There is a sense of renewal in Canberra. Spring has made a (still tentative) return, along with the birds and the foliage, the pollen and the antihistamines, the barbies and the busloads of visitors for the annual Floriade festival on the northern banks of Lake Burley Griffin.

Barely a kilometre away, there is renewal of another kind, on the campus of the Australian National University. For several years, the ANU School of Music has been the centre of one of the most vigorous and fractious storms in the half-century history of tertiary music in this city. The Canberra School of Music opened in tiny quarters in Manuka in 1965. Its foundation director was Ernest Llewellyn, concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the golden years of Eugene Goossens. Llewellyn wanted to build a world-class music performance institution based on the Juilliard model. The school moved into a new Le Corbusier-inspired building on the ANU campus in 1976 and was absorbed into the ANU in 1992.

Sonja Lifschitz, Mike Cheng-Yu Lee and Paul McMahon (Deputy Head of School and Performance Convenor). Photograph © Vincent Plush

In retrospect, it must now be said that the marriage of this conservatorium and a research-based institution was never really a happy one, and the thread began to fray as students dwindled off to more lively institutions in Sydney and Melbourne, and to Europe and America. At one stage, an oboe teacher on full salary had one student and was teaching ear-training.

In 2007, the ANU launched a review of the school. Five years later, it was revealed that the School was running at an annual loss of $3m, largely due to the conventional one-on-one model for musical tuition. ANU administrators and bean-counters did the sums: in an ever-tightening financial environment, the conservatorium model was simply unsustainable.

The ANU began pruning courses and staff, and went through several directors, including Adrian Walter (now director of the Hong Kong Academy) and Peter Tregear (now a Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway College at the University of London). Longtime staff members retired or were given redundancies. For five years, the debate tore at the heart and soul of music in this city. Government enquiries, newspaper editorials and rowdy public meetings reflected an over-riding concern, one that was critically underestimated by ANU authorities: the people of Canberra loved music and wanted to see the School succeed.

After several attempts to find a new Director for the School (in the wider world of music the situation was compared to that of being offered ‘a poisoned chalice’), the ANU announced the appointment of a new Director in March 2017. Kenneth Lampl, born in the Bronx in New York in 1964, is a graduate and former staff member of the Juilliard School. Professor Lampl plans to create what he calls “a unique 21st century music program whose purpose is to nurture outstanding musical artistry through the intersection of performance, composition and technology”.

Unsurprisingly, Lampl is an enthusiastic and persuasive advocate for his cause. Introducing a Gala Concert in Llewellyn Hall on Friday evening, he announced that “the School of Music is back”, and, he added with some considerable pride and punch in his pronounced New York accent, “with force”.

Working with a committee of international consultants and civic leaders, the ANU is slowly re-populating its School of Music. Music technology, composition and research aside, the recent announcements of several performance appointments have generated considerable excitement. Four performed at the Gala Concert last Friday.

Violinist Tor Frømyr and cellist David Pereira have had a long association with the School, the Canberra Symphony and overall musical life of the Australian Capital Territory. Pianist Sonja Lifschitz is a very recent arrival, still in the process of moving base from Melbourne to Canberra. All three are on fractional appointments (40% of full-time posts) but they will surely attract a considerable number of national and especially full-fees-paying international students to Canberra over time.

The American scholar and early music keyboardist Mike Cheng-Yu Lee comes with a stellar resume from Cornell, Yale and Indiana University at Bloomington. Lee has been appointed Lecturer of Piano/Keyboard Performance and Director of the ANU’s Keyboard Institute.

The first half of Friday’s “Gala programme” took those in the audience with long memories back to the days when Llewellyn himself, often with Larry Sitsky as accompanist, would transport listeners with glorious playing of the late Romantic European repertoire.

