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Australian expat orchestra takes on London

Features - Classical Music

Australian expat orchestra takes on London

by Gavin Dixon on July 8, 2013 (July 8, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
We talk to the daring young female conductor behind Ruthless Jabiru – London's only all-Australian orchestra.

Running an all-Australian chamber orchestra in London is a complex operation, but there’s one problem artistic director Kelly Lovelady does not need to worry about – finding enough players. “When I call people, most have already heard about the project on the grapevine,” Kelly says. “They are really interested to hear more.”

It’s no secret that Australia is particularly well represented among London’s residents, and many hold senior positions in British orchestras and opera companies. But it is not often they perform together. Lovelady is out to change that with Ruthless Jabiru, a project generating keen interest in British musical circles.

Ruthless Jabiru has transformed her into a one-woman orchestra administration system, making Lovelady a hard person to pin down for an interview. When she is not preparing the music, she is arranging venues, talking to sponsors, fixing schedules... Fortunately, we were able to grab an hour before she rushed off to an Australian business leaders event to promote the ensemble.

“It is a real cross-section of the Australians who are playing for a living over here,” says Kelly. “All of them are career musicians, so we really benefit from the calibre of musicianship and experience that they each bring. I’m dealing with my elders.” The group’s roster is indeed impressive, including players from many of the UK’s top orchestras, including the Philharmonia, the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Naturally, the musical standards are high.

There’s just one problem, finding a night when they’re all free of other concert engagements. Kelly’s solution is to keep the makeup of the orchestra fluid. “When people ask me who’s in the orchestra, it’s difficult to answer. It depends on the scheduling. We take a lot of our players from the major UK symphonies, which means that whatever date we chose, we’re always going to be cross- programming against someone else.”

Despite these problems, plans for the next concert were going well when Kelly and I spoke. She had found the ideal venue for the event – Australia House, the marble- lined diplomatic hub for all things Australian in London. Kevin Skipworth, Western Australia’s Agent General in the UK, is particularly enthusiastic about the concert. “I think Ruthless Jabiru is a great concept,” he told me, “and I am pleased that we are able to support Australian musical talent to gain exposure here in London.”

They were in for an unusual and interesting evening of music. Kelly devised a programme of modern and predominantly Australian works. Brett Dean is one of Kelly’s favourite composers, and the concert featured his Carlo, a virtuoso piece and a challenge for any ensemble. “I’m really committed to being a voice for Australian composers,” Kelly explains “I love the idea of performing at least one Australian work in each program.” In fact, the May concert featured two Australian works, the other a world premiere, Kick by Leah Kardos, a composer and music producer, originally from Queensland but now based in Bedford, just North of London. There is no better way to establish the identity of an ensemble than by creating unique repertoire for it, and this first Ruthless Jabiru commission seems like a real statement of intent.

“It’s a bit of an experiment and a real leap of faith,” admits Kelly. But then, so is the whole Ruthless Jabiru project, and so far the risks have been paying off. The orchestra is still in its infancy; it gave its first concert in 2011, but there was interest in the idea long before then. Kelly explains: “I was invited onto the Committee of the Tait Memorial Trust, which is an organisation that supports young Australian musicians pursuing postgrad studies in the UK. A few years ago they asked me pull a group of their Awardees together for a string orchestra concert with saxophonist Amy Dickson and soprano Valda Wilson as soloists. We had to do the whole thing on one rehearsal, and we ended up getting locked out of the studio so we only had half that time! It was pretty manic but somehow we managed to pull it off and the players were immediately asking when our next concert was. That’s when I realised there was potential here. So I started researching who else was around, and found that there were a lot of amazing people over here, many with principal positions in major symphony orchestras. It just seemed too good not to run with it.”

Ruthless Jabiru (pictured) made its debut at the 2011 City of London Festival. The whole Festival that year was dedicated to Australian music, making it the ideal platform to launch the new ensemble. “I think Ruthless Jabiru’s involvement in that programme was important: it shone some light on the huge body of Australian orchestral musicians embedded within the UK’s orchestras, both established and emerging professionals. I really think there’s an enormous amount of value in bringing these players together.”

