josh rosner

TIME FOR AN AUSTRALIAN CONDUCTOR AT SYDNEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

In Australian Culture and Society on May 15, 2012 at 7:07 am

I’m passionate about classical music. I love it and listen to it incessantly on my iPod. Should you see me wandering about with headphones on, you can be sure I am listening to one classical recording or another.

I’ve recently returned from four months living in Berlin. My iPod is currently populated with an array of Berlin Philharmonic recordings going back many  decades. Two of my favourite recordings are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by arguably the greatest symphonic conductor of the 20th century, Wilhelm Furtwängler (Chief Conductor from 1922-1945 and again from 1952-1954) and recorded in Berlin on 30 June 1943, and Liszt’s Hungarian Symphony No.1, conducted by Arthur Nikitsch (Chief Conductor from 1895 – 1922) and recorded in Berlin in 1920.

As often as time and finances would allow I attended concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, performed in the magnificent Hans Scharoun designed yellow concert hall on Potsdamer Platz that has been its home since 1963 after the British bombed on the old concert hall on 30 January 1944. It is a beautiful space with the best acoustics I have ever heard. The Sydney Opera House acoustics might be best compared to a school hall. It is not, I believe, unfair to compare our Opera House to similar spaces in Europe. We have the potential to create a truly magnificent concert space. That potential is yet to be realised.

I was spoiled in Berlin. If there is an unfair comparison to make it is to compare the availability and accessibility of opera and classical music in Australia to that which is available in most major European cities. Berlin, to illustrate my point, has three major opera companies, not to mention numerous amateur and semi-professional companies. Every night of the year an opera is performed by either the Kommische Oper, the Staatsoper or the Deutsche Oper. Similarly, classical music lovers are rarely at a loss for a performance. Germany has more than 130 professional orchestras who perform and tour regularly. The Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by the wire-haired Englishman, Sir Simon Rattle, since 2002, is consistently rated one of the world’s best.

From its founding in 1882, until the present day, the orchestra has had nine chief conductors, including, as I have mentioned, two long yet separate periods by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Of the those nine conductors over 130 years, more than half were German.

On our own shores, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra began performing in 1932, but only became a permanent orchestra in 1946, giving its first performance in January of that year. In the 66 years since it has been known officially as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it has had twelve chief conductors, including the incumbent, Vladimir Ashkenazi.

On 15 May 2012 the Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, and the SSO Chair, John Conde, announced the appointment of Ashkenazi’s replacement. American David Robertson, 54 year old music director of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, will begin his term in 2014.

Robertson, 54, has been the music director of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra since 2005 and is also principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Robertson is a fine choice and will serve the orchestra, its board, and the Australian community well. In particular I applaud his plans to steer the orchestra into the digital age. During his tenure in Berlin, Rattle has undertaken similar project. He re-organised the Philharmonic, turning it into a foundation so the members and musicians had greater control over its activities and he ensured musicians’ wages increased significantly. Significantly, Rattle was instrumental in introducing the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, allowing subscribers to enjoy performances live over the Internet.
Although I would argue the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is coming late to the digital era, it is nonetheless a welcome advancement. My hope is that Robertson will take many of the lessons and experiences from his Berlin colleague and introduce them in Sydney.
When asked how he felt about his appointment, Robertson said: “I love the Sydney Symphony’s sense of adventure. I’ve already done a number of wide-ranging projects with the orchestra as a guest conductor and the musicians’ readiness to take on any artistic challenge is something I find personally inspiring.

“This partnership has the potential to change the way people think about orchestras and orchestral music, sharing the excitement with an ever-broader international audience.”

Despite the quality of the appointment the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored is the nationality of past conductors. Robertson will be the thirteenth chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the second American after Dean Dixon (1964 – 1967). The orchestra has appointed only two Australian conductors in its history. Charles Mackerras (1982 – 1985) was the first and Stuart Challender (1987 – 1991) was the second. Given Mackerras was born in Schenectady, New York, and came to Australia as a three year old, only Challender can lay claim to having been the only Australian-born chief conductor ever appointed.

At the time of the announcement of Robertson’s appointment, the ANU School of Music finds itself fighting for relevancy, funding and, more importantly, the recognition that music schools have a responsibility to the winder community that extends beyond the cloistered environment of a university campus, it is deeply disappointing that the SSO chose to overlook the obvious talent we have in Australia.

On the 14 May I attended a rally to save the School of Music. More than a thousand people attended. One person in the crowd told me they have never seen a protest on the ANU campus before that had attracted such a large crowd. Professional musicians, music teachers and students spoke to the audience. Over and over they spoke of the significant quality of education at the ANU School of Music. They spoke of the many success stories produced by the school. They also spoke of the ANU’s responsibility to the music-loving community of Canberra who will find it difficult, in what is already a culturally bereft space, to access great music. I agree wholeheartedly and support the sentiment.

It’s often said music should be capable of transcending borders.It should have a timeless capacity to change the world for the better. I cannot disagree. But at a time when music schools – and vicariously, musicians – are under attack, I find it deeply lamentable that the SSO felt no Australian was suitable to lead an excellent orchestra at this time. The greatest political statement the Sydney Symphony Orchestra could have made on the world-stage would have been to appoint – after more than two decades – another Australian as chief conductor.More than two centuries after our founding, it could have been the perfect symbol that we, as a rich and democratic nation, have grown up.

I see it as another lost opportunity.

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  1. nice commentary and tend to agree with you new buddy

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