Composers Up Front

Players, conductors, soloists – they're all vital parts of the history of any orchestra. But there's something without which there'd be no life: composers. 

Mainly dead composers, since an orchestra must cultivate the whole repertoire, but when there's an encounter with a living composer, how the whole purpose for being lights up! There've been many such memorable moments, beginning for me with hearing Stravinsky conduct his music with the Sydney Symphony in 1961. Hearing and, more important, seeing, being in the presence.

Was it shrewd economy for the ABC to invite composers to conduct as well? Or the sense that the broadcast audience wouldn't get much out of the composer merely being in the hall? It wasn't always good conducting – Stravinsky was old, and so was Copland in 1978. He knew his own music, but clearly was at sea accompanying Joseph Kalichstein in a Mozart piano concerto. I wasn't at the Adelaide Festival in 1964 where William Walton conducted the Sydney Symphony in the Australian premiere of his Cello Concerto. The orchestra may wish that they had played in the presence of Olivier Messiaen, who toured Australia in 1988 under ABC auspices. The Australian Chamber Orchestra had that privilege in Sydney, and their colleagues in the big orchestra escaped a crisis-turned-miracle: the trombone parts were left in Brisbane and the players had to perform from Messiaen's copy of the full score.

The Sydney Symphony did get to collaborate with Witold Lutoslawski in 1987 (the program including Dene Olding in Chain II), as it has more recently with Gunther Schuller, James MacMillan, and Tan Dun - all primarily composers. But some conductors have had scores as well as batons in their knapsacks, notably the orchestra's first Chief Conductor, Eugene Goossens. He premiered his oratorio The Apocalypse in Sydney in 1954. Among Australian composer-conductors Richard Mills has championed many living composers with the orchestra, and Sydney Symphony programmers have often presented resident composers, sometimes conducting their own works – John Antill comes to mind as well as Mills. In 1941 Bernard Heinze presented an all-Australian program in which Edgar Bainton conducted his own Symphony in D minor, Miriam Hyde played her Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and Heinze conducted Roy Agnew's Breaking of the Drought. And as for concerts 'in the presence', the Lutoslawski concert had a counterpart in the concert for Peter Sculthorpe's 60th birthday, under Stuart Challender, in 1989. The continuing relationship with composers, dramatised when they stand in front of the orchestra, is an essential tribute to the vitality of our musical tradition. And a reminder that there's life in all music that's worth playing.

David Garrett ©2007