Australian Content in 2020

This will be fifth time I’ve published a report into the proportion of Australian music in the advertised seasons of the best funded music organisations. And, guys, I’m sick of it. It’s boring! It’s a dying genre! The subscribers are popping their clogs and the next generations are going to be too busy finding, I don’t know, drinking water while perversely seeking higher ground due to our inexorably rising and boiling seas! I have yelled into the wind about this for five years now and I am hoarse and tired!

So, for 2020, I thought I’d do something different (if you’d like your Australian Work Report in a more traditional style, peruse the archives for the broader conceptual underpinning of this entire rigmarole).

I thought it would be nice to acknowledge the commitment our orchestras and major funded classical organisations have to a little-known composer, a really compelling and interesting voice that comes to our shores from distant Germany. You may not have heard of him, it’s shameful how many people haven’t, so you may want to copy this down:

Ludwig van Beethoven.

As it happens, 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven (the ‘Beet’ is pronounced like ‘Bate’ and not as in ‘beetroot’- a helpful tip from me to you) who was born in Bonn in 1770. Wikipedia tells me that he is one of the ‘greatest composers of all time’ so I think it’s just swell that we’re finally getting to hear some of his music in this country. I have to admit, until recently I thought that Beethoven was a lovable St Bernard who kept getting into scrapes.

While I’d probably rather spend my day with a lovable big Swiss mountain dog, I’m here to count works. LVB, I’m coming for you.

When I count works, I’m counting solely out of the advertised brochure. This means that sometimes things may get overlooked, or counted twice. Sometimes it means I can count things like Symphony in the Park/at the Airport/by the Trots and other times I can’t. I’ve sometimes had to make decisions on the fly as to whether to count things like Star Wars/Airport ‘74/Q&A Theme In Concert. If you disagree with methodology, I invite you to write to my supervisor for this work and complain (I am, clearly, unsupervised).

Foolishly, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra have set a new record in Australian content, with 15.9% of their advertised program being Australian work which is a dramatic increase from their shared wooden spoon in 2019. However, this is time that could have been dedicated to Beethoven’s septets (I’m assuming he has some?) and nonets (maybe?). Disappointingly, they have only programmed 13.6% Beethoven which makes the curious assumption that an Australian orchestra should be performing more Australian music than that of a dead German who Wikipedia, I remind you, claims is one of the greats? Do better next time, Adelaide.

Spoiler alert: Adelaide is the only orchestra which has more Australian work than works by Beethoven. Boo, Adelaide, boo!

Over west, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra have a strong commitment to Beethoven, with 20.3%- one in five- of their advertised works being of the genus Ludwig van. I think this is just great. By comparison, 5.8% is Australian which includes a Sculthorpe. Did you know that Australian also has a canon? I didn’t! WASO has lingered fairly low in the Australian works stakes so I don’t want to be too critical but that 5.8% is work that could have been drawn from Beethoven’s juvenilia.

The roving troubadours of the Australian Chamber Orchestra show a superb appreciation of LVB with 23.5% of their advertised works being Beethoven. This is so close to a quarter, guys! It’s also great to see that they haven’t wasted too much space with Australian work, which counts at 4.4%, but it must be slightly disappointing to think that by dropping one Australian piece for, I don’t know, a double bass and three violas arrangement of Hammerklavier* by Bryce Dessner they could’ve got to the full quarter pounder of Ludwig. (*- I would actually want to hear this).

Sydney Symphony Orchestra have an interesting- as in ‘that’s an interesting choice…’- 2020. They have to decamp to Town Hall while the Opera House is being renovated and it is clear from their season that they are Freaking The Fuck OUT. Take a squiz at their Australian work- and you have to squiz very hard indeed to see it at just 1.6% with just one of those two pieces actually for orchestra and for the second year running no advertised commissions- there are even more problems than just the shockingly low number. For starters, in the year of our Lord 2020, they haven’t programmed a single woman composer which is almost impressively perverse in its complete ignorance of the current- forgive me- discourse around classical music. But why stop with that under-represented cohort of creators! In one of their flagship announcements for 2020- an Ode to Joy conducted by Marin Alsop- they have advertised that there will be Australian interludes from ‘First Nations and multicultural communities’. Unlike, oh, every other artist in the brochure these artists don’t get named either by their name or even more broadly their community. Diversity box is ticked you guys! This is perhaps a planning hiccup, or perhaps there are sensitivities (and these projects are complex if they’re being done well) but whatever it is, it didn’t hold the orchestra back from getting these concerts on presale. There isn’t a Beethoven joke in this paragraph because I am too exhausted and enraged, but for what it’s worth they’re doing 15.6%. I should also probably point out that apparently they have some fantastic commissioning program in the pipeline- great- but it’s not in the brochure so irrelevant to this exercise.

