Cus­to­di­ans of high cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - GREG SHERI­DAN

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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