The Art Music Awards are a celebration of achievements in Australian contemporary classical music, experimental music and jazz, presented by APRA AMCOS and the Australian Music Centre, and in addition to the awards themselves – the winners of which are announced here – the event at the University of Sydney’s Great Hall showcased Australian talent in a series of performances, beginning with Jahmarley Dawson’s Welcome to Country and a tongue-in-cheek (not to mention virtuosically dispatched) work for didgeridoo titled Telstra Dreaming.

Jonathan Biggins at the Art Music Awards. Photo © Jess Gleeson

This year’s awards, “held here at Hogwarts for the first time,” as host Jonathan Biggins put it, took on a different format from previous years, with a buzzing atmosphere in the hall, where guests sat at tables on and in front of the stage, while the speeches resonated with common themes of artistic collaboration and music as a force for change. AMC Chair Genevieve Lacey’s speech was particularly spell-binding.

“Sometimes in our current world it’s hard not to despair, faced with what we are finally calling a climate emergency, with injustices abounding in our own country as well as further afield, gaps between the affluent and the marginalised increasing by the minute, within our own community much cries out for change,” she said. “Women are still paid less, seen and heard less than men, our first nations people – our first artists – continue to face fundamental adversities, and our community of artists in the room tonight, the nominations, the list of finalists and winners, do not yet represent the diversity of contemporary Australia. Collectively we have much work to do.”

Genevieve Lacey at the Art Music Awards. Photo © Jess Gleeson

“All of us have agency in our own lives and in our communities, all of us have influence,” Lacey said. “How we choose to use our privilege has rarely been more urgent. Because making art is a political act, it’s a subversive act of resistance, and culture is a basic human right.”

“Note to self: I am not speaking after Genevieve next year,” APRA AMCOS Chief Executive Dean Ormston said, to much laughter.

Biggins was a charismatic host, who wasn’t afraid to put the presenters on the spot with some thorny questions, from Create NSW’s Elizabeth Scott, to ABC Classic’s Toby Chadd, media executive and arts patron Kim Williams, Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival’s Zoe Hauptmann, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Simon Barker, and Australia Council for the Arts CEO Adrian Collette. There was also a touching moment when the late Richard Gill’s wife and son, Maureen and Anthony Gill, presented the Award for Excellence in Music Education, “an award very close to Richard’s heart,” as Maureen Gill said.

The performances, curated by Barney McAll, kicked off with Alice Chance’s The Audience Choir, a finalist in the Vocal/Choral category, incorporating smartphones, audience participation and a healthy dose of whimsy, which saw the audience fill out an online questionnaire to reveal their sonic identities (mine was “Origami Birds Migrating for Winter”) and join in an atmospheric round led by Chance, and  joined by organ and peripatetic winds.

Sonya Lifschitz at the Art Music AwardsSonya Lifschitz’s performing Stalin’s Piano. Photo © Jess Gleeson

Scott McConnachie’s alto saxophone skittered and soared over the surface of Amy Johansen’s organ in an improvisation using the Great Hall’s instrument that incorporated elements of Messiaen, while an audience favourite was Sonya Lifschitz’s performance of three movements from Robert Davidson’s Stalin’s Piano, which saw her in complex duet with the voice of Michelle Obama in a speech on poetry, a delightfully awkward interview with Percy Grainger, and finally Julia Gillard’s famous “Misogyny’ speech.

“The look of surprise on Tony Abbott’s face,” said Biggins. “He thought misogyny was his teacher in third class!”

The final performance of the evening saw chamber rapper Sonya Hollowell give a crisp, articulate performance of Rhyan Clapham’s Talk to Me I’m Listening – originally commissioned by the Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers program – alongside Chloe Kim, Benjamin Kopp, Emma Jardine and Jason Noble. In keeping with the more serious thread that wove through the night, that of music as a force for change, Clapham’s work urges a shift of focus, to listen to voices that have traditionally been suppressed.

Sonya Hollowell performs Talk to Me I’m ListeningPhoto © Jess Gleeson

As Lacey said in her speech at the opening of the evening: “Art jolts us wide awake, it shifts us from being passive spectators to makers of meaning, and the works that we create, we fund, program, perform and promote, involve choices. Choices which privilege certain audiences, experiences, systems and values for others.”

“So perhaps in the year ahead, let’s hold ourselves accountable to making our choices, our art, our lives, ones that challenge our own status quo,” she said. “Becoming increasingly attentive to people and ideas beyond our familiar horizons, in gentle or vehement ways, radical and persuasive ways, our music can challenge current systems and create space for others.”