Surviving on more than pie in the sky

Posted on Jul 31, 2015

Monday 27th September, 2004

On the sombre, chilly evening of September 11, some took refuge from both the anniversary and the weather in Elder Hall, where the Adelaide Art Orchestra performed the first of its two Spring subscription concerts, Orchestral Fantasies.  In response to the date and to the general state of the world, conductor and artistic director Timothy Sexton commended music’s powers of healing and consolation; the evening’s concert, he said by way of introduction, was “…not so much a tribute as a panacea: some music to warm the cockles of the heart”.

Aaron Copland, writing his Appalachian Spring Suite in the terrible years of 1943-44, probably had the same idea, and the September 11 concert closed with that beautiful and hopeful piece.  It was a concert for Spring, season of regeneration and renewal, and the program was shot through with consolatory and optimistic connections and motifs: folk tunes and folk tales, idyllic pastoral, friendships between composers, homage paid to earlier composers by later ones.

With the assistance of concertmaster Carolyn Lam, Sexton founded the Adelaide Art Orchestra (AdAO for short) in late 2001, in response to what he saw as a lack of opportunities for young musicians and a consequent brain-drain away to the eastern states and beyond.  He has a strong personal and professional commitment to South Australia and sees Adelaide as having unique things to offer to musicians in particular and artists in general; it is, he says, easier to experiment, to innovate and to collaborate here than in Melbourne or Sydney, where life in the arts is more territorial, more infiltrated by vested interests, more dependent of centralised funding, and more tightly controlled by a few powerful people at the top.

One of the AdAO’s aims is to create new performance and employment opportunities for freelance professional players based in Adelaide. It also aims to provide an extra (and more commercially realistic) avenue of development for the best of the new breed of young players, outside of the tertiary institutions.  As a relatively small and elastic orchestra of mostly youthful musicians, the group is flexible and responsive, willing to travel, to take work at short notice, to try new things.

It is also, says Sexton, both logistically and financially easier to get shows out to the suburbs and the country with a relatively small group of professional freelance musicians; late in 2003 the orchestra went on the road, performing at regional theatres in Mt. Gambier, Renmark, Tanunda, Whyalla, Port Lincoln and Port Pirie.  Its CV to date also includes a performance at this year’s Gawler Gourmet and Heritage Festival and another at the Music on the Murray concert at Waikerie, under the full Easter moon of 2003.

Other AdAO gigs have included projects as diverse as the inaugural Australian Beatles Festival, the score for the movie Till Human Voices Wake Us, a recording of a Classical/World Music fusion CD with Sean Timms, five different shows in this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and a performance at the State Dinner to launch the Ghan.  It has performed with the State Ballet of Russia and with New York legend Jason Robert Brown.  It has a repertoire of “challenging contemporary and popular works combined with classics from of the 20th century, from Glass to Gershwin”.

The program of Orchestral Fantasies was up at the classical end of that spectrum, incorporating works by Britten, Holst, Ravel and Copland that were chosen to complement the concert’s centrepiece, Vaughan Williams’ extraordinary Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  The orchestra aims, says Sexton, to maintain and develop its knowledge and skills in these upper regions as well as developing the popular end of the repertoire from where the second of its two subscription concerts, “Cole Porter and Friends”, is drawn.

This is an upbeat family concert featuring the music of Porter, Gershwin and their contemporaries, complete with radio plays and scripts in 1930’s period style and starring the AdAO, the Adelaide Vocal Project and guest soloists.

The concert is on October 9 – another portentous day in public life, though Sexton points out that the concert date was decided earlier than the election date.  And it certianly sounds like much more fun than staying home watching unsmiling men in grey suits count the vote on TV.

One bemused observer has described the venture of founding a new orchestra in Adelaide as “brave, mad and wonderful”.  In some ways it’s a risky venture, and competition for audiences can be brisk, even fierce.  But Sexton is sanguine about this; it’s a matter, he argues, of developing and enlarging the cultural life of the city, of providing more choices for people on the grounds that the wider the choice offered to you, the more likely you are to respond by going out to see or hear something, instead of just staying at home.  “We’re not trying to grab a piece of the pie,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is make more pie.”