ANAM Set Festival | The Saturday newspaper

The last time we had a Labor government, it tried to shut down the Australian National Academy of Music in its first year. The reasons for this were never clear.

An initiative of Paul Keating, ANAM was part of his 1994 Creative Nation policy, a Melbourne equivalent to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney. In its early years, the academy was a bit rudderless, not to say chaotic, but in 2008, when the ill-fated fax arrived from the office of then Art Secretary Peter Garrett, ANAM was thriving and its closure was meaningless. As someone said at the time, “Never underestimate how long it takes for information to reach Canberra.” A few days after ANAM’s “last” concert in November 2008, the decision was reversed.

Keating’s initial vision was that ANAM would be a graduate school for instrumentalists, in most cases after completing tertiary education. It would “educate gifted musicians to international standards and enable them to build careers from an Australian base”. The focus was on “beautiful music, including contemporary and Australian works”. There wasn’t much new or Australian music to begin with, but when composer Brett Dean became Artistic Director in 2006, he changed all that with the support of his CEO, Nick Bailey, by bringing a hefty blend of contemporary music onto the standard diet. . of instrumental, chamber music and orchestral repertoire of the past 350 years. After all, Western art music is a kind of tradition, and traditions die if they are not continued.

Bailey conceived the ANAM set in 2020 when the academy, like everywhere else, was closed and face-to-face teaching was no longer possible. Bailey always thinks big and his proposal to order 67 new instrumental pieces from 67 different composers for each of ANAM’s 67 student artists was ambitious. Even more ambitious, you might think, was his plan to make Scott Morrison’s coalition government pay the $375,000 bill for the commissions.

But the government got through its RISE Fund and ANAM started the process of pairing composers and players. Composers were asked what instrument they would like to write for, students were invited to name their composer wish list, and then we were all put in touch – I was lucky enough to be assigned my favorite instrument – the French horn – along with his player Eve McEwen. The pieces were to be delivered in mid-2021, in time for the players to give the world premieres at their year-end recitals, then there would be a weekend-long festival featuring all eight hours of music in December. But more lockdowns came, the collaborations went online and many of the concerts were cancelled.

It was only this year that the ANAM Set Festival finally took place over the weekend of 13-15 May at Abbotsford Convent, ANAM’s temporary home while South Melbourne’s City Hall is being rebuilt. Covid-19 was largely kept at bay, knocking out only three of the 67 runs. Two of the missing works were played through recordings, and by the end of the weekend, only Anthony Pateras’ tuba solo remained unheard of.

The opening concert began with the arrest of William Barton travel song for the horn of Josiah Kop in duet with the composer’s own didgeridoo; the closing concert ended with the party of Elena Kats-Chernin Great Rag for clarinetist Oliver Crofts. So far perhaps so predictable. But in between those works and over two days of concerts, the students and alumni of ANAM performed a collection of pieces tailored to their talents – and partly to their tastes – that offered an arsenal of musical styles and techniques, from lyrical to dramatic, the conservative to experimental, provocative to comforting. If there was more provocation than consolation, perhaps that spoke to the circumstances under which the music was composed.

Liza Lim, as is her custom, has reinvented the art of the cello Playing the cello – as meteorology† James Morley stood behind his instrument, bow in both hands, enticing and flattering resonating sounds of his instrument, his bow outstretched limbs drummed, scraping and caressing the open strings. Lilijana Matičevska’s You can call me CV01 for Jye Todorov’s contrabassoon was part sci-fi fantasy, part forensic exploration of this growling, rattling yet surprisingly mellow beast with a deep voice.

In stark contrast to such musical explorations from the ground up, Richard Mills’ That flows achieved its ravishing effect with little more than a refined ear for harmony and immense technical know-how. There were two players – Harrison Swainston (viola) and Nadia Barrow (cello) – but if you closed your eyes you could hear a string orchestra. Nicole Murphy’s Vector for Will Kinmont’s trombone was another standout piece that impressed, in part by avoiding the bravado effect. Murphy just found the right notes and put them in the right order.

Chris Dench is witty, outgoing a little word scratch-it’s-my-fault, also for trombone, could not have been more different. Trombonist Cian Malikides crab-crawled along a row of seven music stands, then slid back again, swinging his instrument’s bell in the air now and then, sending out a continuously varied stream of phrases and single notes – now whispering, then roaring – over the entire range of the instrument. A commentary on this single, ultra-virtuoso melodic line was provided by Alexander Meagher’s percussive replies. I happen to know that the piece had proved to be a huge challenge for the performers and in a way their triumphant performance summed up the achievement of the ANAM Set as a whole.

When composer Arnold Schoenberg complained that his music was not difficult, just badly played, it was a complaint that many composers before and after him would have repeated. But at the ANAM Set Festival, such an accusation could not occur. The students of ANAM clearly enjoyed the works written for them. One after the other, they performed their pieces with the same dedication, pride and love that they would have brought in a Bach suite or a Beethoven sonata. You can imagine that many of these pieces, adapted to the artists as tailor-made suits, will remain in their repertoire.

The festival was such a success that the latest crop of ANAM students are asking where their pieces are, and Nick Bailey and his new Artistic Director, Paavali Jumppanen, are beginning to envision the next ANAM set. Their hope is that South Melbourne Town Hall, repurposed as a cultural hub, will host it in 2025.

But what about the new federal government? Could history repeat itself? Bailey likes to tell the story of a visit to ANAM by the then Secretary of the Arts, Tony Burke, in the final days of Julia Gillard’s term as Prime Minister. Two student pianists rehearsed Olivier Messiaen’s modernist masterpiece Visions of the Amen† It is a demanding piece and a complex score, the pianists need page turners. Burke offered his services to one of them and acquitted himself with confidence.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as “Setting the scene”.

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