Revisiting The Maestro Myth – PART II

ConductorIf I wanted to synthesize an argument and critique about the training opportunities and programs for young orchestral conductors in Australia, it could not be better encapsulated than in this gorgeous quote from conductor, Hannu Lintu, in Toby Deller’s interview with the Finnish maestro published in the January 2014 edition of Classical Music.  Hannu remarks, “In Finland, our system is ideal for young conductors. When you start to study conducting you can get jobs with the biggest orchestras in Finland because they want to be part of our schooling and part of the Finnish conducting tradition.” (Classical Music, January 2014, 36).

If Hannu had trained in Australia, the remark might have easily read, “In Australia, no system exists for training conductors. When you start to study conducting you can’t get a job either for love nor money with the biggest orchestras in Australia because they don’t want to be part of our schooling and part of the Australian conducting tradition – besides the fact, there isn’t one.”  OK, other than this misappropriation – intended with the tongue fully pressed into the cheek – the truth is, that there is a training opportunity, of sorts, in Australia through the Symphony Services Australia ‘Conductor Development Program’.  The problem with this program is that it is simply inadequate.  Sorry, scream and hurl invective all you like, it is an unfortunate and unpalatable truth.  We all know it, we just don’t dare say so, as we all know what happens thereafter behind closed doors in the very ‘cliquey’ Arts world in Australia.

James Rhodes in an article in The Guardian in September 2013 forcefully proclaimed, “The problem with classical music is that the whole industry is so deeply ashamed of itself, so unremittingly apologetic for being involved with an art form seen as irrelevant, privileged and poncey, that it has gone to unfortunate extremes to over-compensate.”  Australia’s efforts to train conductors up to this point similarly smacks of this ashamedness and apologeticism.  ‘We do it, but only because we need to seem to be’ is an uncomfortable actuality and undoubtedly prickles those who would rather evade the issue altogether.   But, let’s be fair: the SSI program has had, or at least overtly proclaims to have had, notable successes.  However, I would argue that most of these ‘notable’ successes came from the successors having lived, studied and worked overseas for lengthy periods – and not from the disjointed, part-time, and curriculum deficient training that substitutes for training budding maestri in Australia.

So what is the answer?

Australian Universities, and the conservatoriums or music schools that reside therein in various forms and guises, don’t have the political will or institutional influence to invest in the expensive, non-research funding outcome, infrastructure necessary to develop a ‘Finnish-style’ conducting program.  The SSI orchestras themselves have never been forward in wishing to develop robust and ongoing commitments to providing ongoing opportunities to nurture young Australian conductors  – although the QSO and TSO in the past have done their fair-share of the load carrying.  There is no graduate employment outcome possible for a private education provider to sell to a prospective student cohort, or for that matter to receive course approval licensing, to run any type of course. So to whom does the mantle of responsibility fall then?

I’ve previously referred to an article in the July 2012 edition of Limelight Magazine, written with some alacrity by Francis Merson, entitled The Australian Maestro Myth.  The article painted a pretty bleak scenario for Australian conductors moving forward.  In the article, the then Artistic Administrator of the Sydney Symphony, Peter Czornyj stated, “The reason Australian conductors are not over prominent in our main series is because a number of them have had opportunities in recent years, and it’s been decided that perhaps it’s appropriate to take a break for the time being and return to them in future seasons.” OK, so there is any number of things I could say about this position taken by the SSO management, but perhaps suffice to say that it is probably a good thing Mr. Czornyj has moved on (and out of the country). No help there. (Limelight Magazine, July 2012, 56-9)

I would contend that Czornyj’s ethos is far too prevalent across all the decision making of the SSI orchestras.  Why?  Because it takes courage, patience and a willingness to fully support a number of young conductors simultaneously in Australia – over an extend period of time –  to allow them to develop the numerous skills required in a ‘good’ conductor.  I wouldn’t mind so much if the conductors I see regularly on Australian podiums were that much better than our homegrown talent.  But, as a professional conductor, I can tell you that they’re not.  This eventually leads one to the suspicion that the Artistic Adminstrators cant’ actually tell a ‘good’ conductor from a mediocre one.  So, are the decisions about which overseas conductors; who fly in and out, being made and influenced by other criteria?  In the end, there are at least a good handful of young and emerging Australian conductors, living in Australia, who should be getting far more exposure and engagements than they are currently experiencing.

So, how should we train Australian conductors?  That’s the next post in this series.

Take care,


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