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The White Hat Guide to

Classical Music in Australia

Classical Music in Australia

Classical Music

Performances of classical music in Australia

The major cities around Australia are relatively well served for classical music. Each of the six capital cities has a permanent professional orchestra. The Australian Chamber Orchestra and several chamber music groups provide subscription concerts in these cities and Musica Viva provides a steady stream of concerts featuring both international and local artists. Each state has at least one major arts festival with classical music content. Opera Australia provides major performances in Sydney and Melbourne and there are opera seasons in the other major cities provided by local companies. In short, if you live in (or are visiting) Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane or Perth there are plenty of opportunities to hear world class performances of classical music. In Hobart, the innovative Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is also world class, but because of Tasmania’s small population it receives fewer touring artists.

You will find a comprehensive list of classical music performances in the major cities by following the links below.

Regional and country centres are not so well served. In Europe cities the size of Canberra, Geelong, Ballarat, Wollongong , Newcastle etc could be expected to have their own full time professional orchestra and maybe a professional opera company. In Australia priorities are different and cities such as these often rely on occasional visits by artists from the capital cities supplemented by concerts from local musicians.

For country towns, the small population and often huge distances involved make them impractical for all but the most intrepid touring performers. However some regions get their classical music performances all in one hit at special festivals.

Performing Venues

All of the capital cities possess a modern concert hall suitable for orchestral music. These include Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, Hamer Hall in Melbourne, QPAC in Brisbane, the Adelaide Festival Theatre, the Perth Concert Hall and Federation Concert Hall in Hobart. In addition most have a hall of the traditional 19th century 'shoe box' design which can be great for romantic music. Unfortunately, audience expectations of comfort and the economies of fitting double the size of audience into a modern hall mean these older venues are often ignored even when the music is eminently suited to them. To hear an Elgar oratorio in the warm acoustics of Sydney Town Hall or Melbourne Town Hall supported by a monstrous pipe organ is an entirely different experience from listening from  a plush seat in the drier acoustics in a modern hall.

Chamber music is often less well served. The economies of touring to Australia often mean that visiting groups are often forced to use large orchestral venues. The smaller halls associated with university music departments are often used. These include Verbrugghen Hall in Sydney, Melba Hall in Melbourne and Elder Hall in Adelaide. Sometimes the rehearsal hall of the major orchestra is used for chamber concerts, particularly if the concert is to be broadcast or recorded. These halls include Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne, Ferry Road Studio in Brisbane, and Grainger Hall in Adelaide. Churches are sometimes pressed into service for chamber music recitals such Collins Street Baptist Church and St Michael's Church in Melbourne. However, changing audience expectations sometimes resist church pews (even when padded) and they know they are not going to get a glass of champagne at interval in Scots Church. There are some splendid venues in the suburbs, but organisers often ignore these because of access to public transport, or lack of a thriving restaurant, bar and club culture that many now like as a supplement to their night out. They can certainly find that close to the City Recital Hall in Angel Place Sydney. Finally we should mention that the purpose built Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre is a world class chamber music venue.

For opera, most capital cities have a modern theatre suitable for opera even though the orchestra pit can be cramped in some. These include the Sydney Opera House, State Theatre in Melbourne and the Adelaide Festival Centre. There are a number of heritage theatres around the country which once thrived on opera but many of them now find it more lucrative to cater for the middle-brow with reruns of popular musicals.

Cathedrals and churches are often used for choral music although some do have a problem with traffic noise. Some notable examples are St Paul's Cathedral and St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, St David's Cathedral in Hobart, St George's Cathedral in Perth and St John's Cathedral in Brisbane.

Of course they are many other classical music performing venues throughout Australia - some quirky, some with a rich heritage, some which are the folly of a music loving eccentric and some with splendid acoustics and bad toilets and vice versa. And of course, because newly acquired wealth (be it from the Victorian goldfields of the 1850s to more recent cases) does not always go hand in in hand with aesthetics, there are a few venues (which we at White Hat are far too polite to mention) that are in hilarious bad taste.

