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Keep Music Alive!

Orchestras rarely get noticed in the media, except in the arts pages, or when invaded by The Chaser.

Exceptions are rarely to do with music. When Eugene Goossens became a person of interest to customs and police, there was wider interest in what they found in his luggage than in 'his' orchestra. The most notorious ever, perhaps, of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's playing members claimed to have caused Vladimir Petrov to defect in 1954, in Australia's biggest spy sensation. Dr Michael Bialoguski, code name 'Diabolo', worked under cover for Australia's intelligence agencies. A Pole who came to Australia as a war-time refugee, he was a medical doctor. He joined Petrov, the Russian embassy official, in visits to King's Cross for drinking and other pursuits. But Bialoguski was also a violinist of a calibre to be invited by Goossens to play in the SSO (years later he paid London orchestras to let him conduct them in recordings).

When in the late 1970s the ABC seemed threatened by reports  recommending cuts in government spending (notably the Green Report of 1976), musicians took to the streets with placards: 'Keep Music Alive!' The Sydney Symphony's Musicians' Association denounced the reports as 'an attack on the creative, imaginative, and spiritual life of Australia'. More than just the permanence of their employment seemed to depend on the ABC's viability. Removing the orchestras from the control of the ABC seemed unlikely: working against it were job security, the protective screen of the ABC between music and government, and sheer inertia.

All the more surprising – shocking in fact – when for once in Australian history a political leader took a personal initiative in relation to an orchestra. In 1994 Paul Keating's government announced in 'Creative Nation' that the Government would transfer the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, only, from the ABC to local control. The Prime Minister's hand was seen in this decision, by which the Sydney Symphony would also receive additional funding to increase its player strength, tour as a 'cultural export' and throughout Australia. 'It is time for the Sydney orchestra to be given the opportunity and freedom to excel' (the other ABC orchestras 'may put a case to the Government for divestment if they see fit'.) This started the ball rolling - not always, history records, down the path intended. It's 2007 and all the orchestras have loosened links with the ABC. The anxious fears of the musicians in 1976 are dispelled. The sky hasn't fallen.

It's ironic, really, that the musicians in the orchestras should be most anxious about the permanence of the orchestras. The push to have permanent, full-time symphony orchestras in Australia, before the ABC made them a reality, came, largely, not so much from musicians as from music-lovers. They were well-off, well-connected people, who wanted a permanent orchestra in their city to ensure the hearing of music they loved, with the hope that permanence would bring a high standard. Their vision and connections are symbolised by the title of Melbourne's 'Lady Northcote Permanent Orchestra Fund' formed in 1908. The merger of orchestras, in which the guardians of this fund played a part, formed what we now know as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and provided a model for the whole country. The emergence of 'Radio' orchestras in each city under the ABC, was not the expected outcome, but probably the only way permanent resources could be ensured.

The visionary with whom the Lady Northcote Fund entered into partnership was conductor and educator Bernard Heinze. In 1938 he wrote: '…the development of Civic and personal pride in one's own City Orchestra can in the long run only have the finest results…on these principles we have built up an audience in Melbourne which does not exist in any other City in Australia.' And here's 'Creative Nation' in 1994: 'the world's finest orchestras all operate under local control, and are accountable first and foremost to their cities of residence'.  Had the wheel come full circle? Was the ABC's orchestra founding and stewardship a mere stage on the way to a higher state of being?  Those who care may like to be reminded, at any rate, how orchestras became a permanent part of Australia's national culture. In the news? That would be good, too.

David Garrett ©2007