The other big dog, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, unfortunately has even less Beethoven, with 12.1% of the program. They somehow found room for 6.5% of Australian work, so it’s not a bad effort but with room for improvement. Melbourne, have you considered maybe a cycle of all the Leonora overtures? Perhaps a reappraisal of Wellington’s Victory?

Even further south, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, shamefully, have the lowest proportion of Beethoven among their peers with only 10.3% of their advertised works. By comparison, they have programmed 6.4% Australian work which is more than 50% of the space allocated to Beethoven. I will have to check again, but I think they may not be doing all 9 symphonies which is a worrying abdication of their responsibilities to classical music. This is a dangerous precedent and not for the first time it makes me question whether we were right to admit Tasmania to the Federation.

Finally, the sunshine state’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra. They confounded and confused us all with their alarmingly high proportion of Australian music in 2019 but- phew- things have stabilised for 2020 with an advertised proportion of 4.9%. They’re also frighteningly low in Beethoven, at 10.8%. Definitely room for more music from the composer of the Moonlight Sonata in the Moonlight State.

In the opera companies, there is a shameful lack of operas by Beethoven, which, to be fair, wasn’t helped by him only writing one with lots of tedious dialogue and very difficult music that doesn’t work as well as a ringtone or a disco remix. Hats off to WASO/WAO though, who are doing Fidelio in concert with new spoken dialogue by an Australian writer. I think it’s so sensible for Australians to learn from Beethoven, and the other companies should learn from this. Someone really missed a trick by not commissioning a pastiche musical, setting some libretto about Australia’s Big Things or some kind of nostalgic faux-ironic paen to Humphrey B. Bear using key melodic themes from Beethoven sonatas.

As I’ve previously written, calculating the Australian proportion for the opera companies is messy because the sample size is so small, so you tend to see wildly swinging changes from year to year. Of Victorian Opera’s 8 advertised programs, 2 are Australian of which one of these is a collection of three short works. At the State Opera of South Australia, they have 6 productions, of which 2 are Australian including a continuation of their much admired revivals program, which helps address the ‘Premieres ONLY kthxbai’ syndrome of new opera not just in Australia but worldwide (interesting sidebar: it appears that by worldwide standards, Australia is incredibly parochial when it comes to opera commissions). Up north, Opera Queensland have 4 productions, of which 2 are Australian. West Australian Opera have 1 Australian work.

Opera Australia have 15 productions, of which 2 are Australian. Despite taking the opportunity of every interview to launch a swipe at Australian composition, Lyndon Terracini does appear to be sneakily embedding Australian work in his seasons in a way that OA haven’t done for years. A pattern seems to be emerging of mainstage work in even years. This is a very interesting development- Lyndon, I may not yet consider you a Leonora, but you are perhaps not the Don Pizarro I thought.

So, while the opera numbers aren’t too bad for 2020, it can also be attributed to that the Opera Conference- the production that gets shared among the companies- work for 2020 is, amazingly, Australian so this has possibly inflated the proportion as a one-off. To think that they didn’t put in Fidelio though! Boulez was right, hand me my matches.

Musica Viva is also tricky due to not really having any kind of peer organisation for the point of comparison. For completeness, they have 6.5% Australian and 6.5% Beethoven. What the hell guys. You could have easily doubled the Beethoven. I’m not entirely certain but I’m pretty sure that Beethoven wrote some piano music and some string quartets, so I’m sure you could’ve squeezed some of them in, even if they are dreck.

In between all the Beethoven- and I shall not rest until we can get those percentages up- I did ponder what these entrails could signal for Australian composition. One curious data point was the announcement of the finalists for the Paul Lowin prizes, which happened shortly before I began this protracted exercise in self-harm and career suicide. This is Australia’s only significant cash prize for professional orchestral composition, in addition to a song cycle prize. Of the finalists, only two across both categories had not won it previously. All the pieces would be worthy winners, but it does anecdotally suggest that the pool of composers working in large scale formats is not only small, but shrinking.

With five years of data, the trend still remains constant at about 6% of advertised works being Australian. The below graph shows that 2020 has a marginal increase to 7%, but this is due to rounding up from 6.5% and can largely be attributed to Adelaide’s Herculean record-breaking effort. The average for Ludwig van Beethoven (my German is worse than LVB’s relationship with his nephew, but I believe it translates to ‘Lewis of the haven of bedding’) is about 14.1%. Incidentally, although it is a bit of well-worn cliché that programmers love nothing more than an anniversary to guide their seasons, the music of Anton Reicha (1770-1836) does not seem to feature in 2020 at all.

If I were a cynic or a pessimist, I may state that it is slightly worrying that an entire orchestral canon in this country rests on the shoulders of a single dead German for 2020. I mean, much like gravity, the orchestral canon is an immutable law.

But that’s just not me! I think it’s great- really, just great- that Australian audiences will finally be able to hear the music of Beethoven on our concert stages and radio broadcasts. The Bad Boy from Bonn (1770-1827) has been rolled over by living organisations for far too long.

Advertised Australian work in 2020 seasons