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This Musical World: Australian orchestras, composers and the post-pandemic blues

I hear there’s been a pandemic. Apparently, it annihilated the arts community.

Not only were concerts, performances, and galleries closed, but performer calendars were cleared of a year’s worth of events – overnight. Times two. To add insult to injury, there was little federal financial support for those in the industry, and only the band-aid variety at a state level.

I subscribe annually to a suite of concerts from a large ensemble and over the past two years and across them, only two ‘in person’ concerts could be realised. With continued trepidation (twice bitten) and a glimmer of optimism (double shot vaxxed), I checked out next year’s offerings. And I get it. Let’s not stir up the fragile hornet’s nest with anything that would not attract the masses back. However, from taking in the details of what is a lovely program, it struck pretty quickly, that across the entire season, three female composers were represented. And that made me cranky. But a little further analysis revealed that additionally, for the entire season, only two Australian composers are represented. Two!

I thought it might be wise to compare this program with other larger and smaller orchestras around the country, and I regret to inform you, that only one in the nation, of those surveyed, begins to cut the mustard in relation to diverse representation, both cultural and gender-based. Indeed, there are attempts to fulfil ‘the woman quota’ or so it would seem. But this can lead to the exclusion of deserving Australian male composers, because it appears that we can’t have too many of our pesky fellow countrypersons blighting the largely European musical landscape.

Now one would think, would one not, that given the crap kind of two years that musicians in our country have endured, there might be just a teeny-weeny bit of empathic understanding of the need to promote, you know, us!

To get to the kernel of the issue, the tendency of orchestras to return ad infinitum to the works of the great European composers is self-perpetuating. ‘If our orchestra promotes that we’re performing Beethoven’s 5th, people will pay to come and see us and we find, that when we don’t play these well-known and loved works, people don’t come.’ Um, if you play this stuff on loop, what do you expect?

What tends to happen then, is that a large sum of money is spent to commission an Australian work, or sometimes two in a year, tops. Each is dutifully and beautifully played with the composers often in attendance. There is much deserved applause and then the pieces are left to languish in an archive somewhere. Sometimes these works are recorded, largely by the ABC, increasingly streamed and sometimes uploaded to YouTube as a promotion strategy. But the ether is a vast universe. You need to know what you’re looking for, to know of a work’s existence. ABC Classic FM and The Music Show have done wonderful work in enhancing listeners’ musical knowledge and the promotion of Australian works, and performers, but more is required. Largely, we, the masses, don’t know new repertoire, and tend to claw our way back to those pieces we do know as a result. And on it goes.

One would assume that this philosophy by orchestras, and I use that word, because the practice is entrenched, must reflect the calibre of composers in this country. But we have some of the finest composers in the world, as the rest of the world knows. Just not us, it seems. There is a vast catalogue of older Australian works, not needing to be commissioned, but equally, the contemporary classical music scene is now filled with a rich diversity of composers producing extraordinary music. Why is this not celebrated by, indeed an expectation of, our most highly government-funded music ensembles?

Some small ensembles go out of their way to do just that – trios, quartets, ensembles dedicated to new music, that showcase the best from overseas and champion composers here.

However, the bulk of arts funding goes to the large organisations. For what? More Dvořák?

There are ways and means of altering the situation and all it takes, as with so many other things in life, is the will to do it. The government ‘Report on the inquiry into the Australian music industry’ from 2019, provides a range of strategies aimed mainly at the contemporary and small music ensemble scene, however the recommendations are important for all aspects of the music industry. They say:

For Australian music to flourish it must be heard at home and around the world. It is essential that Australians can easily access and encounter Australian music—hear it on the radio, find it on streaming playlists, and hear it in our favourite television programs and in the films we see.

 Orchestras are using film to reach new audiences. They play the score while scenes from the film unfold in the background. John Williams is a favourite. But again, composers have produced great film scores in this country. Nigel Westlake is the most obvious and well-known of these composers. The score for Paper Planes, for example, was recorded by the MSO. We have many overseas films now being made in Australia. Surely some of these provide opportunities for our innovative composers, with our orchestras performing their works, given so many other Australian actors, techies, animators and cinematographers seem to have a seat at the table.

The idea of thematically based programs is being embraced by orchestras, and this establishes a way in which diverse music can be integrated around such a theme. If programmers can keep the focus on including Australian composers as part of this approach, audiences become immersed in all facets of what is being explored musically. Again, a cross-arts strategy with imagery supporting the musical content is attractive to audiences.

In relation to exporting Australian orchestral works, or large ensemble works, composers from different geographical locations can be paired to respond musically to an issue impacting, or shared by both those places, something such as the experience of migration. Then orchestras from those locations can perform both works, so they are shared more widely. Indeed, that kind of initiative can be explored with a multi-country engagement. There is a plethora of shared global issues to explore musically, particularly at this point in time.

And if all this is too hard, or too costly, orchestras are made up of myriad smaller ensembles, with every conceivable instrument combination. Perhaps some works could be commissioned by orchestras for these ensembles within. The positives are that they are less costly and therefore more could be commissioned, and they are more flexible, so, for example, works could be performed in schools as part of orchestral education programs – you know, as an alternative to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the ‘What’s that instrument playing the bird theme?’ approach. Sigh.

Orchestras also tend to hide Australian composers in their promotional program listing. ‘Come and hear Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, oh, and by the way, we have a premier performance of an Australian composer.’ How do we get to know them if you hide them????

Well, for starters, you read Loudmouth!


ABC Classic FM

The Music Show

Report on the inquiry into the Australian music industry – House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts (2019)

Westlake – Paper Planes, The Competition


Mandy Stefanakis is a sessional lecturer in music education at Deakin University. She was previously Director of Music at Christ Church Grammar School and Essex Heights Primary School. She is a member of the Advisory Council of The Music Trust, Assistant Editor of the Trust’s e-zine Loudmouth, past-President and a Life Member of the Association of Music Educators. She lectured in music education at the University of Melbourne where she received her Master of Education degree. She has contributed to many arts curriculum initiatives and conducted professional development to assist implement these curricula over several decades. Mandy is the author of the Australian music focused education kits, Turn it Up! She has conducted extensive interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, is an avid composer and her obsession with piano and cello continues.

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