Music Australia News

Classical music in unusual places

Sydney Opera House
Graham Strahle
| September 12, 2016

Roger Scruton might be right when he blames the neo-Marxist philosophy of Michel Foucault for a persistent anti-elitism in today’s culture that repudiates traditional values in classical music, literature and art. But whatever the reason, trying to overcome the stigma of snobbery has proven difficult over recent years for orchestras, opera companies and chamber groups alike.

There may be nothing elitist about the music itself of course. Rather, it is the rituals and social perceptions that surround it that seem to call into question its relevance and appeal, especially to younger people. Perhaps also, it is about elitism at all but that classical music is just too expensive – that’s one commonly held (albeit sometimes disputed) view. Another view, expressed most recently by pianist Stephen Hough, is that concerts are too long to attract new audiences and should be shortened to 70 minutes. He thinks intervals should be scrapped too.

The debate often also centres on the subject of venues. For the uninitiated, the idea of fronting up for the first time to an imposing, formal concert hall or opera house might be one of the biggest turn-offs. Taking performances to more welcoming and accessible locations certainly seems to be one answer to attracting and retaining new audiences.

At Music Australia we’ve been looking into this topic a lot, most recently in our Indie Classics forum in June; and we are always on the lookout for initiatives that take classical performances to different and unlikely – or perhaps just ordinary – places. These might be anything from shopping malls, street corners and carparks to mineshafts, tunnels, quarries and derelict factories. Unquestionably there is an added frisson to witnessing performances taking place in unusual settings such as these.

A singer performs on the Opera House steps. Source: SBS

A singer performs on the Opera House steps. Source: SBS

One of the newest and most radical ideas comes from our own shores. In coming months the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House will play stage to what is being called the world’s first ‘silent opera’. This will be Alan John’s opera The Eighth Wonder, a work that was actually first performed inside the SOH in 1985 but will now be sung on the steps outside, in between giant screens. It will be quite a technological feat to accomplish, however, because the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra will be inside and the sound will be combined and transmitted live through wireless headphones to audiences looking on.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia’s artistic director, told Broadway World: “Sitting under the stars on the Forecourt, the audience will be cocooned in a world of pure sound with the stunning visuals of a brilliantly designed set spread across the steps and the magnificent Sydney Opera House as the backdrop. It doesn’t get much better than this in Sydney.”

It is not cheap though: adult tickets are $69-$185. Even so this plein air production sounds a wonderful experiment, and we’ll see how it goes. It runs October 28 to November 5.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will soon be entertaining passengers at Brisbane Airport’s international and domestic terminals. As the airport’s newly announced Artist-in-Residence, they will present six ‘pop-up’ performances there, three of which are planned to occur by the end of this year. It’s a fascinating idea, and one that has been tried successfully elsewhere including London’s Heathrow airport. Perhaps they will play John William’s filmscore for The Terminal or Brian Eno’s Music For Airports?

In all probability, buskers know the art of playing in improvised public spaces better than anyone else, and some are our least heralded champions of classical music. Take Melvyn Cann for instance, who graces the streets of Melbourne nightly with his fine playing and clownish costumes. Or in the same city Paul Guseli, with his assortment of ‘found percussion’ consisting of frying pans, biscuit tins and even a fire extinguisher.

With earnings that can reach $500 a night, it is just a wonder that more classically trained musicians don’t give it a go.

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