AMILD-MANNERED composer takes on a former rock star turned politician in a very public fight over the future of classical music training and wins. ‘‘ I look back on last year and it was a hell of a roller-coaster ride, ’’ says Brett Dean, 47, artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music.
In the middle of that political maelstrom, Dean won the world’s most prestigious award for musical composition: on December 1 Kentucky’s University of Louisville announced he had won the $ US200,000 ($ 310,000) Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing . He will collect his prize in Kentucky today.
It was a weird time, Dean admits. A few weeks earlier federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett had announced he was cutting ANAM’s funding, which meant the academy would have to close on December 31. Dean went public in his attacks against the former Midnight Oil lead singer, claiming the decision would have a dire effect on classical music training.
Nearly 800 artists, urged on by Dean, signed a letter of complaint to the minister. Students and staff were highly anxious about their futures, while government backbenchers and opposition parliamentarians expressed their concerns to journalists.
Dean had become a thorn in Garrett’s side. Then, suddenly, after the Grawemeyer win, he was a national cultural hero.
‘‘ The Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t she?’’ Dean reflects now.
‘‘ I had no control on the timing of these things, obviously, and it was an extraordinary feeling to be acknowledged in that way. But I was very worried about the future of the students and there was still a lot of uncertainty.’’
A few days after the award announcement Garrett changed tack on the ANAM issue in spectacular fashion. The Government would continue its $ 2.5 million annual funding to the academy, which would remain in its South Melbourne Town Hall headquarters and would retain its name. ANAM would have a new independent board, although it would become part of the University of Melbourne’s school of music.
Dean agreed to continue as its artistic director for one more year and, when he returns to composing full time, will retain teaching and performing links with the institution.
Garrett’s advisers put the best possible spin on the backdown and Dean is reluctant to claim victory. ‘‘ It was a matter of everyone sitting down together and actually discussing the issue,’’ he says.
Nonetheless, Dean is the mouse that roared. The quietly spoken violist and composer would not have considered stepping out of the classroom and into the public arena unless his academy — a hothouse for talented young musicians — and his own reputation as an artistic director had been threatened.
At first glance Dean doesn’t seem the sort to be an outspoken activist. His cherubic face, framed by a closely cropped silver beard, frequently creases into a smile. And he would much rather talk about Haydn’s quartets than Canberra politics. But he has an earnest stare and strong views, particularly on his favourite subjects of music education, preparing artists for international careers, and the role of chamber music in a young musician’s life.
‘‘ His personal and artistic qualities are wellknown in that relatively small music community, but speaking publicly about issues that mattered to him — like the strength of musical culture and the importance of music education — struck a chord with a lot of people,’’ ANAM general manager Nick Bailey says.
Dean is ‘‘ probably Australia’s most successful composer internationally at the present
Roller-coaster: Brett Dean