Ordinary ‘battlers’ have long been pitted against spoilt ‘elites’ in the bipolar universe of Australia’s culture wars. Boofy footy has been played off against luvvie yartz. Can these false dichotomies hold?
Two weeks ago we saw proposals to dismember the symphonic orchestras in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. The call came from former Qantas chairman James Strong in his report A New Era: Orchestras Review. He attacked the allegedly over-generous working conditions of orchestra members, and called for orchestras to sever their historical links with the ABC.

Strong’s triple bottom line overshadowed his recognition that orchestras ‘serve as global symbols of affluence, economic prosperity and cultural endurance, helping to make our cities desirable places in which to invest, live and work.’

A regional backlash against cutting the violas and piccolos of outskirt Australia came faster than anyone in the urbane centres of Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra might have imagined. It played itself out in the Coalition party room, featuring protests from parliamentarians from affected jurisdictions.

Cheap political credit

Federal Arts Minister Rod Kemp backed away from commitment to the Strong proposals – but only provided State Labor governments shared the orchestras’ bills.

Hopefully they will, and fast, if only to expose another false dichotomy pushed by those seeking cheap political credit. This one’s between Federal and State funding of core institutions of Australian life. These include symphony orchestras. It doesn’t matter which jurisdiction picks up the tab to keep them alive.

I grew up in Hobart in the 1970s and 80s. Tasmania was still the effluent end of the universe, before its recent economic boom pushed by the affluence of mainland property investors. Back then, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra was housed in Hobart’s ABC Odeon, since sold off for prime cbd bucks to some happy clappy Christians in the Hillsong mold.

We were taken there as schoolgirls by crotchety old nuns given to slapping knuckles on keyboards with rulers. We also got theory, memorising by rote the upper and lower ranges of every last instrument in the orchestra, at the insistence of a menopausal teacher who threw chalk and barked, ‘you won’t be playing netball aged sixty, but you might manage the cello.’

Beauty and spectacle of orchestral music

Tough love, but some enduring messages got through.

One was a feeling for the beauty and spectacle of orchestral music. Another was a sense of universal entitlement to enjoy it – we ranged widely in terms of background and status, from James McAuley-style literary snobs to scrubbers who got knocked up in purple Toranas before the end of year 10.

A third was an appreciation that we were part of a much wider world.

The stage was set at the TSO’s gala opening concert in 1948, where acclaimed Tasmanian-born pianist Eileen Joyce played as a soloist before 3000 locals, elsewhere appearing with orchestras in Britain, North and South America, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Yugoslavia and India. In subsequent decades, Tasmanian performing standards were maintained by émigrés like Czech violinist Jan Sedivka, who studied in Prague, Paris and London before arriving in Australia in 1961; and his English-born pianist wife Beryl, who was educated in France and studied with Marcel Ciampi, teacher of Hepzibah and Yaltah Menuhin.

Today the TSO keeps Tasmania’s high quality and internationalist musical tradition alive by drawing on professional expertise gained in Paris, Toulouse, Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, Hanover, Freiberg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Limberg, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Stockholm, Ulster, Liverpool, London, St Petersburg, Uppsala, Stockholm, New Jersey, Dallas, Washington, Houston, Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Finland, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

Remarkable talent and vision

All that seems a lot of long-term pounds to chuck away for quick pennies. Strong recommended axing nine positions from the 47 member TSO, reducing it to the size of a ‘large chamber orchestra.’ His calculus did not attach due value to the contributions made by people of remarkable talent and vision like Joyce and the Sedivkas.

Two Friday nights ago, the TSO performed Mozart, Corigliano, Boccherini and Schoenberg in ‘Travel By Night’ on Tasmania’s east coast. It invited the public to be transported ‘to a world of romance and mystery’, to ‘reach for the heavens’, turn ‘darkness into shining day’, then ‘celebrate, with fireworks!’

What price that magical journey, Mr Strong?

Natasha Cica is a visiting fellow at the Gilbert and Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW. She was the founding editor of NewMatilda.com. Earlier versions of this article first appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald