I find it fascinating that many classical music supporters in this country have become so enamored with the acquisition of prestige string instruments. The Australian String Quartet now has a beautiful matching set of Guadagninis, while the Australian Chamber Orchestra recently acquired a new Stradivarius cello on top of other such procurements. Having heard both groups recently, the quality of instruments and playing are at an incredibly high level.
Antonio Stradivari by an unknown artist
I’m guessing that the cost of these instrument purchases is astronomical, making the acquisitions even more startling in an age of funding scarcity. I should be clear that in no way am I criticising these investments, but it did give me pause to reflect on funding priorities in general, especially considering another valuable instrument: the human voice. Sure, the biggest name opera singers command large fees, but financial support and opportunities are relatively poor for singers in their (often long) development stage.
Which brings me to the choral scene in Australia. Although we have one of the best youth organisations in the world in Gondwana Choirs, the situation when it comes to choirs in general is poverty-stricken. Even Gondwana had their triennial Australia Council funding axed in the wake of the LNP Government’s recent raid on the arts.
Meanwhile in the UK, the cathedral and college choir system enjoys a wonderfully large base upon which to build. (Where are the Sixteens and Polyphonys of Australia after all?). Sweden, Denmark, Japan and Korea all have many professional choirs. I once heard a Latvian choir who sang in an international competition and was surprised that they weren’t quite as good as I was expecting – until I found out this was a choir formed only from among the employees of a single bank. Closer to home, New Zealand has a fantastic choral scene thanks to their national youth choir organisation and a prestigious schools competition which fosters excellence in young singers.
I don’t mean to denigrate what we have here in this country. The level of expertise and diversity of the choral scene has improved tremendously in the last 30 years. But where we also miss out is in the level of professional ensembles: we simply don’t have enough of them. And it makes my blood boil to hear of some high achieving choirs who struggle to afford a rehearsal space, let alone a performance venue which is not freezing cold in winter.
We are also missing out in proper talent-development in the post-youth choir phase. Interestingly, singers such as tenor Robert Macfarlane and soprano Greta Bradman began their careers singing in the Adelaide Chamber Singers – a group which I think should be considered a model for others across the country. Significantly, this group pays its singers a fee per-call, and from there many opportunities are available to build a solo career or continue singing in the ensemble.
My vision is for a small, part-time professional chamber choir such as ACS in every capital city including Canberra. This requires money, but a mere sprinkling of the stuff goes a long way in the arts. Administration costs, venue hire, artistic staff, and a per-call rate for auditioned choristers are all necessary. And all for the relatively small cost of a banker’s boozy Friday lunch. It requires a bit more than just money – vision, passion and great leadership are, of course, essential, but already we have those in spades.
And here is the thing: a group of beautifully trained voices blends extremely well with a set of old Italian string instruments. We now have quite a bit of the latter happening in this country, and that is wonderful. So how about the former – some money for a group of high quality voices to sing out above the Stradivarii and fill the halls with angelic sounds?
Paul Stanhope is a composer and on the surface of it he shouldn’t be sticking his nose into such things. However, he was also the Musical Director of Sydney Chamber Choir from 2006 – 2015 and he likes to barrack for the cause. A new CD of his choral music, Lux Aeterna, is out now on ABC Classics