A fuller list of performing venues together with their locations and contact details can be found by following the links to the various cities listed above.

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Some Notable Australian Performers

In the past, Australia has produced more than its fair share of great performers. These include:

Some current performers gracing the world stage include:

  • William Barton (didgeridoo)
  • Lisa Gasteen (soprano)
  • Danielle de Niese (soprano)  is a Melbourne born and trained singer who is currently living in the USA. She is currently contracted to Decca records and with whom she will be making a number of recordings of Baroque music.
  • Roger Woodward (pianist)

Apart from the major orchestras, some notable current Australian performing groups include the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Brandenburg Orchestra (period instruments), Grainger Quartet and Australian String Quartet. Tow young groups currently making an international impact are the Tinalley Quartet and the Benaud Trio. (You can hear some background on these two groups on the White Hat Podcast of September 2007.)

Music Education in Australia

In Australia the individual states control the school curriculum and it is fair that for the most part music is treated as an 'optional extra'. It is possible for a student to go through primary and secondary school and  emerge with their only direct educational contact with music being some tuneless class singing of activity songs in primary school.

The quality of music education in schools often comes down to the individual schools and their staff. Some primary schools bring in a specialist music teacher (often on a sessional basis) to take music sessions across al classes. Others may have a teacher with music skills  who will be freed up for sessions with other classes.

Many secondary schools offer the option of students learning an instrument. This is usually done by bringing in instrumental teachers with the additional costs charged to the parents. Some schools maintain excellent music programs with school orchestras, choirs and other ensembles. Instrumental and other music subjects (sometimes externally taught) can count as formal subjects counting towards year 11 and 12. But despite the fine music education available to some, there are probably more students emerging from Australian secondary schools who have studied the lyrics of a pop song as part of their formal studies than have studied the underlying structures of classical music.

Independent of the school system is the Australian Music Examinations Board (A.M.E.B) which sets syllabus and examines instrumental students across the country. The A.M.E.B. has been the mainstay and the benchmark of most aspiring classical instrumentalists over a number of generations. Many suburban instrumental teachers set out to guide their charges through A.M.E.B. grades 1 to 7 and the high achievers can then do their Associate diploma in Music Australia (known as the AMusA but in Australia we abbreviate everything and AMusA has  too many syllables so it is usually referred to as the "AMus"). Etched indelibly in the mind of tens of thousands of Australians is the fact that the 'E' in A.M.E.B. stands not for 'education' but 'examination' and the sleepless night that preceded it. The are several international accrediting bodies who send examiners to Australia such as the Royal College of Organists.

For advanced study each capital city has at least one conservatorium or university music department. The history of these institutions is often quite colourful with no shortage of scandals. That's what can happen when innocent young minds are exposed to the uninhibited passions of classical music. Instrumental teachers at these conservatoriums often include members of the local symphony orchestra. In cities where several such institutions exist they often have their own specialties - e.g. performance-based, producing music educators, musicology etc. Brief details of the individual institutions is discussed under the various cities listed above.

Classical Music on Radio and Television in Australia

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation maintains an FM radio station dedicated to classical music. This is ABC Classic FM and can be heard throughout most of Australia. In addition there are several community radio stations playing predominantly classical music including 2MBS in Sydney and 3MBS in Melbourne.

ABC television broadcasts some programs related to classical music but rock and pop music get more emphasis in the ABC's classification of 'the arts'. The Sunday Afternoon arts program will often contain some classical music. SBS Television broadcast some fine music programs and often feature quality productions of ballet or opera programs not often seen in Australia. The Saturday afternoon arts program often contain classical music segments. The commercial television stations usually only show classical music if it is in the form of an arena spectacular featuring excerpts form classical music, or if a programmer has mistaken Englebert Humperdink the composer for the eponymous pop singer. One notable exception was been the (now discontinued) Sunday program on Channel 9 which for a period of years has had a number of quality features on classical music.

Some forthcoming events of interest:

Selected Sheet Music