1990 Musica Viva in the 1990s
The 1990s were glory days for Musica Viva and the organisation’s 50th birthday celebration, halfway through the decade in December 1995, was an emblematically glamorous affair.
The very first concert Musica Viva ever mounted, which had taken place three weeks after the end of World War Two in 1945, was re-created at the original venue, the Sydney Conservatorium, with celebrated theatre director Barrie Kosky as executive producer. The original program was played. There had been a blackout on that first night and organisers had positioned cars so their headlights could illuminate the path in: that was faithfully re-enacted.
Guests – who included Salman Rushdie, still living under the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and brought along by Australian author Kathy Lette – then walked to the Hotel Inter·Continental, one of Musica Viva’s corporate sponsors, which had closed all public areas and outdid itself with lavish entertaining for the occasion.
A YEAR OF TREASURES
SBS spent six months that year following Musica Viva around Australia and to Europe, collecting hundreds of hours of footage to make a commemorative documentary, called Musica Viva: A Portable Treasure.
A small booklet, Musica Viva Australia: The First 50 Years was published.
It was a ravishing year for programming: great ensembles included the Quartetto Beethoven di Roma and the Emerson String Quartet, dazzling baroque specialists Rene Jacobs and his Concerto Vocale and William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants,The Tallis Scholars and the Choir of Winchester Cathedral.
A TIME OF CHANGE
The 1990s were a decade of growth. The spirit of volunteering was eroding, overcome by changing social mores and emerging pay-for-service expectations, but what Musica Viva lost in amateur passion was being replaced by a new professionalism.
The organisation was becoming more complex, more streamlined. Corporate “after” parties at the Inter·Continental and similar hotels in other cities replaced post-concert suppers at organisers’ homes. Musica Viva traded its folksiness for loftier ambitions. ‘On the one hand, not a huge amount changed,’ says Tony Berg, chairman of Musica Viva’s National Board at the time, referring to its core values. ‘On the other hand the organisation was ultimately more exciting, more expansive, more far-reaching.’
When Jennifer Bott became General Manager in 1991, and the leadership was split between artistic and management functions, she brought a new focus on fundraising. Australian arts companies were already beginning to adopt American methods of raising money from private philanthropists and corporate donors as government funding and the economic environment became more unpredictable.
For Musica Viva, essentially an import company, the Australian dollar’s plunge on the financial markets after it was floated in 1983 dramatically raised costs. By 2001, the dollar had reached a low of $US47.70¢ which made the international touring program considerably more expensive to mount. Ten years later, the Australian dollar would be worth $US110.80.
It wasn’t only the state of the dollar. Performing arts companies’ bottom line can be significantly affected, for good or ill, by a single tour.
The profit from a wildly successful visit by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra allowed Musica Viva to establish a capital fund and to buy property in Clarence Street, in the Sydney CBD, in 1976. Owning its own headquarters saved expenditure and even allowed a modest income from renting out some space.
In the 1990s, there were highs and lows. The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge had sell-out tours in 1993 and 1998, nicely boosting income. In 1994, by contrast, another famous English choir, from Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and the Michael Nyman Band, both of which toured outside the subscription series, made disappointing losses: doubly dire because Musica Viva relied on income from such special tours to cover deficits generated by the expense of national touring outside the Melbourne/Canberra/Sydney triangle.
THE DNA OF ANTHONY BERG
Prudent management under Tony Berg, who had been Chairman of the National Board since 1986, allowed Musica Viva to ride the losses.
Berg had Musica Viva in his DNA. His father, Charles Berg, had been one of the early pioneers and he recalls helping out with visiting musicians when he was still in primary school: riding in the car when his father drove to the airport to pick up them up, helping to carry their instruments. During a financial crisis in1985–6, when there was talk of drastically scaling back Musica Viva’s operations by 1987 – a sorry episode which some say brought on the heart attack which Charles Berg never recovered from – musicians criticised Charles’ oversight.
Tony Berg’s stewardship, by contrast, was widely admired. Kim Williams, who took over from him as chair in 1998 and who doesn’t suffer fools says he was ‘really exceptional… He cares a great deal about the organisation. He cares about chamber music very genuinely – it is his preferred music, as it is mine. And Tony doesn’t do things by halves. He was completely committed. He is a truly wonderful human being in the Australian arts landscape, who brings caring governance to all the roles he has had.’
A SOUND FINANCIAL FOOTING
In the late 1980s, a decision had been made to sell the Clarence Street property to a developer who had plans for the block. The inflation that had plagued the country for years ensured a tidy profit on the sale and a new building was bought in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills, in 1989. The organisation could continue to operate rent-free and to earn a little extra income by renting out office space.
In 1995, in an effort to boost insurance against the economic vagaries of entrepreneurship, Bott launched Musica Viva’s Centenary Fund with a target of $1 million. Berg says that although that target wasn’t quite reached, it was the first time the organisation had ‘a reasonable amount of capital’ to rest on.
PROGRAMS TAKE FLIGHT
In 1994, Musica Viva was singled out by Paul Keating’s innovative cultural policy, Creative Nation, which boosted funding for classical music. It lifted the Sydney Symphony to a new level, raised investment in the Melbourne Symphony, and established the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. Musica Viva was given $2 million to radically expand its Musica Viva In Schools program around the country. The funding was given on the usual triennial funding basis, the time frame of federal elections, with a couple of out years added on for security.
