One of ABC Classic FM’s most loved presenters, the broadcaster will celebrate 40 years on air next year.
The musical experiences I love best are the ‘live’ ones. I seldom sit at home glued to a sound system though one day I will listen to all the albums I’ve been gifted. Together they’ve the sonic equivalent of a photo album: my astonishing life with music and musicians.
It’s the ritual of concerts, the communion with other fans, and above all the visceral, theatrical experience of watching music being created in the moment that I love. Also the honesty of it, the non-verbal expression of human emotion unguarded, and the fact that each interpretation is unique, never to be repeated. As a music broadcaster, working on stage, back stage and in live broadcasts with musicians, the buzz is always there.
Mairi Nicolson and Roberto Alagna
Another addiction I’m happy to confess to is the buzz of ‘live’ radio. When that red light goes on, it’s also a branch of theatrical performance. Writer Clive James once said that “If you cannot be an artist, you can work in the service of the artist.” ‘Service’ is an old-fashioned word but I’m happy serving the music and musicians and enhancing the experience of our radio listeners.
I didn’t set out to be a performer, certainly not an artist, though my family has its quota of would-be thespians, musicians and writers. My parents met at a Yehudi Menuhin concert in New Zealand and our radio was glued to the ABC. I was smitten not just by music of all kinds, but also by the mellifluous BBC-style voices which the ABC favoured in those days. Mum was a good violinist herself and used to sing opera whilst vacuuming which embarrassed me because it wasn’t a cool look with friends, but the singing voice whether it’s Ella, Regine Crespin or the Gondwana voices has been a life-long passion.
My siblings and I made our own fun at home, putting on plays and concerts, including an hilarious version of My Fair Lady. I know every note in that musical, though playing Henry Higgins wasn’t my dream role but my sister was the stage animal at that stage.
In High School, rather than do yet another piano exam I opted to write a thesis for the HSC on the Hungarian ‘nationalists’ Bartók and Kodály, research I loved. I knew then I had the makings of a gypsy and would eventually get to Europe to explore the roots of this music.
At the Sydney Con, beyond my singing and piano studies (with Isador Goodman no less) I relished extra-curricular activities performing works like Carmina Burana and appearing in Richard Gill’s gypsy chorus for a production of Carmen conducted by Georg Tintner. The four-year Diploma of Music Education was much more than training to be an English and Music teacher. It offered the broadest range of modules from acoustics to ethnomusicology, and radio at 2MBS FM, where I felt immediately at home. Meanwhile, down the road from the Con, I watched the Sydney Opera House being built on my daily commute, never dreaming I would work there one day as a broadcaster.
My first teaching appointment was Leichhardt High School under the flightpath where a class of new migrants stays in my memory, some from Korea and Lebanon. The latter were big, gentle fellows who had operated sub-machine guns in the recent war. They would duck whenever a plane flew over and loved the Seekers hit A World of our Own which I’d play on guitar.
One of the most rewarding things I did there was start a Radio Club giving children the chance to make programs and try them out at 2MBS FM, which re-kindled my own love affair with radio. The ABC was interested in me and when my next posting arrived, Deniliquin, I decided to have a bet each way and audition for the ABC.
The ABC was very much an outpost of the BBC in those days and very patriarchal. Margaret Throsby was the only other female broadcaster. As a trainee announcer I did a bit of everything initially, not all of it particularly auspicious. Reading the whole of the NSW rainfall and river heights, I was so proud of getting the pronunciation of Gulargambone and Goondiwindi right that I called the rainfall in metres rather than millimetres, flooding the state.
I read news on TV and radio, presented programs like Behind The News, but music was a mistress who could not be denied, and I quickly found myself introducing music programs on radio and television and working closely with local musicians and the SSO, and fronting outside broadcasts from the Domain and Sydney Opera House. The Sydney Piano Competition had a strong line-up of young Russians one year. We became friends but had to play cat and mouse with their official Soviet Goskoncert minders.