The concert opened in a low-key kind of way, a symbolic testing of the waters, perhaps. For a mere seven minutes, the ANU Piano Trio – a new name for this superb ensemble of Lifschitz-Fromyr-Pereira should be high on Lampl’s agenda – played a tiny gem by Josef Suk, his Elegie, Op. 23 (1902). Somewhat tentative and understandably under-rehearsed, here was a glimmer of wonderful music-making still to come and I look forward to hearing a full programme from this (new name, please) ensemble a year or so from now.

This year the Tinalley String Quartet have two one-week residencies in Canberra. It was good to hear them play Dvořák’s American Quartet in F, Op. 96 as the central work in this three-part concert. I found this a dutiful rather than an exciting performance, the still relatively young players needing to create a homogenous sound, an idiomatic style and to separate foreground from background. The performance began promisingly, with Justin Williams’s firm viola playing, and continued into the second movement, the lento, with some beautiful cello playing from Michelle Wood, but overall it seemed not to coalesce over its familiar 25-minute duration. Nonetheless, it was a performance many in the audience found satisfying, especially the string students.

The most exciting music-making of this concert came after intermission with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14 in E Flat, K.449. The featured soloist was Mike Lee, performing on a recreation of an Anton Waller piano
(Vienna, ca.1796) by Paul McNulty, commissioned by the School in 2005.

During the opening tutti , the ANU Festival Orchestra (another name, please) seemed a little string-heavy; in addition to pairs of oboes and horns, the strings  numbered 16 players, fundamentally a scratch ensemble led by Fromyr, Pereira and the Tinalley players. As soon as there was air, Lee burst into action. With a recreated period instrument devoid of a sustain pedal, he created a welter of sound, torrents of pitches cascading across the length and breadth of the keyboard. Lee mined the intrinsic drama in this music to a point I had not considered possible.

Playing from his own edition and with his own cadenzas and solo passages, Lee’s performance was magisterial, in an unassuming way, and supremely authoritative. In an American context, the audience would have been on its feet, cheering for encores.

Several thoughts surfaced during this extraordinary performance. There were memories of the old, pre-Tognetti ACO, with John Painter as principal cello, and, a little later, Max McBride as bass player. And here was the genial McBride once again as conductor, directing with concise authority and dignity. There was a sense of ‘collegium musicum’ here too, perhaps the creation of a period-style ensemble directed by Mike Lee, a truly great ‘catch’ for an institution-in-recovery.

In re-building the School, its leaders need not only to find its voice (or several voices, for that matter; with four composers on the staff, it was a shame not to hear any Australian music in this programme, an oversight, one can only hope, not a sign of the future) but its audience. With a hall seating capacity of around 1,340, the audience at this ‘Gala concert’ was disappointingly small. There seemed to be very few students, unusual for a free concert; its timing, coming at the tail end of a mid-term break, could have been a miscalculation. ANU’s publicity merchants should snap into high gear: the university now has stars to promote, not just these stellar new arrivals, but Professor Lampl himself.

Perhaps they could start with two programmes in the very near future. On Thursday October 19, Sonja Lifschitz reprises her thrilling creation of Robert Davidson’s very recent cycle for pianist-reciter and projected images Stalin’s Piano, first heard at the Canberra International Music Festival in April this year. On Monday October 23, Mike Lee presents an all-Mozart programme showcasing the instruments of the ANU’s collection. (Yes, praise be! The ANU’s famed Keyboard Instrument collection has been maintained and is even expanding: it has recently acquired the piano of composer John Antill on which the score of Corroboree was written.)

Walking around the corridors of the School, it is good to hear music coming from the studios, great to hear trills and roulades being rehearsed in the café, and to peruse the collage of concert announcements on its notice boards again.

Overall, this Gala concert was not so much a ‘gala’ – in the black-tie Canberra sense – as an understated and tentative announcement to the city and the country that the ANU School of Music is back for the long haul. With the staunch support of a new Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, a Nobel laureate and himself a former musician with an abiding and deep love of music, the ANU is poised to pull itself from the equivocation and mire of the past 15 years and move ahead purposefully and positively.