One of the great advantages of this orchestra for Lovelady is that it gives her a chance to work with Australians. “The thing about Australians,” she tells me, “is that they’re just so up front. There are no veiled references. That attitude to communication makes for a really healthy working environment. There’s no messing around, you just get on with it.”

Sounds like a recipe for efficient rehearsals and amicable performances. To get a player’s perspective, I spoke to Glen Donnelly, a violist and composer based in London who has played in Ruthless Jabiru’s viola section. He agrees: “Rehearsals are laid-back, since everyone is Australian... Isn’t that a cliché? Yes, but it really is so true! It’s a professional atmosphere, but very friendly due to the camaraderie that naturally comes about from everyone being Aussie, all doing the same thing, pursuing music careers in London. It’s very nice and gives a natural ease with everyone getting along.”

Established musicians such as Donnelly are drawn to the orchestra for a variety of reasons. For many, playing chamber orchestra music is a break from the norm, says Lovelady. “A lot of people on my database are playing in symphony orchestras, but there are also a large number working full-time in quartets and small chamber groups. For a lot of our members, this is a chance to have a change from their regular ensemble and play some different music.”

The orchestra’s rehearsals are also a chance for the players to meet up with old friends. “People will meet up in rehearsals. They’ll arrive at the first session to find that their stand partner is someone they played with in the Australian Youth Orchestra in 1995, it’s pretty amazing. I think the Australian music community is pretty tight and it makes sense to me to facilitate bringing them together over here, both socially and musically.”

Britain, and London in particular, are clearly a draw for Australian musicians, and they can expect a warm welcome from the Brits. According to Skipworth, “British people feel a strong sense of kinship with Australians and have a good appreciation of our culture (despite some stereotypes). Australians have a reputation for being hard workers and as a result British people are willing to give Australians a chance to prove themselves.”

There is also healthy interest in Australian music in the UK. “I’ve found British audiences are delighted with Australian music,” says Donnelly. “I’ve especially played and promoted the music of Ross Edwards, including his White Cockatoo Spirit Dance. This piece references Aboriginal culture, which audiences here find very interesting. I also often play my own music, which people here respect and take at face value, without any prejudices about where it comes from.”

Lovelady (pictured) hopes Ruthless Jabiru will play a leading role in promoting the music of Australian composers. “I love working with composers, and I think it makes sense for us to work with Australian composers who are based in the UK. I’m interested in bringing visibility to those people, both in the UK and in Australia. I love the idea of getting these musicians, and the composers we’re playing, on the radar of people back home. Having said that, I’m in talks about the orchestra’s future commissioning activity, as I want it to be a major part of what we do. Connecting with the Australian composers in the UK is only one strand of that.”

One Australian composer who definitely is on the radar back home is Peter Sculthorpe. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the orchestra and is its official patron. The orchestra’s name derives from one of Sculthorpe’s works Jabiru Dreaming. Remarkably, though, he and Lovelady have never met. “Peter and I have been penpals for the last 15 years!But he lives on the East Coast and I grew up on the West Coast, so logistically it just hasn’t happened yet. But he’s so supportive of my work and that of the orchestra. I’m so grateful for him being around and for being such an eternal optimist.”

Sculthorpe has also agreed to write a new work for Ruthless Jabiru, quite a coup for the orchestra. It is currently scheduled for a London premiere around Australia Day next year. “I’m really excited to do this,” says Kelly. “I know Peter’s not taking on so much these days, so we’re really lucky that he’s been so forthcoming with this new work. It’s going to be quite a big deal, a premiere of his over here.”

Kelly is full of ideas for future projects with the orchestra, and the positive response it has generated suggests it has every chance of further success. She is reluctant to talk in too much detail about her plans, but a major residency later in the year is on the cards, and there is also talk of the orchestra touring... to Australia perhaps? “There is talk of that as a realistic possibility,” says Kelly. “I haven’t told the orchestra yet...” You heard it here first.

And audiences in the UK can expect to hear plenty more new Australian music from the orchestra. Provided, that is, Lovelady can track it down. “Composers, put it all on SoundCloud, I need to know what you’re doing!” she booms. “And of course, we’re not just about new Australian music, nor about lecturing on the history of Australian composition. We just want to play great music and be present in the moment for the right audience. Sure, we’re pursuing some broader artistic goals, but when it comes down to it, we just want to play.”