Please Don’t Stop The Music, Mr Newman
By Stephen CrittendenJuly 27, 2012
The Queensland government is axing amazingly successful youth music programs. As renowned conductor Simone Young prepares to lead the Australian Youth Orchestra in Brisbane this weekend, she brings down her baton on Campbell Newman’s cuts.
When leading Australian music conductor Simone Young looks out across the Australian Youth Orchestra at Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts Centre on Saturday night, a significant number of the bright young faces looking back at her will be from Queensland.
Better known for its coal, Queensland is also a big exporter of wonderful music. The excellent Queensland Conservatorium sends its graduates out to the world's great orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic. And there's so much musical talent in Queensland schools that Queenslanders (population 4.5 million) are over-represented in the Australian Youth Orchestra: they make up 23 per cent of places, across all programs, compared with 22 per cent from Victoria (population 5.5 million).
It doesn't happen by accident. A significant number of those young Queenslanders will have come through one or both of two state school music programs. Fanfare is a biennial festival for school orchestras and ensembles, and MOST (Musically Outstanding Students) is a biennial scholarship program that provides intensive training for musically gifted students.
But now, after running concurrently for 30 years and providing crucial pathways for aspiring musicians that they wouldn't get anywhere else, the Newman state Liberal National Party (LNP) government is planning to axe both the Fanfare and MOST programs as part of an overall $23-million cut in funding for school education.
Education minister John-Paul Langbroek confirmed that the Fanfare festival would be axed last week, claiming that the cuts were needed to rein-in a budget deficit inherited from the previous Labor government. Speaking on local Brisbane radio he said that he did not believe the cuts would discourage school children from learning musical instruments.
But the budgetary savings from cutting the Fanfare and MOST programs are so tiny as to be insignificant. MOST costs taxpayers a mere $86,000 per annum, while Fanfare is worth $88,000 per annum. Queensland's Labor Opposition leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has described the decision to axe the programs as "just plain mean".
Ahead of her Brisbane appearance this weekend, Simone Young told The Global Mail: "It would be tragic for Queensland, if the state government failed to continue supporting school and youth music activities, because that's where it all begins."
The premier they call "Can-do Campbell" says he doesn't like "process", but in this case the process seems pretty clear. There's a pipeline running through Queensland state schools, feeding the Conservatorium and flowing out to the rest of the world. If you cut the pipeline the kids will stop coming through.
Simone Young says the excitement the AYO has generated by its presence in Brisbane this week has been palpable. "They are extraordinary young people and marvellous ambassadors for Australia and Australian music. This is what happens when music education is supported and flourishes."
Young has spent the past decade as the chief executive of the Hamburg State Opera and chief conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and this is the first time she has worked with the AYO. Here she is on YouTube discussing her forthcoming appearance with the AYO.
But the former schoolteacher is quick to point out that her AYO musicians are performing at the elite end of the youth music spectrum. There's also the question of what you do about music education at the grassroots level. "It's all about engaging young people in creative activity," she says, "and that has to be a good thing".
Young says she is grateful to the Queensland Government for supporting the visit of the Hamburg State Opera, Hamburg Philharmonic and Hamburg Ballet next month. "That's great for Brisbane. Queensland is doing so many great things in the arts — the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is going from strength to strength, and support for arts tourism is fantastic in this state.
"But there has to be continuing support for youth music activities, because it goes to the humanity of our kids," Young adds. "When governments are facing difficult financial decisions, it is easy to imagine that you can cut programs like these and possibly bring them back in a couple of years," says Simone Young, "But experience shows that when they're taken away they are gone forever."
The Newman Government is quickly earning a reputation for cutting arts programs with tiny budgets. One of the first things the new premier did after winning office was to announce the axing of the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, to save just $244,000.
The latest cuts have attracted international attention. Leading British music journalist Norman Lebrecht has weighed in this week from London, commenting on his website that: "The state government is more Philistine than Delilah and the electorate couldn't give a 4X."
The backlash from the public is also building in intensity. A Facebook campaign, Save Fanfare and MOST, has attracted more than 9,000 supporters in its first week, and an online petition to the Queensland parliament had garnered more than 6,000 signatures by this morning. Campaign organisers are also planning a novel protest in the form of a scratch orchestra of up to a thousand players who will perform outside Parliament House in Brisbane, to draw attention to their talents and their cause.
The Queensland Government is clearly feeling some heat, because on Wednesday, education minister John-Paul Langbroek released a statement acknowledging the "overwhelming support from the wider community" and suggesting the Fanfare program might be saved if a private sponsor could be found.
No mention was made of saving the MOST music-scholarship program, the future of which is under budgetary review.
Campaign organiser Dianne Gittins says it is clear that Fanfare and MOST have not been saved and that she believes the minister's statement was nothing more than an attempt to silence the protestors.
"By throwing Fanfare's fate to the whim of a corporate sponsorship, the LNP [has shown it] has no interest in guaranteeing the stability of music competition and advancement for Queensland's kids," she says.
Meanwhile, Simone Young says the standard of the Australian Youth Orchestra during rehearsals for Saturday night's concert has been "fabulous, absolutely stunning. These kids are wonderful musicians, they're open, fresh, listening, and they have a tremendous sense of fun. And it's wonderful to see these young musicians so full of hope and expectation that they will have success in what is, after all, quite an uncertain career path."
The Brisbane concert will have special significance for another reason. Queensland-born Lisa Gasteen, 54, one of the world's great Wagnerian sopranos, will be returning to the concert stage to sing with the orchestra after a four-year absence caused by a chronic neck injury. She's standing in at the last moment for soprano Emma Matthews who was forced to pull out last Monday due to illness.
"I had been talking to Lisa only the day before, so I just rang her up," says Young. "And she said, 'Sure, I could do Brünnhilde's immolation scene' [from Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung]. And I can't tell you how thrilled the AYO's young musicians are."
At the time of her injury, Gasteen was one of the world's leading Wagnerian sopranos, in huge demand in opera houses and concert halls around the world. Young says the injury was "a disaster for her and for music internationally. She should be the Isolde and Brünnhilde of her generation."
Since sustaining her injury Gasteen has devoted herself to teaching. Last year, she founded the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School, based at Griffith University.
Asked to comment on the state of Gasteen's voice after her four-year break, Young says it has been 16 months since she last heard Gasteen sing.
"At that time the magnificent voice was still there, but what wasn't there was the muscle support and the breathing. Now that's all back. But it's also very emotionally stressful to be out there singing long stretches from memory after being away from it for so long. Think of sports people who miss two years from injury or illness. It's very rare for them to come back at the peak of their old form."
Young says she and Gasteen have been close friends for years. They've done a Wagner Ring cycle in Vienna, Tristan und Isolde, Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten and concerts all over the world. "It's always special making music with someone you're so close to," she says. "But the kids were also a big factor in her decision to do this concert with the AYO. She's so committed to music education."