Australian high

The peak of my Australia visit — I got back on Friday night — wasn’t the warm hospitality so many people offered me. Or how seriously people took what I had to say, when I spoke to two groups in Sydney, and one in Melbourne.

Or, for that matter, eating kangaroo, which I would have thought would be an absurd visitor’s stereotype, but which Australians really do, and highly recommend. (It’s leaner than beef, and kanagaroo feed has a lower carbon footprint than cattle feed. I found it on a Chinese takeout menu; it was tender and tasty.)

No, the high point was the event I was invited to Australia for, a classical music summit in Sydney at which I gave the keynote speech, and where classical music people from all over the country gathered to start a move for classical music change.

This isn’t to minimize my sessions with staff at the Australia Council for the Arts, or with a group of classical music people in Melbourne.

But the summit — at least in my knowledge and experience — was unique. A national classical music gathering to spark change. And not a gathering where people listened to speeches. Instead, the approximately 100 people there broke into working groups, to come up with usable ideas.

This was only a start, of course. Going further will depend on strong leadership, which I think will be there. Dick Letts, executive director of the Music Council of Australia, who sparked the summit, is a doer, not a talker. And Kim Walker, the dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (in the US, we’d say “conservatory”), gave a tough-minded closing speech, notably free of feel-good or self-serving boilerplate. The greatest danger, she bluntly said, was that nothing would happen. And so she was going to make sure that the strategy committee (to be chosen in the wake of the event) would meet regularly, in space she’ll make available at her school.

There might be some danger of frustration, in the short run, as people on fire with ideas they generated at the summit want something to happen right away. But anyone  who feels that way should be encouraged to start work immediately, even on their own. (More in my next post on what they could start work doing.) And with any luck, they’ll find that the framework to be evolved will make their ideas and enthusiasm even stronger.

As I said, I don’t know of anything so ambitious — and grounded — being tried anywhere else, certainly not nationally or regionally in the US. Though I’d be happy to be wrong about this. Please tell me, if something comparable has happened elsewhere.

More in future posts about what happened, and about my other meetings. But you might want to go to the summit website, and scroll down to look at the preparatory documents offered to participants. I’ve never seen such a comprehensive and useful set of materials in advance of any conference. In fact, I’ve never seen anything that even came remotely close. Props for Dick Letts, who chose the reading (and whose personal hospitality to me warmed my heart).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    In the SWOT Analysis on the site you gave, it suggests we “Explore new uses of digital media to build audiences and financial viability” for classical music. That reminded me of a recent statistic I learned at a gathering in Minneapolis. Someone from the NEA was presenting information about Americans’ creation of art, compared to their participation by merely attending galleries and concerts. For one, he mentioned 40% of Americans consider themselves photographers in a creative sense.

    I wonder if any orchestras have used this information to their advantage–perhaps by presenting a concert of music with projected images submitted by local audience members. Do you know of any examples of this happening? I think it might be a good way to capitalize on what Americans are already doing (e.g. photography) to bring them into something they’re not already doing (e.g. attending an orchestra concert.)

    There is plenty of other information about arts that people already like–latin music, film, etc. I think one solution is to harness these arts and create bridges between them and classical music.

    I look forward to reading more about your Australia findings.

  2. says

    It was our pleasure to have you in our country to speak about matters which are dear to so many people’s hearts – that of ‘classical’ music and its future.

    You set off a metaphorical thermonuclear bomb – well, actually, a series of them – in your speech, but every point made so much sense in terms of the discussions that practitioners and other interested parties need to start having to ensure a vibrant future for the artform.

    Thanks so much for making the time to come along and offer, so generously, your thoughtful and provocative thoughts. I suspect the resonance from your input will be long and significant.

    Thanks, Matthew. It was a pleasure meeting you! I was interviewed by an ABC radio show (more on that in the blog later), and recommended your Metallica concerto as something they could play, to illustrate some of my points. I know that some of what I said surprised people, but I know a lot of people responded warmly to it. Hope I get a chance to return!

  3. says

    We have El Sistema as a startup in Oakland and a glimmering at New England Conservatory.

    I hope it grows and I believe it is an engine for fundamental social and artistic change, from the bottom up.

  4. Jonathan Sternberg says

    There are so many possible answers !

    Classical music is not dead.

    The standard or quality of performance has diminished considerably, thanks to marketing of semi-professionals, amateurs or simply anybody who can afford to pay for it.

    The sale of vanity CDs as well as their broadcast loses more listeners in time.

    Education or involvement of youth does not require money !!

    Progamming of most concerts today seems to be done by those who are not familiar with the vast repertoire still unplayed.

    You cannot teach the new language of music unless you understand the language it is taught in !!!

    Much more.But one must get practicing professionals involved not lay music lovers.

  5. says

    It was such a pleasure to meet you Greg. My head as you know has been buzzing with ideas since we talked…you are a rare person in the classical world because you have been on both sides of the musical fence. Hope I can become a little more useful to the cause very soon :)

    Thanks, Natalie! A pleasure to meet you, too. You’re useful to whatever cause you work on. That’s just your nature!

  6. Ted Schrey says

    Just discovered this site. I assume classical music was and is really the music of an elite. Not an original thought, I am sure. And if that is true (elite art, I mean) then it is indeed a matter of beating a dead horse to revive it. It ain’t going to gallop again, I suspect.