Custodians of high culture
IWRITE in praise of older women. Some day they will be gone. And where will our culture be without them? Of course, there will always be older women. But will the older women of tomorrow be the equal of the older women of today? was struck by this question while attending a Sunday matinee given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. The ACO is one of the significant achievements of the Australian nation. In terms familiar to us from the Olympics, it is world class, an ensemble of exquisite virtuosity.
The performance I saw was brilliant and profoundly satisfying on many levels. But there was something I didn’t wholly approve of. It consisted of works by four composers: Bach and Vivaldi from the 18th century and Gyorgy Kurtag and Alban Berg from the 20th. The works from the earlier period were far sweeter and, put simply, more beautiful. I recognise these are personal judgments, but I’d wager they are shared by many.
Chamber music is full of intimacy and deep feeling. It is a form both powerful and subtle. For me, even more than the violin, it is the cello, the mellowest fellow in the orchestra, that most represents chamber music. In one of Chicago writer Joseph Epstein’s marvellous short stories, a middle- aged Jewish professor loses his wife. To the professor’s great surprise, after a relatively short time he takes up with a much younger woman ( though not too young). He takes her along to his regular chamber orchestra recital. She is put off by the aged nature of the rest of the audience. And she shrewdly comments to the professor that the real reason he attends chamber music is for the consolation.
There is precious little consolation to be found in classical composers of the 20th century. Indeed, my companion at the ACO concert described one Kurtag piece as sounding like a car crash and another like a suicide. That, I think, is a bit rough. My complaint, really, is that the ACO played four Bach fugues but between every one interposed a Kurtag movement. That’s not really playing the game.
The second half of the concert, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, was superb. This glorious piece of orchestral poetry has become a musical cliche, but we can hardly hold this against Vivaldi, just as Shakespeare is full of cliches, all of which he invented. In any event, the ACO played it with energy, technical precision and great feeling. To hear it all in one sitting allows you to appreciate its context and, frankly, cheers you up.
The audience deserved cheering up. There were some young people there and quite a few chaps, but the women far outnumbered the men and the old far outnumbered the young. The woman next to me had struggled in on two walking sticks from some distant suburb. What a great way for her to spend a Sunday afternoon.
I say this not to patronise older women, or to mock them, or to criticise or diminish them in any way. Instead, I salute them. Their devotion to high culture is a precious and vital resource. Several times I’ve spoken at the Sydney or Melbourne writers’ festivals and the audience is always dominated by middle- aged women. Friends of mine who are professional novelists tell me that the serious literary novel is now read almost exclusively by women over 50.
When they go, who will treasure our high culture? Who will esteem it, value it, spend their Sunday afternoons watching it? Who will continue to seek the consolation of the spirit in chamber music rather than in methamphetamines? Is the attachment of older women to high culture an age effect or a cohort effect?
Will younger women, as they grow older, discover the beauty of classical music and classical literature? Or have the older women of today carried on a love of high culture from their younger days but been unable to pass this on to their daughters? These questions also came to mind when I spent a morning at the National Gallery of Victoria’s splendid art deco exhibition. Again, most of the patrons, though diverse, were women, and older rather than younger. Coincidentally, this exhibition was only 50m from the Arts Centre, where I heard the ACO.
That part of Melbourne, from the Ian Potter Gallery next to Federation Square, across the Yarra, through Southbank, past the Arts Centre and on to the NGV on St Kilda Road, is one of the most dazzling arts precincts in Australia.
But back to art deco. The NGV exhibition defines the deco period as lasting from 1910 to 1939 and embraces the spectacular force of the deco fashion in all the arts of that time. That is an arguable definition, as art deco really lives in architecture, furniture and room design. As such, it’s very difficult to display it at an exhibition, but the NGV, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, has done a great job, not least by using film and big screen walls to display buildings, cruise liners, the Hollywood musicals of the time, hotel foyers and other things you can’t readily fit into a gallery.
Art deco, like impressionism, is an immensely popular artistic form even today. It’s a pity no one builds art deco buildings any more, with their
‘‘ sensuous curves, sleek lines and jaunty decorative touches, for art deco was the last highbrow, modernist movement to attempt to create a beauty ordinary people could enjoy. It combined the glamour and liberation of new technology with the glory of tradition.
A century after it burst on to the scene, art deco can enchant and seduce with its brilliance, just as Bach and Vivaldi can after three centuries. This suggests to me — as it does, perhaps, to some of the women of a certain age who keep classical high culture alive in Western societies such as Australia’s — that the real values of high culture are not as subjective as you may think, and certainly not entirely dependent on social context.
When so much contemporary high culture has substituted the pursuit of truth and beauty with the creation of falsehood and ugliness, you know that the culture has partly lost its moorings. We can thank the legions of discerning mature women, generally far more attuned than their men to high culture, for what silver threads of continuity we enjoy to the best that human creativity has given us across the centuries.
review@ theaustralian. com. au
fraserj@ theaustralian. com. au