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