GORDON KERRY ON CLASSICAL MUSIC’s POLITICAL PUNCH
CHE waged a relentless campaign, that’s for sure. It started in first grade and for five long years my boy persistently put forward his request for a dog. Each birthday wish was for a puppy, each Christmas list featured the childishly scrawled three-letter word ‘‘ dog’’. Just as consistently I countered with the two-letter word ‘‘ no’’ ( occasionally tempered by ‘‘ one day’’). I’m not against pets but my objections were numerous. Pets are expensive and require a lot of commitment and upkeep. A dog would be one more unwanted distraction to my children’s routine.
Stretched to the limit by the day-to-day care of two turbo-charged small boys, not to mention the demands of employment, I wondered if I could bear to take on the responsibility of one more small, dependent and ( potentially) feral creature. I pictured myself harried and frustrated, screeching at the kids to get ready for school and screeching at the dog to comply with my directives. The thought of all that screeching was, frankly, off-putting.
I reasoned that my youngest child was not ready for a dog. For certain he would treat it roughly. In response the dog would be emotionally scarred and behaviourally disturbed and we’d all end up on a Dr Harry segment, regretting the day we ever took on the pooch. No, a dog could wait. We could all wait. Nicholas LASSICAL music, according to The New Yorker critic Alex Ross, is ‘‘ paradise for the passive aggressive’’. Concerts are highly ritualised, performers appear in the monochrome of correct evening costume ( though female soloists are permitted a colourful frock) and there is minimal movement on stage.
There is a hierarchy when it comes to who gets what applause and when; verbal communication on stage is almost non-existent, and from stage to auditorium is ideally kept to a minimum. An audience member who applauds between movements of a symphony or string quartet will be subject to a withering phalanx of raised eyebrows; cough or drop something and you’ll create near-fatal levels of lip-pursing. Only at the end of a work may applause be enthusiastic, possibly including a certain amount of whistling, cheering, and even standing, though it ain’t a mosh-pit.
In this country at least, a work that doesn’t go over well still gets brief, polite applause — a devastating sound, let me tell you — rather than anything as exciting as a boo or the Viennese specialty of ‘‘ whistling on house keys’’ to signal disapproval.
Classical audiences are, as a general rule, undemonstrative. The often alluded-to riot at the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 was as much about the choreography as the music, which very soon became a concert staple.
As long as it’s working, passive aggression looks like passivity. However, this interpretation can be a trap, as a number of politicians have discovered in recent times when dealing with the classical music profession and its audience. Q& A with, among others, Coalition MP
Most notable was the response last October to Bronwyn Bishop, who supports the Sydney the proposal by federal Arts Minister Peter International Piano Competition of Australia out Garrett to close the Australian National Acadof her own reticule. The conversation inevitably emy of Music in Melbourne ( with which I was turned to the hoary old arts v sport debate. ( News associated in 2008) and replace it, after a sixflash: many people like both, and classical music month interregnum, with something that looked lovers don’t merely clap politely if their football pretty much the same. team wins.) Garrett was brusquely dismissive of
There was clearly a failure of communication. the importance of musical competitions relative Garrett and his staff believed they had given the to, say, Olympic sport. ( It would be churlish to academy fair warning over several governance mention that the annual cost of the academy is issues earlier in the year; the academy hadn’t about half the estimated cost to the taxpayer of interpreted the correspondence the way it a single Olympic gold medal.) subsequently was said to have been intended. But passive aggression only looks passive, and
That drama has been fully reported in this and the Minister’s decision provoked a public outcry other newspapers but the point here is that it was that surprised even the academy’s supporters. An almost certainly assumed in Canberra that the online petition garnered well in excess of 10,000 academy staff, students and members of the signatories, ranging from present and former students’ regular audience would accept a students ( many from their positions overseas) to political decision tamely, and that the media some of the most esteemed composers, conducand broader community would take little if tors and soloists in international classical music any notice. today. Hundreds more wrote letters to the
This was no surprise. Back in August last year, Minister and other MPs decrying the decision. Garrett had appeared on the ABC1 program People turned up in droves to the several tried a different tactic for his tenth birthday. How about a turtle? He would undertake all the care, all the cleaning. It would be a great lesson in responsibility.
The turtle idea seemed incompatible with my screeching concerns. Who has ever heard of a turtle with behavioural issues? The turtle idea had some appeal. My husband supported the turtle option too. What the heck, why stop at one? We agreed to the purchase of two.
So in a classic case of ‘‘ went to the pet shop to buy some turtles and came home with a puppy’’, Lulu, our adorable Jack Russell-poodle cross, came into our lives.
Yes, there was an initial adjustment. For those first few nights the neighbours cursed us as Lulu howled long and hard and, in a chorus of sympathy, every other dog in the street joined in. concerts that the academy continued to present each week.
The Opposition arts spokesman and several colleagues, along with the Greens, raised the issue many times in both houses of parliament. And to make things worse for the Government, the academy’s artistic director, Brett Dean, was, in the middle of all this, honoured with the world’s most prestigious prize for composition, the Grawemeyer Award. The academy may be a small and, gasp, elite institution, but its real worth and international reputation were becoming abundantly clear.
The Coalition’s support was most welcome and may have been spurred by a memory of 2005 when it had commissioned a review into the viability of the nation’s symphony orchestras. Governments have been reviewing the orchestras on a bewilderingly regular basis for decades; orchestras are expensive to run, of course, but no one has yet worked out how to play a Beethoven symphony more efficiently in 2009 than in 1802.
The 2005 review was headed by former Qantas chief executive officer James Strong. ( And why not: Herbert von Karajan presumably knew a thing or two about 747s.) Strong’s recommendation was to trim the size of orchestras in three ( demographically) small states: Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. The resulting chamber orchestras could engage casual players for anything larger than a late classical-era work.
Good economics, woeful politics. Musicians, naturally, protested at the threat to their livelihood, but the public also weighed in, along with the likes of broadcaster Alan Jones, in support of the orchestras. And the Government’s backbenchers from those states felt the heat. The Government implemented the review only in part ( but that’s another story), and the then minister Rod Kemp announced additional funding to secure all the orchestras.
Once again, a group thought to be small, tractable and electorally negligible packed an unexpected punch, suggesting that classical music holds a more important place in our culture than some politicians may imagine. The tens of thousands who attend free summer symphony concerts don’t all turn into subscribers. But they go because such an event is an expected part of cultural life, and it’s fun. We expect our cities to have orchestras just as they have galleries, libraries and cricket grounds, and need the best people to perform in them. Public opinion — the voice of God — seems to agree. Gordon Kerry’s New Classical Music: Composing Australia is published by UNSW Press.
We’re six weeks into this dog ownership thing and guess what? No screeching ( not me, not Lulu, not the boys; not even the neighbours).
My fears of being driven barking mad were unfounded. In fact, if anything, Lulu has exerted a calming influence on the kids. I’m seeing this very loving and nurturing side to them.
The biggest surprise has been the effect of the puppy on me. I thought it would be nice for the boys to have a pet but I vastly underestimated the degree to which my heart could accommodate this small, fluffy, totally bewitching little thing. I’m besotted and my bond with her is as strong as the love I feel for my children. Her health, wellbeing and happiness are as much my concerns as theirs. My emotional commitment to her is absolute. She’s one extra thing to worry about but it’s a different kind of worry. I know that no matter what happens she’ll never grow up to ride fast motorbikes or do drugs.
She’s four months old now so I can look forward to years of pet-owning pleasure. Thank goodness I weakened. Sometimes when you think with your heart you do make the right decision. Isn’t that what a heart is for?
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