John Curro has been con­duct­ing the Queens­land Youth Or­ches­tra since its birth more than 50 years ago, writes Tim Dou­glas

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‘It is hor­ri­ble. Just hideous. Come on, lis­ten to this,” says John Curro, scur­ry­ing out of his liv­ing room to fid­dle with an un­seen au­dio sys­tem. He reemerges as a vaguely fa­mil­iar voice crack­les through the set of an­tique tim­ber speak­ers that hang in each cor­ner of his home’s open-plan mu­sic room.

“Ladies and gen­tle­men,” a man’s voice be­gins. As if at the very mem­ory of his own in­tro­duc­tion to the nascent Queens­land Youth Or­ches­tra in its de­but per­for­mance in 1965, the Bris­bane con­duc­tor’s face con­certi­nas in an­guish. He the­atri­cally cov­ers his ears and winces. “That’s me at City Hall, 51 years ago.” A blast of ques­tion­ably tuned brass swirls around the room. “You know what this piece is called?” he says, grin­ning. “It is Suite by Grieg, Ar­ranged for Lousy Or­ches­tra.” Much has changed in the 51 years since the Bris­bane con­duc­tor first ten­ta­tively raised a pine ba­ton (he now uses fi­bre­glass) to the or­ches­tra that would be­come a driv­ing force in his life. Not least is the sound. Curro loads a CD of a slick con­cert per­for­mance of Mozart by the QYO last year. Eyes closed, he al­lows a smile to reach across his face as we lis­ten to his young charges at fully or­ches­tral tilt. “You can­not imag­ine how much [the] sound has changed,” he says, point­ing to the speak­ers. “It took me 10 years to get that proper or­ches­tral sound, to get nice bal­ance and in­to­na­tion.”

In its five decades, the QYO has grown in stature, cred­i­bil­ity and size. The in­ter­ven­ing years have seen the or­ches­tra tour in­ter­na­tion­ally and stake its claim as one of the most dy­namic feeder en­sem­bles in the coun­try.

But in all that time there has been one con­stant: Curro. And for good rea­son: he is en­shrined in the QYO’s con­sti­tu­tion as mu­sic di­rec­tor for life.

“I’m not go­ing any­where,” he says, scoop­ing up a mouth­ful of pump­kin soup made by his wife, Carmel. “I look for­ward to ev­ery re­hearsal and per­for­mance. Some of the reper­toire is, still now at the age of 81, as un­fa­mil­iar to me as it is to the kids. It’s mar­vel­lous.”

Later this month, the Queens­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val will hon­our (for the record, Curro hates “that bloody word”) the long-time con­duc­tor’s com­mit­ment to and di­rec­tion of the QYO with a spe­cially com­mis­sioned con­cert and per­for­mance. QMF di­rec­tor Katie Noo­nan ap­proached Bris­bane com­poser Thomas Green to write a piece in hon­our of Curro to be played by QYO alumni for a new, youth­ful in­stru­ment: the hang. The per­cus­sion in­stru­ment — a closed metal drum, some­thing of an mix­ture of marimba and steel drum — is less than 15 years old, not un­like many of Curro’s charges. Con­certino Grosso will be per­formed on July 29 as part of a con­cert ti­tled Hang with the QYO by Lon­don­based Aus­trian per­cus­sion­ist and hang vir­tu­oso Manu De­lago.

Noo­nan, who will per­form in the con­cert, says Curro’s legacy runs deep in the veins of the Queens­land mu­sic in­dus­try. “John has been a vi­tal fig­ure in fos­ter­ing a world-class youth or­ches­tra or­gan­i­sa­tion over the past 50 years,” she says. “John’s ded­i­ca­tion and pas­sion has been the cat­a­lyst for a suc­cess­ful ca­reer for many of our coun­try’s most revered mu­si­cians. It is im­por­tant to hon­our John’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Queens­land and Aus­tralian mu­sic in­dus­tries.”

De­lago and Curro met briefly in March this year when the per­cus­sion­ist was tour­ing Aus­tralia with his band, in be­tween in­ter­na­tional gigs with Ice­landic su­per­star Bjork. Un­til that point the in­stru­ment was for­eign to the oc­to­ge­nar­ian con­duc­tor. “I’d never heard it un­til I saw some clips on­line,” he says. “The first time I heard it I thought ‘wow’. It sounds very beau­ti­ful, It is un­like any other per­cus­sion in­stru­ment. The clos­est would be the Ja­maican drum. But it’s very beau­ti­ful.”

How does he feel about hav­ing such an hon­our be­stowed on him?

“An hon­our? Oh cut it out,” he says with a laugh. “When­ever I got these awards, an AM, an MBE, a Premier’s Mil­len­nium award — that’s quite rare, there’s only one of those for the next thou­sand years — I was al­ways very happy for my mother. But she’s gone now, so ...” Curro smiles. “Look, it’s re­ally very nice. But the thing I re­ally love about it is that the alumni are com­ing back. I love it when those kids come home. We have had some real hot shots.”

That list of “kids” now reads like a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of Aus­tralian clas­si­cal mu­sic: they in­clude Mel­bourne Sym­phony Or­ches­tra con­cert­mas­ter Dale Bartrop, in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed com­poser Brett Dean, clar­inetist Paul Dean, vi­o­lin­ists Dene Old­ing and Ray Chen, flautist Tim Munro and oboe player Diana Do­herty, among many oth­ers.

Bartrop and Do­herty, as well as four of the con­duc­tor’s pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian chil­dren — Sarah and Mon­ica (MSO’s first and as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal sec­ond vi­olin re­spec­tively), cel­list Dan (Aus­tralian Bran­den­burg Or­ches­tra) and vi­o­lin­ist David — will be among the alumni per­form­ing at the fes­ti­val.

“Yes, it will be very nice,” Curro says. He sits back and smiles, look­ing out over his mu­sic room, re­plete with pi­anos and a harp­si­chord and adorned with pic­tures of his fam­ily and his mu­si­cians.

Had some­one told the young John Curro he would com­mit his life to clas­si­cal mu­sic, the sports-mad non-mu­si­cian might have wal­loped them with his cricket bat. His fa­ther played the fid­dle, and Curro stud­ied the in­stru­ment as a boy. But he gave up vi­olin in his teenage years, when his fam­ily moved from Cairns to Bris­bane, and fo­cused in­stead on a ca­reer in ar­chi­tec­ture.

It was with a friend that, at age 19, Curro had what he de­scribes as a mu­si­cal epiphany.

“I played ten­nis with a friend of mine, an Ital­ian doc­tor, ev­ery Sun­day morn­ing, and one day he said to me: ‘You’ll never guess who is com­ing to play ten­nis on Sun­day — Al­fredo Cam­poli.’ “I looked at him and said, ‘Who’s that?’ Cam­poli, one of the world’s great­est vi­o­lin­ists, was in Bris­bane to per­form with the Queens­land Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.

“My friend thought I’d be in­ter­ested, be­cause

Queens­land Youth Or­ches­tra founder John Curro; con­duct­ing the QYO at the Queens­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, be­low

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