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When Australia became a federation in 1901, its wealthiest city, Melbourne, got a cushy temp job as the capital. But when Australia gained nationhood in 1927, something went awry… For various political reasons, Melbourne
was passed over for the permanent position. Today, the city has compensated for this historic slight by becoming the capital of everything else. Welcome to Melbourne, Australia’s coffee capital, fashion capital, comedy capital, sporting capital…
But the most abundantly made – and widely accepted – claim is that Melbourne is Australia’s arts (or cultural) capital. Melbourne certainly has a thriving, varied arts scene, making it an excellent candidate for the title of Australia’s cultural capital.
But there is an elephant in the room. An elephant called Sydney.
The Melbourne vs Sydney debate has been raging for the greater part of a century, with civic pride running high on both sides.
The oft-cited axiom that Sydney has the beauty and Melbourne has the brains could be applied not only to the architecture and natural environment, but also to the arts: without a breathtaking harbour on which to stage a flashy La Traviata (the most memorable fireworks display in Melbourne this past year set fire to the Arts Centre spire), the Melbournians burrow even deeper into their labyrinthine laneways to cultivate their creative credentials. Sydney, meanwhile, is more often referred to as a business capital than an arts Mecca.
And so the struggle for cultural superiority continues, with Sydney trying to rise above its reputation for frivolous, showy brilliance in order to wrest the title of arts capital out of Melbourne’s wool-gloved hands (yes, Melbourne is the undisputed knitting capital of Australia).
The now-defunct Melbourne is Better Than Sydney Facebook group had 84,730 members singing the Victorian city’s praises, yet it’s rare to hear an endorsement of either city that is informed by evidence, rather than parochial pride.
In an attempt to bring clarity to this debate, we have compared Sydney and Melbourne in seven key artistic categories: Classical Music, Other Music, Opera, Theatre, Visual Arts, Dance and Festivals. Film and literature have been omitted, given that any book or film released in Sydney, say, can also be seen or acquired in Melbourne – which obviates the need for comparison.
The goal of this exercise is not to exalt one city, or to demean another, but to grant the title of arts capital based on merit, rather than hearsay or presumption.
Where Melbourne holds strong over its eastern cousin is in the quality of its main concert halls. The Melbourne Recital Centre is perhaps the country’s finest (and was rated best for chamber music in Limelight’s 2011 survey), and the Hamer Hall has been given a revamp expected to redress its acoustic woes. The Melbourne Town Hall is also superior in terms of sound
and access than its Sydney counterpart.
Classical music education is more diverse in Melbourne where, in addition to the Melbourne Conservatorium, the Australian National Academy of Music offers an intensive training program that is unique in this country. The Melbourne Symphony, Australia’s oldest orchestra, is equivalent to the Sydney Symphony in size and significance. It has slightly more adventurous programming – especially when it comes to new music – but garners fewer big-name stars. Opinion seems to be divided (and hard to distinguish from civic loyalty) as to which is the stronger ensemble overall.
What Melbourne does marginally better than Sydney is experimental music. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has an active scene based around composer Philip Samartzis, who has curated the Melbourne leg of the Liquid Architecture sound art festival. The city also claims the most internationally lauded young Australian composer of the moment, Anthony Pateras. But we’re starting to clutch at straws here…
The fine music scene in Melbourne, although thoroughly world-class and rich enough to satisfy the most voracious classical consumer, doesn’t quite have the range and depth of Sydney’s.
The figurehead of the classical music scene in Sydney is the Sydney Symphony, whose big-name conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has enticed A-list stars to make their Australian debut – the likes of pianist Evgeny Kissin and Anne-Sophie Mutter (neither of whom played in Melbourne). Sydney is also the home to Australia’s most successful touring ensemble, the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
It’s worth examining the itineraries of the ACO and its Baroque counterpart, The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. The ACO plays four times in Sydney but generally only twice in Melbourne; similarly, in 2011 The Brandenburgs gave five sold-out Handel concerts in Sydney and only two of the set in Melbourne. One could cry hometown advantage, but the ACO, at least, defines itself as a national ensemble – having its HQ in Sydney is almost incidental.
Sydney also takes the lion’s share of touring acts: there was more than a little Sydneian Schadenfreude when two of the world’s great orchestras, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, sidestepped Melbourne on their 2010 and 2011 tours (admittedly owing to the renovations of Hamer Hall). And could a spectacle the size of the Sydney Opera House’s 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra finale have been staged so successfully elsewhere in the country?
Meanwhile, several major new venues have sprung up in past decade, dotting the landscape from Redfern (the multi-purpose Carriageworks on a heritage-listed site) to the Concord in Chatswood and Sydney Grammar’s New Hall – the latter designed by the team behind the City Recital Hall.
In addition to the big guns, Sydney also boasts a greater number of smaller ensembles, be they vocal (Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, The Song Company), chamber (Australia Ensemble, Sydney Omega Ensemble) or experimental (Ensemble Offspring, Synergy Percussion). As a result, there is simply more classical music-making going on in Sydney.