ARTS: MUSIC: So far, SSO good

Australia, land of the culturally backward? Not so. Their Prime Minister is more interested in orchestras than cricket, says Michael White

IF JOHN Major stood up one day in Parliament and, without warning, announced that the BBC Symphony Orchestra was to be prised away from the BBC, there would be two reactions. The first would be amazement that the Prime Minister was personally involving himself in such things. The second would be outrage.

But something exactly comparable happened recently in Australia, where the prime minister, Paul Keating, announced to universal surprise that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra would be taken away from the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And far from stoning the windows of Government House, the orchestra and its supporters are happy - because the decision comes as part of a new, from-the-top initiative designed to mark a turning point in Australia's cultural life. It's also meant to remind the world that Australia has a cultural life, which is why the SSO is in Britain this week - for the first time in 25 years - and giving two concerts at the Proms.

To understand the reasoning behind Keating's action, you need to know that the six symphony orchestras in Australia have always been owned and run by the ABC, and do reputable work without exactly setting the international concert circuit ablaze. None of them has ever claimed to be world-class; and none of them has ever been answerable to a government that cared too much. Not, at least, until now: Keating has the reputation of a self-made political bruiser, but is also a music-lover. He's the David Mellor of Australian public life, with, by all accounts, a large CD collection which he listens to in the early hours as a respite from the burdens of office. Keating wants a Great Orchestra; and the "liberation" (his word) of the Sydney Symphony from the ABC is a move to create one, with unprecedented levels of super-league-style funding direct from government. As part of the same plan there is to be a new National Conservatory of Music, to raise teaching standards to comparably exalted heights.

To the British, this kind of talk has a familiar ring. Not long ago there were grandiose proposals to turn our own Royal Academy of Music into a super-league conservatory, and the LPO into a British Berlin Philharmonic. They came to nothing. And Keating's plans are not without detractors. The other Australian orchestras feel slighted and the ABC humiliated, like an unfit parent deprived of custody of its most promising child.

But Mary Vallentine, the Sydney Symphony's general manager, insists that Keating's action is not an unfavourable judgement on anyone or anything. "It's just that when you have six orchestras run by the same organisation it's bound to have a levelling effect. And the hard fact is that no great orchestra exists within a broadcasting institution. Your BBCSO might want to dispute it, but compared with a Chicago Symphony or a Concertgebouw, there's a difference in status and profile. I'm not saying a broadcasting orchestra can't reach that level, but it's never happened yet."

So the Sydney Symphony is breaking loose, preparing to stand on its own 200-odd feet. It's a significant step in what people on the streets of Sydney see as an across-the-board advance toward maturity. As the prospect of independence from Britain draws closer, you can feel an almost physical sense of expectation: the country is taking stock of itself, poised to make a quantum leap forward, away from the old beer-and-boomerangs brashness of a pioneer community. Priorities are changing.

Mary Vallentine grew up in the 1950s, when, she says, "Sport was everything. Occasionally an opera star would appear, but our heroes were athletes, and any interest in the arts in schools wasn't terribly profound. Then things began to shift in the Gough Whitlam era, when we got the Sydney Opera House; and that building has become the symbol of Australia. If you think about it, it's an extraordinary thing that an opera house should be the symbol of the land of kangaroos. But there it is; and it offers a potential to which our government is not blind. Especially as we approach the year 2000, when Sydney gets the international spotlight of the Olympic Games."

The significance of the Olympics isn't lost on Edo de Waart, the Dutchman who was appointed the Sydney Symphony's chief conductor in 1992. A serious name on the international circuit, he was a catch for Sydney and is now in his first full season there. Keating's "liberation" seems to have taken him by surprise no less than anyone else, but he sees the point of it.

"In 2000 the world will descend on Australia; and it won't just be looking at how Australians run and swim, but at how they live. I feel - as many others do here - that this is the moment for the Australian arts. What's happening here is like what happened in America in the 1950s. After the industrial revolution comes the cultural one. And that poses a big challenge. Whenever I've taken over an orchestra in the past, the issues have been: we have a problem with the woodwind, or the brass, what can we do about it? But with Sydney the issue is the future of an entire culture. And the one thing for sure is that the future here is not Europe but Asia."

The idea of Australia shrugging off its past as a distant satellite of Europe is not new. If nowhere else, it has been in the minds and music of leading Australian composers like Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards, who for a long while have been looking east rather than west in the search for identity and values, rejecting the transplanted Englishness which has called the tune in Australian music for a century or more. The liberal intelligentsia of Sydney have a phrase for their historic deference: "cultural cringe". It describes a long-established belief that nothing in Australia can be quite as meaningful as in Britain. "I once got a special government grant here," says Ross Edwards, "just because I got good reviews for something I had performed in London. London was the seal of approval. It's shocking, but it's how it's always been."

And it's how it will continue for as long as Australian musicians look to London, or more generally to Europe, for their careers. A vast country with a comparatively small (17 million) and scattered population, Australia doesn't provide an adequate audience base, while the fact that it's a long plane journey from anywhere else makes it an expensive home for a travelling musician. The Australian Diaspora will always be a problem; its scale only becomes apparent when you count the number of musicians who, because they've lived here so long, pass for British but are actually Australian. Sir Charles Mackerras, Yvonne Kenny, the late Geoffrey Parsons, the Master of the Queens Music Malcolm Williamson ... you could fill a page with names.

One of the interesting developments at the Sydney Symphony is that, like some Mormon collective, it is actively gathering data on Australians in key orchestral jobs around the world, with a view to luring the best of them back. The incentive, basically, will be money. But patriotism and lifestyle are issues too, as is something one of the orchestra's violinists, Gotz Richter, told me. "In Europe," he said, "the musical culture is set, and you participate in the tradition passively. In Australia you have to get up and make it for yourself." In other words, Australia is a clean slate: with no history but a lot of future, as the focus of world economics and all things attendant thereon shifts inexorably to the east. It will be interesting to see if the SSO leaves Britain with more players than it came with.

! Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Edo de Waart: Royal Albert Hall, SW7, 0171 589 8212, Wednesday and Thursday.

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