffrey Simon, an ex-pat tragic, included references to Australia in his entire 1988-89 season, not just compositions but also conductors and soloists.

1988-89 Concert Season of Albany (NY) Symphony Orchestra. Geoffrey Simon, conductor

At 9.30am on Tuesday 6th December I gave my last lecture on Australian music at Rollins College. My diary contains the annotation: “Goodbye Bicentennial!” Playwright Dorothy Hewett and her husband Merv Lilley were now the ‘official Australians’ at Rollins, but I stayed on another several months before my next post, this at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, courtesy of Stephen Scott and his bowed piano ensemble. One way or another, I stayed in North America for most of the next decade. My diaries tell me that I managed to live in 15 different cities over those 18+ years I was based in North America. By the time I arrived back in Sydney on 1st March 1999, Australia was a very different country, more confident of its place in Asia. I too was a very different Australian, having to learn my own country and culture all over again.

For over 50 years now, Vincent Plush has lived a varied career in music, not just as a composer, but also as a teacher and broadcaster, writer and commentator, and conductor-director of ensembles and small-scale festivals. At various stages of his life, he has worked for extended periods in most Australian capitals and for nearly 20 years was based in North America, living in 15 cities throughout the USA. Since his permanent return to Australia in 2000, his focus has been on developing ties with colleagues and institutions throughout Asia. He has composed over 120 works, few of which have been recorded or even played in Australia. These include four orchestral pieces (only one of which Pacifica [1986] has been heard in Australia) and large-scale community pieces, as well as solo pieces and works for multiple instruments and voices. An articulate and sometimes controversial figure, most of his music relates to Australian heritage and universal political issues. In 2018 he completed his PhD in Musicology with a thesis devoted to music in the life and work of Patrick White, reflecting his interest in the intersections of various strands of Australian culture.

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