History records, music flows on

As Sydney Symphony's 75th Anniversary year comes to a close, it's time to look both forward and backward. 

How will history remember the orchestra? Every concertgoer will have memories of wonderful events. An orchestra is a complex beast, in peak form as often as possible, but, let's admit it, not always. There can be a downside, but that's part of what makes the concert experience a 'live' one. Will the recording angel determine what is remembered? Those who attended the composer festivals this year will no doubt have been encouraged to note that all the concerts were recorded for CD, and the printed programs remind us that the Sydney Symphony has started its own label, documenting some of the orchestra's best performances.

It was high time, since the most important record of an orchestra is the sound of its music-making. The orchestra's recently issued 5-CD retrospective brings the frustrating realisation that in addition to the many wonderful things it includes – such as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony conducted by Klemperer, or the orchestra at the newly opened Sydney Opera House with Birgit Nilsson and Sir Charles Mackerras – many other things remembered fondly and with excitement have been lost. Especially disappointing is the knowledge that so many musical highlights were indeed recorded, but not kept.

It's true that memory can play tricks: trawling such aural trove as has survived, it can disconcerting to discover that not everything remembered as treasure measures up. But that shouldn't worry anyone – the nexus between an orchestra and its public lies in things more fundamental than whether a standard worthy of repeated listening is always achieved.

Above all, an orchestra's life is the exploration of one of the supreme achievements of our culture, an exploration it makes in a kind of dialogue with its audiences. Both parties have needs, not least of which are the orchestra's need for a supportive public and the public's need to discover both old and new music performed live. If we listened to the Beethoven Festival concerts given in World War II under Bernard Heinze, to large and grateful audiences, we might find the sound of little more than curiosity value, and the Proms concerts under John Hopkins, in the 1960s and 70s, surely would be heard as surveys of a great deal of music new to orchestra and audience, under the pressures of short rehearsal time - a condition of their happening at all. This writer's memory stretches that far back, but the microphone can still bring surprises.

What can't change is 'that's the first time I was there when that music was played' – 'that's when I first played that music'. We trust each other – orchestra and audience – and the history tells us that there is a future.

David Garrett ©2007