WAR­RIOR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

Pic­ture: Richard Cisar- Wright

Roller-coaster: Brett Dean

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