Musica Viva In Schools had been started by Kim Williams, in a previous incarnation when he was General Manager of Musica Viva between 1980 and 1984. Under the program’s Manager Bernadette McNamara’s oversight, it clocked up its two millionth student in 1994. The following year, it reached an audience of 272,000 students, through 1,701 concerts by 27 groups. 39 professional development courses were given for teachers and 33 resource kits published. It was an invaluable and highly expert addition to education departments’ resources.
It was also quite a logistical operation. Each state had a part-time manager. Musicians were sometime driving between three schools in a day to give concerts. State governments pitched in. In 1997, for example, the NSW Government topped up federal funding with almost $600,000.
It was a career starter for some. Paul Dyer, whose Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is now a music-lovers’ fixture started out with an outfit called Sounds Baroque that travelled for Musica Viva In Schools.
Many musicians moved between Musica Viva In Schools and the company’s expansive regional touring program, Country Wide, which took classical music to the most far-flung places in Australia. Across the Top, for example, set up by Trish Ludgate who was running regional touring the 1990s and funded by BHP Billiton, sent musicians from Perth and Fremantle up through the north of Western Australia and across the Pilbara, from Broome to Darwin. ‘The first year it was really hard because we didn’t have presenters in those places,’ Ludgate recalls. ‘I had to make contact with indigenous communities, with schools, with volunteer presenters, to get it together. And it was hard work for the musicians: sometimes six weeks on the road.’
A DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION
Before joining Musica Viva, Ludgate had been a diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and her contacts were invaluable. As well as running Country Wide and Across the Top, she expanded Musica Viva’s export operations.
In the 1980s, DFAT had had a whole branch in Canberra running a cultural diplomacy program modelled on – though nowhere near the size of – the British Council, Alliance Française or Goethe Institute. By the 1990s that had largely been outsourced to Musica Viva. With the exception of key posts – such as Paris and Washington – which had a dedicated cultural liaison officer, Ludgate worked with whichever embassies had staff interested enough to take it on.
In the beginning her remit was the world. ‘It was very dependent on the interest of the head of mission, but if the head of mission was interested in culture, it was fantastic that musicians could go to that city, be presented by the embassy and meet relevant people,” Ludgate says. “Then we had a change of government and a lot of the European posts were just given a certain amount of money for culture and they did whatever they wanted with it, so it wasn’t managed from here.’
Some key contacts continued to liaise with her, tapping her brain and the touring schedule of Musica Viva. Eventually, Musica Viva’s remit was narrowed to South East Asia and the Pacific, and the office at DFAT was closed down completely, so Musica Viva no longer reported to Canberra.
Meanwhile, however, Ludgate had created a quasi agency role for herself, representing Australian musicians overseas as well as organising their domestic touring. She attended trade fairs and put together funding applications to the Australia Council for groups including the Goldner Quartet and The Song Company to perform overseas.
Like many staff members at Musica Viva, which was a lean organisation, Ludgate worked hard and multi-tasked. As well as running CountryWide, Across the Top, and the overseas program for Australia musicians, she produced an annual catalogue of musicians. By the mid-1990s she was allocated one assistant. ‘It was very busy,’ she agrees. ‘I’d go in and put my head down. If my son was sick I’d bring him in and stick him under the desk.’
BRINGING MUSIC TO ALL
Another of Ludgate’s sidelines was an innovative program of music in prisons, run with funding from the NSW Department of Corrective Services while there was a sympathetic Minister in power. Wardens were reluctant at first but most were won over when they saw the results.
‘It certainly developed the musicians in a very profound way,’ Ludgate says. ‘In the beginning, we chose women to go into Mulawa and men to go into the men’s prisons, which were Long Bay and Parklea. Parklea was pretty horrendous, a concrete nightmare. Out at Long Bay at least they made us cakes and gave us tea – there’s a bakery.’
Corrective Services gave the musicians thorough briefings before they were allowed to set foot in the prisons. Even so, once there they had to play it by ear because they were often dealing with ‘terribly damaged people’, as Ludgate puts it. She saw epiphanies there; some of those sceptical wardens were also deeply moved when they attended the concerts in which their prisoners performed. ‘You have no idea what benefits that might have further down the track, but at least it has an interim effect on somebody’s life,’ Ludgate says.
END OF A DECADE AND END OF AN ERA
In 1998, there was a changing of the guard. Kim Williams took over from Tony Berg as chair. At the end of the same year, Jenny Bott left to become CEO of the Australia Council and Mary Jo Capps arrived to take over.
‘I feel that Musica Viva in 1998 had moved from being a network of individuals who loved the music to a much bigger organisation with many more stakeholders and I would have been seen in some circles as somebody who was taking it to a more commercial space,’ Bott says now. ‘I understood that completely because I had such respect for the people and the traditions – it was one of the reasons we put so much into that 50th anniversary, to celebrate an extraordinary group of people and their legacy.
It was about nurturing the flame, and all the people who were a part of its core, but also putting it on a larger platform that would protect it in the long term.’
Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and critic, a former Arts & Literary Editor of The Australian, and a member of the management committee of Sydney PEN.