One of the things for which those of us who grew up in country Australia in the 1950s and 1960s can be eternally grateful to the ABC is the quality of the classical music it brought to quite small regional centres, such as my home town of Armidale.
This was a sufficiently remarkable phenomenon that it was the subject of an article in the 28 July 1958 issue of Time magazine, not exactly famous in those days for its assiduous reporting of matters to do with the wide brown land (see Music: Beethoven in the Bush).
In the case of Armidale (population 8,700 in 1954, growing to about 12,000 by the mid 1960s) we were treated annually to a full-scale performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra which the newly formed ABC had itself brought into being in 1932 as the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra and which was reformed straight after the war to become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, giving its first performance in January 1946. And what an orchestra it was; from 1947 until 1956 it had Sir Eugene Goossens as its chief conductor, a man who set himself the objective of making the SSO one of the six top symphony orchestras in the world within two years of his arrival in Australia.
The ABC’s recital program also brought outstanding soloists to country New South Wales. Names that spring to mind include:
- Violinists Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Ruggiero Ricci and Christian Ferras
- Pianists Alfred Brendel and John Ogdon, and some lesser lights like Fou Ts’ong, Philippe Entremont and Tamás Vásáry
- Cellist Edmund Kurtz, who played for us the recently composed (1964) suite for solo cello by Benjamin Britten
- Chinese bass Yi-kwei Sze
- French baritone Gerard Souzay
Playing these country circuits must have had its moments for these world class performers, and Armidale was a tedious place to get to in the 1950s; one could sign up for a 14-hour train trip from Sydney, or fly in to the highest (and hence rather fog-prone) airport in Australia in a DC-3. In those pre-motel days the visitors to Armidale stayed at Tattersall’s Hotel in the centre of the main shopping block in Beardy Street, just a short walk up the lane to the Town Hall. Tatt’s was the most salubrious hotel in town, the sort of place to which people from surrounding properties might repair for lunch on Friday between purchasing their supplies and taking in the Friday afternoon matinee at Hoyt’s Capitol Theatre – a welcoming and comfortable enough place, but still no more than a nice country pub.
They must have had many an anecdote to dine out on later. To give just one, a year or so before we were married my wife and I went to a Ruggiero Ricci recital in Tamworth, my wife’s home town. It happens that Tamworth Town Hall is right next door to the fire station. Ricci was playing Béla Bartók’s wonderful Romanian Dances, and was just about to strike the first note of the beautiful, mysterious section which is played with muted violin when the fire alarm went off. A flicker of a smile spread across this good humoured man’s face, he remained stock still with bowing arm raised until the alarm ceased (mercifully fairly promptly) and then proceeded as though nothing had happened. I love Bartók’s Romanian Dances, but when I hear them I can’t help thinking back to that evening in Tamworth Town hall, circa 1964.
I don’t know what these concerts meant to the people who played for us, but we counted the days until the next performance. Thank you ABC.