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Each chapter in Peter McCallum’s fascinating and informative history of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, in this, its centenary year, feels like a movement in a musical suite. That’s not to say McCallum’s language is especially florid or poetical, or that his voice rings off the page; indeed, McCallum, Associate Professor at the Conservatorium and Chair of the Academic Board of the University of Sydney, prefers the clear, level tone of the academic who knows how to write well for a general audience. As a regular music critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, you could say he gets his daily practice.
No, it’s more that each chapter has an individual flavour and character, which the various personalities, shifting fortunes and changing fashions impart as unifying themes or motifs. The result is a more than highly readable account of an important part of Australia’s cultural heritage. One could go so far as to say it has helped define us as a nation.
First, there is the unique nature of the Conservatorium’s original building – converted stables dating from 1821 which with their Gothic turrets recall less Governor Macquarie’s aspirations for a Government House, more a romantic otherworld that somehow suits the grafting of high European culture onto a somewhat wilder, more unpredictable environment.
Then there is the succession of colourful characters, which have stood at the helm of the Conservatorium, beginning with its first director, the flamboyant Belgian conductor and violinist Henri Verbrugghen. One relishes the contemporary accounts of Verbrugghen with which McCallum is able to furnish us, such as “In the concert hall, Verbrugghen always triumphed. There, nothing could withstand his brilliancy, point, address, pose, taste, sense of climax, architectural grasp and real insight.” As with any new appointment, Verbrugghen was not without his critics – a pattern that would in differing degrees haunt the tenures of many subsequent directors such as Eugene Goossens (1948-1955) and Rex Hobcroft (1972-1982).
The teachers, too, many of them great performers in their own right, have inspired both fear and freedom over the last century. Too many to list here in full, of course, but one thinks of pianists, for example, such as Frank Hutchens, Isador Goodman and Alexander Sverjensky.
"McCallum mentions a veritable who’s who of Australian musical aristocracy"
Changes in musical fashions would see luminaries such as jazzman Don Burrows, the late, great Peter Sculthorpe and historic performance practice exponents such as Neal Peres Da Costa making substantial contributions to their students’ understanding of what constitutes music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Speaking of students, throughout the book, McCallum mentions a veritable who’s who of Australian musical aristocracy – think of Roger Woodward or Richard Tognetti just for starters.
But ultimately this is a history of an institution, of which the people are the various melodies, harmonies and rhythms. And where is the Sydney Conservatorium today? As McCallum writes, “It is the Conservatorium’s current and future students who will build the next musical culture. With the intellectual riches of the University of Sydney behind it and the magnificent facilities now at its disposal, the Conservatorium’s noble obligation is to help educate them to the task.”
Allen & Unwin, HBK, 272pp, $80