In the 80s I inaugurated a radio show called In Tempo, a forerunner of RN’s The Music Show, interviewing local and visiting luminaries in the music world from Ravi Shankar to Yehudi Menuhin and Luciano Pavarotti! Suddenly things were coming together, my passions for music and research, the chance to find out what makes a musician or conductor tick. Many are much more vulnerable than their astonishing talents reveal. Ordinary people, with extraordinary gifts.
In 1988 I was asked to go to Perth to interview Sir Georg Solti who was making his Australian debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the bi-centennial celebrations. Sitting opposite that Hungarian force of nature recording our conversation, was as thrilling as watching him conduct Mahler’s 9th on tour. Later our paths crossed again in Manchester when amongst other works he conducted a memorable Death and Transfiguration with the BBC Philharmonic.
In the 1990’s personal reasons took me to the UK ‘up north’ to Manchester where the BBC was moving away from cultured Oxbridge voices to include regional ones, and this colonial girl slipped in under the radar, working on both R4’s long-running Women’s Hour and the R3 Drive program In Tune. I’ve always loved French music, it’s light touch, it’s veiled emotions and exquisite sonorities, from Rameau to Ravel and Dutilleux, so the chance to work with the BBC Philharmonic’s chief conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier who excelled in French repertoire, was a dream come true.
It was a thrill to tour with the orchestra across the USA, and I’ll never forget broadcasting live from the stage of Avery Fisher hall, seated close to the bass section, feeling like my hair was standing on end as Hakan Hardenberger gave the American premiere of the trumpet concerto by Sir Peter Maxwell Davis. On another tour in Switzerland I lost my voice in a live broadcast from Victoria Hall, Geneva and had to opt for a sexy whisper.
Presenting many BBC Proms from the Royal Albert Hall were highlights too, especially introducing old friends in the AYO and Sydney Symphony on tour.
Melbourne has been home for nearly two decades now, and I can’t keep up with the amount and variety of great music on offer; the city has an energetic round the clock vibe. The opportunity to work in the beautiful Melbourne Recital centre, with rising stars at ANAM and develop a close relationship with the MSO has been the icing on the cake. The chemistry they have with Sir Andrew Davis is all too rare in the orchestral world and I never miss their concerts.
For the last decade I’ve been a tour leader taking groups of music lovers to Europe and America. Sitting in the Sala Palatului in Bucharest, (infamous in the past as the scene of Ceaucescu’s Communist Party Congresses) listening to Radu Lupu play Mozart, hearing the MSO play glorious Strauss for their debut at the Proms, following the Verdi trail through northern Italy, I’m living the dream.
Next February will mark the 40th anniversary of my first day in a radio studio, the ABC’s premises in Upper Forbes Street, Kings Cross. It was a colourful location that had its challenges. On several occasions rocking up to read the early morning news I was offered a great deal more than my starting salary.
Things have changed enormously. When I started on radio you weren’t even allowed to mention your name and certainly you couldn’t impose your personality on a program. This didn’t work for me, when I got the chance I pulled music off its perceived pedestal, I wanted it to be accessible for everyone.
The playlist has changed considerably. At times we’ve had a much more eclectic spread including folk and world music and I’ve loved it all. Technology has meant radio is more predictable now, and I wish the arts and music was more securely funded; the quality and quantity of music-making in Australia has never been higher and musicians work incredibly hard to achieve and maintain their status.
But in some ways, nothing has changed. The red light goes on, I speak, the music plays and the pleasure ripples out.
If I could change anything I’d make music available to every child and every elder in our community. As my late mum neared the end of her long life and could no longer enjoyed radio, she took huge pleasure and comfort from listening to all her favourite pieces of music, in her head.
THE MUSIC I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT…
Richard Strauss: Morgen
Jessye Norman s, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
Richard Strauss’s Morgen is a love poem of deep rapture and optimism, with a text by the Scottish-born writer and anarchist, John Henry Mackay. It reminds me of my dad who was born in the western Isles. Mum and I used to attempt it on violin and piano, but I love the orchestral version best, especially with a soprano like Jessye Norman.
Mairi Nicolson leads two Renaissance tours to this year’s Enescu Festival in Bucharest in September