FOR as long as he can remember, composer Gavin Lockley wanted to use music to illustrate the beauty of Australia, the achievements of the people and their cultural diversity. It’s something he thought he would never accomplish, but on Tuesday his Symphony of Australia will premiere at the Sydney Opera House. It is the culmination of everything he’s ever dreamed of, and Lockley is only 29.
Music is in his genes. Singing teacher Ruth Lockley, her primary school teacher husband Arthur and their children Gavin and Catherine were a singing quartet who strutted their stuff in an inconspicuous pub in the Blue Mountains region of NSW. In between these engagements they would perform in local nursing homes and churches, so singing was always part of Gavin’s daily diet.
Lockley’s professional musical career goes back 18 years, to the role of Gavroche in Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Miserables in Sydney. This was followed by an invitation to join Opera Australia’s children’s chorus, where he sang the role of Miles in Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw and August in Douglas Knehan’s chamber opera The Ascension of Robert Flau . . . and on it goes, a repertoire of which anyone would be justifiably proud.
In his free time Lockley started to write and conduct and became a member of a comedy routine called The Three Waiters on the international corporate entertainment circuit, so it is hardly surprising that after school he studied at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, sang in the Australian Opera chorus and won a scholarship to Germany to continue his journey into the world of music.
Lockley’s time there was cut short in 2001 when a nightmare that haunts many musicians came true. He developed repetitive strain injury and, unable to make a living playing the piano, had to come home. At 21 he thought it was all over. This was all the more horrifying because age and indisposition does not often weary musicians, especially conductors. Among those who play instruments, sing, compose or conduct, there is a pecking order, ruled by seniority. ‘‘ I think we’re all traumatised until we’re about 60,’’ Lockley explains. ‘‘ I met a man who is probably the best pianist around. He’s 17. But if I was conducting, even if he was a better musician than me, because I am 12 years older, I would call the shots.’’
Somehow, Lockley says, even the most tottery of conductors rise above physical glitches. Charles Mackerras, for example, has shoulder problems, Vladimir Ashkenazy has arthritis, but there’s something about the role of conductor that transcends pain. ‘‘ Perhaps it’s the exercise involved, the arm movements, the sheer physicality, the applause, the rush of power, which makes every one of them come alive on stage.’’
Lockley recovered from his trauma and, energised, perhaps by an inner realisation that his musical ambitions could be thwarted at any time, threw himself into every aspect of his talent, from composing to singing, piano playing and conducting. His epiphany came with the composition of his work My Country Australia.
Lockley and friend Michael Crouch, chairman of the Friends of the Australian Flying Doctor Service, had long thought that Australia needed a piece that would bring 100,000 people to their feet at sporting events, something other than the somewhat anodyne Advance Australia Fair or Waltzing Matilda.
He surprised himself, he says, by writing the song, which was subsequently performed for Rugby Australia as well as at the NSW Schools Spectacular, the Youth Olympics and at international concerts for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Lockley believes the flying doctors represent the spirit of Australia; the box office from Tuesday’s performance will go to the service.
Lockley’s most recent accomplishment was coconducting the opera Dead Man Walking : not everyone’s cup of tea, but nevertheless a very powerful subject, he says. ‘‘ It wasn’t an evening with Cole Porter!’’
Lockley is at present on leave from working towards his PhD in music at the University of Oxford’s Magdalen College.
He’d like to take Symphony of Australia everywhere. ‘‘ We’d like to do it in Asia and all the rest of Australia, especially at Uluru, the spiritual soul of the country, outdoors.’’ The symphony, which incorporates the themes of My Country Australia, was written far from home while the musician was living in London and felt homesick. ‘‘ As I wandered the streets wishing for a bit of sun, I was struck with the idea of creating a symphony that would tell the story of the Australian nation. What were the key events in Australia’s history which could best be described in music?
‘‘ I determined that the Dreamtime had to be the beginning and, realising that this could not be written in gloomy England, I flew to Cairns and discussed the project with a man called Victor Steffensen, a filmmaker and land conservationist, who explained that I needed to capture the feel of the land if my music was to carry any weight. To my huge relief, he liked the finished product.’’
And now this leitmotif continues in Symphony of Australia with The Ships, the story of the First Fleet, the third movement of which depicts the journey of Burke and Wills, summing up the struggle of pioneers.
This is followed by the Pie Jesu, a lament for the servicemen and women who gave their lives in war. Then there’s multiculturalism and, finally, a song of celebration to Dorothea Mackellar’s immortal poem My Country.
‘‘ The end of the performance has the chanting of the word ‘ Australia’ by choir and orchestra,’’ Lockley says. ‘‘ I guess my dream is to see all Australians on their feet at rugby and soccer games, singing the name of their country at the top of their lungs.’’