As the best of Australian music prepares to go walkabout at the Wigmore Hall, Meurig Bowen tests the artistic temperature of the Antipodes
Anglo-Australian relations have always been based in some way on forms of exchange. The Brits shunted their (perceived) societal dregs down there two centuries back; and, until Oddbins stacked their shelves with better stuff, we got the varietal dregs back - Kangarouge and the like. An urn of ashes shuttles figuratively to and fro, dependent on each nation's cricketing fortunes, and as many antipodean backpackers work the pubs of London as Poms do those of Sydney.

For musicians, though, the traffic has been largely one-way. Ever since Nellie Melba and Percy Grainger wowed Edwardian England, the procession of Aussies making it good - and, crucially, settling - in Europe has been long and distinguished, headed by Joan Sutherland, Charles Mackerras, John Williams and Barry Tuckwell. The pattern repeats itself in every generation, if less so now than in earlier decades: a talented young Australian wins a scholarship to study overseas; the study goes well, and a trickle of work turns into a full diary, prompting thoughts that a life back "home" might be rather two-dimensional in comparison. Small wonder Australia earned a reputation as a cultural desert, given how many of her cultural practitioners could be accused of desertion.

In fact, things are rather different. Australia's classical music scene is, by global standards, in a rude state of health - protected even, in its geographic dislocation, from the worldwide problems of shrinking audiences, spiralling costs and an ever- evaporating pool of state-funding. A relatively small population, distributed mainly in isolated coastal pockets, sustains orchestras, opera companies and international festivals in each major city. And because of the country's unusual demographics, there is a greater awareness of and pride in each centre's cultural assets - more the Rattle / CBSO phenomenon than London's more-is-less diffuseness.

A healthy, well-established rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney means that both orchestras are in good, if not world-class, shape. Melbourne has attracted the London Sinfonietta's charismatic chief Markus Stenz as its new music director from 1998; Sydney already has Edo de Waart at the helm. Another Dutchman, David Porcelijn, does great things with the Tasmanian SO, and Vernon Handley has a longstanding association with the West Australian SO in Perth. And, if all these are non-Australians, we should remember that one of the country's highest flying musicians is Simone Young. Already well-established at the great opera houses of the world, she takes over as MD at Opera Australia (a recent amalgam of the Sydney-based Australian Opera and Melbourne-based Victorian State Opera) early next century.

By no means all, but a good number of artists on the international circuit want to tour Australia, attracted by a unique blend of western-style familiarity and faraway exoticism, the weather, the space, and a desire to perform at a certain venue in Sydney harbour. Nor do local audiences tend to take these musicians' visits for granted: appearances earlier this year by Lorin Maazel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky were given serious amounts of column- inches and air-time by the media, and the concerts - in big venues - sold out.

British Telecom's current ad may read "Geography is History" but, in Australia's case, it's more a matter of "Geography is Economics". Orchestras seldom tour interstate, and an extensive European tour such as the Sydney Symphony's in 1995 is a rare thing indeed. Which is almost certainly why the country's greatest strengths, as cultural importer and exporter, are on a smaller scale.

No other country in the world has such a diverse and far-flung touring circuit for chamber musicians. In its 50-year history, Musica Viva has brought a staggering array of string quartets, early music ensembles, vocal groups (and any number of other less usual combos) to the major cities' concert halls. It also runs a huge programme of less high-profile tours, where homegrown chamber musicians go on a proverbial walkabout to country towns - many of them remote and, you'd have thought, aesthetically immune to the world of piano trios and madrigals.

Australia can also boast probably the busiest, most-travelled - and the only full-time, salaried - chamber orchestra in the world. In its 22nd year now, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has grown from modest, freelance beginnings into a very fine, artistically adventurous outfit (as one recent nifty press clip said: "World Class? The world should be so lucky"). Based in an ex-nightclub in Sydney's sleazepot King's Cross district - premises that were also, in the Fifties, the rehearsal home of the Sydney Symphony under Eugene Goossens and, later, the studios for the 1970s 'roo soap Skippy - the ACO gives nearly 100 concerts nationally a season. Most of these, remarkably, are self-promoted; and with a steadily growing subscription- based audience, and a healthy mix of corporate and state funding, they break even. The ACO's world profile, despite regular tours of the US, Europe and Asia, is slimmer than it might be because its recent recordings on Sony are not (yet) released internationally - a consequence perhaps of the way that Aussie cultural product is still not quite taken seriously by bottom-line-gazing executives abroad.

It is the ex-pat Australian William Lyne, boss of London's Wigmore Hall for over 30 years, who has finally permitted himself the indulgence of presenting an Australian festival there in the coming weeks. Importantly, it features predominantly Australia-resident musicians. The ACO, regular and popular visitors to the Wigmore for over a decade now, opens and closes the series (11 Oct; 7 Nov) with a typically broad range of repertoire - from Handel, Haydn and Corelli to Lutoslawski, Peter Sculthorpe and Pavel Haas. Other highlights include the pianist Michael Kieran Harvey playing Messiaen and Frank Zappa (22 Oct) and a poetry reading by Barry Humphries, with Dame Edna in tow (12 Oct).

Little Australian music written this century has quite attained greatness or fully conjured a recognisably local soundworld. Compare it with its older New World companion North America and there is, frankly, no Copland, Ives, Gershwin, Bernstein, Reich or Adams. Peter Sculthorpe has got closest with his skilful musical evocations of a parched, inhospitable landscape, of shy reptiles and scurrying insects, of man dwarfed and overawed by Australia's vast interior. The Wigmore festival features a number of his works, together with those of Carl Vine and Ross Edwards - more a taster within a mini-festival than a broad representation of Australia's contemporary music scene, but none the less welcome.

Tomorrow to 7 Nov, Wigmore Hall, London W1. Booking: 0171-935 2141

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