As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Gladstone in Queensland, looking out on the astonishing heavy-machinery activity of a waterfront dominated by LNG terminals and power station smokestacks. I’m on tour with the Queensland Symphony and we have an education concert and then a big free outdoor event this evening at the Marina Stage. 

We’ve already been in Rockhampton and the concerts there were almost full at the Pilbeam Theatre by the pretty Fitzroy River. The reason they were full is that they were free. Over the last years the paying audiences on the orchestra’s yearly northern tour have started to contract, but this new free model means audiences have returned like water to Lake Eyre, all due to some passionate corporate sponsorship. 

ERM Power does wonderful things for the QSO. Instead of a sponsorship being an amount of money, the company buys tickets and gives them to schools and people who maybe wouldn’t think of going to a concert, or wouldn’t have the resources to go. Sometimes, like Australia Pacific LNG in Gladstone, it underwrites the entire concert which means that it becomes a free event. A free ticket is a lovely thing – it puts the audience into a more positive and engaged relationship with the performers. It means people take a chance with something they might not ordinarily make the effort to attend. 

Sometimes the regional response can be even more passionate than in a city, when the next orchestral performance comes along as regularly as a bus. In the Rockhampton concert (which was a long program) I skipped over the Barber Adagio near the end of the first half, I just didn’t have the energy at that moment to conduct it. I wasn’t even sure we’d do it at all until one woman’s lone voice sailed out in a moment of silence towards the end of the concert – “Samuel Barber” she hissed. Never have I heard such a menacing tone in a concert. I could sense that if we didn’t play it I might be set upon later in the evening in the streets of Rocky, by a band of Samuel Barber supporters wearing masks and brandishing sticks. We played the piece and it was the right music at the right time – and probably the highlight of the entire concert.  

In Gladstone last night we were sound-checking outdoors, playing the main title from Star Wars at the Marina Stage, and I saw our bus driver Zane poke his head out from behind the stage with a look of sheer wonder on his face. Later as he drove us back to the hotel he said “I have to admit that was my first time. I’ve never heard a live orchestra and to hear it playing Star Wars was amazing”. I was happy to be there when Zane, in mid-life, lost his orchestral virginity, and what a great way to lose it. The Star Wars score is extraordinary – so well-written, such fun to conduct and great fun for the orchestra to play. Zane would have heard it through cinema speakers over the years but to hear it live is like meeting a famous actor in the street, you are close to the real thing. Maybe we opened a door for Zane, a door to another world that he can enjoy whilst driving buses in Central Queensland. 

And opening the door is like falling down the rabbit hole into a wonderland of music, each discovery leading you on to another. John Williams’  film music can lead you to influences like Holst’s Planets. Holst takes you to Vaughan Williams and The Lark Ascending. And that can lead you on to the great violin concertos of Tchaikovsky and Bruch. All  it takes is that one piece to get you hooked and start the journey, a journey that can begin in the Hamer Hall, or the Sydney Opera House, or maybe even by the light of the LNG terminal in the Port of Gladstone.

For more of Guy Noble's wit and wisdom, check out his Soapbox every month in Limelight Magazine