Personal Thoughts on a Native Species in Danger

| March 13, 2014


The Bilby, that delightful little marsupial, is rightly seen as an endangered species. Yet, in music, a forgotten professional genre close to extinction may well be the Australian Chief Conductor of a major state symphony orchestra.

Why, with six largely publicly-funded capital city symphony orchestras, have only two Australian-born and -based conductors, viz. Stuart Challender, and the author, held Chief Conductor posts during the past 40 years? Challender headed the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for four years. A decade or so earlier, I was with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for five, and before retirement, also had a lengthy presence with the others. Each of us had overseas experience with various leading orchestras; so, my question remains: why today is there no Australian Chief Conductor heading a Symphony Australia orchestra?

I have never had a personal issue with music being a global market, or the need for a mainly Australian-based conductor to find ways of circumventing that other fact of life, the Australian cultural cringe. However, the ongoing Aussie Chief Conductor void referred to seems more out of step than ever. After all, Australians have long held directional appointments in other exacting branches of the performing arts – ballet, theatre, television, films – both here and abroad. What’s more, male and female Australian-born conductors continue to work in responsible, and often high level overseas posts, accumulating ever more accolades in the process. Yet, the exposure for young resident maestri here seems often restricted to periodic ‘gigs’ of popular content, or peripheral, rather than prestige, concerts. When, for example, was the last time you heard an up-and-coming resident Aussie maestro conduct a Mahler or Elgar Symphony in a mainstream subscription concert in Sydney’s Opera House?

Whilst conductor training schemes have existed here for years, most have been more passive than active. The difference is that my own ‘training’ year was the reverse! Armed with an unswerving desire to conduct, and some professional musical experience, I was given a sink or swim chance, virtually on spec, to conduct ongoing scheduled productions by the then Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company and the Australian Ballet. Then, with over 100 such performances under my belt, I re-joined the ABC a year on, for further ‘hands-on’ work in what was a new position in Adelaide. From day one, this required the continuing production of broadcasts, recordings and concerts of professional standard. In other words, the doing factor was the essence, as it was with the similar system within the BBC that spawned such notables as (Sir) Colin Davis and Christopher Seaman.

Little wonder, this post was hotly contested, for, as mentioned, there is no better way of honing a conductor’s potential than by ‘doing it’. This was, in my view, REAL training and it laid a strong foundation for the future.If mistakes occurred under such ‘spotlight’ conditions, one quickly learned to avoid further such errors. Unexpected emergencies that required my saving situations, such as when a ‘big name’ failed to show or other similarly challenging events, provided opportunities again to prove one’s mettle. It should be remembered too, that whilst players can take their instrument home for practice, a conductor cannot do so, yet needs a regular means to improve technical facility. Bluntly put: two or three gigs every summer doth not a conductor make!

Providing the fullest opportunities for local conductors can be less than easy, but the constant importation of foreign conductors should not, in itself, be the solution. Indeed, as Sir Thomas Beecham once said: Why must we have all these third-rate foreign conductors around, when we have many second-rate ones of our own? Orchestra entrepreneurs and executives need to be astute judges of talent but, at the same time, they – and also their players- should focus on Music’s broadest longer-term development. Gambles are occasionally inevitable so that promising younger conductors can flower to the fullest. Perhaps this is something many of us should ponder as young Australian conductors need greater opportunities.

Patrick Thomas
Wahroonga, NSW

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