The Australian National Academy of Music’s ambitious ANAM Set Festival offered a cross-section of contemporary classical music. By Andrew Ford.

ANAM Set Festival

Josiah Kop and William Barton performing Barton’s Journey Song.
Josiah Kop and William Barton performing Barton’s Journey Song.
Credit: Pia Johnson

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

An initiative of Paul Keating, ANAM was part of his 1994 Creative Nation policy, a Melbourne equivalent for Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). In its early years, the academy was a little rudderless, not to say chaotic, but by 2008, when the fateful fax arrived from the office of the then Arts minister Peter Garrett, ANAM was thriving and the closure made no sense. As someone said at the time, “Never underestimate how long it takes for information to reach Canberra.” A few days after the ANAM’s “final” concert in November 2008, the decision was reversed.

Keating’s initial vision was that ANAM would be a finishing school for instrumentalists, in most cases after completing tertiary training. It would “develop highly gifted musicians to international standards and enable them to establish careers from an Australian base”. The focus was to be “fine music, including contemporary and Australian works”. To begin with, there wasn’t much new or Australian music, but when composer Brett Dean became artistic director in 2006 he changed all that with the support of his general manager, Nick Bailey, bringing a hefty admixture of contemporary music to the standard diet of instrumental, chamber and orchestral repertoire from the past 350 years. After all, western art music is a tradition of sorts, and traditions die if they are not continued.

Bailey dreamt up the ANAM Set in 2020 when the academy, like everywhere else, was shuttered and face-to-face teaching was off the cards. Bailey always thinks big and his proposal to commission 67 new pieces of instrumental music by 67 different composers for each of ANAM’s 67 student performers was ambitious. More ambitious yet, you might think, was his plan to have Scott Morrison’s Coalition government foot the $375,000 bill for the commissions.

But the government came good through its RISE Fund and ANAM began the process of pairing up composers and players. Composers were asked which instrument they’d like to write for, students were invited to name their composer wish lists, and then we were all put in touch – I was fortunate to be allocated my instrument of choice – the French horn – along with its player Eve McEwen. The pieces were to be delivered by the middle of 2021 in time for the players to give the world premieres during their end-of-year recitals, then there would be a weekend-long festival presenting all eight hours of music in December. But more lockdowns arrived, the collaborations went online and many of the concerts were cancelled.

It wasn’t until this year that the ANAM Set Festival finally took place, over the weekend of May 13-15 at Abbotsford Convent, ANAM’s temporary home while South Melbourne Town Hall is rebuilt. Covid-19 was mostly kept at bay, knocking out only three of the 67 performances. Two of the missing works were played via recordings and by the end of the weekend only Anthony Pateras’s tuba solo remained unheard.

The opening concert began with William Barton’s arresting Journey Song for the French horn of Josiah Kop duetting with the composer’s own didgeridoo; the final concert concluded with Elena Kats-Chernin’s celebratory Grand Rag for clarinettist Oliver Crofts. So far, perhaps, so predictable. But between those works and across two days of concerts, ANAM’s students and alumni performed a collection of pieces tailored to their talents – and in part to their tastes – that offered a panoply of musical style and technique, from the lyric to the dramatic, the conservative to the experimental, the provocative to the consoling. If there was more provocation than consolation, that perhaps spoke to the circumstances under which the music was composed.

Liza Lim, as is her wont, reimagined the art of the cello in Cello Playing – as Meteorology. James Morley stood behind his instrument, a bow in either hand, coaxing and cajoling resonant sounds from his instrument, his bow-extended limbs drumming, 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 but surprisingly gentle deep-voiced beast.

In complete contrast to such ground-up musical explorations, Richard Mills’s Che scorre achieved its ravishing effect with little more than a sophisticated ear for harmony and immense technical know-how. There were two players – Harrison Swainston (viola) and Nadia Barrow (cello) – but closing your eyes you heard a string orchestra. Nicole Murphy’s Vector for the trombone of Will Kinmont was another standout piece that impressed, in part, through its avoidance of bravura effect. Murphy simply found the right notes and put them in the right order.

Chris Dench’s witty, extroverted un petit mot crabe-c’est-ma-faute, also for trombone, couldn’t have been more different. Trombonist Cian Malikides sidled crablike along a row of seven music stands, then sidled back again, occasionally waving his instrument’s bell in the air, while emitting a continuously varied torrent of phrases and single notes – now whispering, now roaring – across the entire range of the instrument. A commentary on this single, ultra-virtuosic melodic line was provided by Alexander Meagher’s percussive rejoinders. I happen to know the piece had proved a massive challenge for its performers and in a sense their triumphant performance summed up the achievement of the ANAM Set as a whole.

When the composer Arnold Schoenberg lamented that his music wasn’t difficult, just badly played, it was a complaint many composers before and after him might have echoed. But at the ANAM Set Festival there could be no such accusation. ANAM’s students evidently relished the works that had been written for them. One after another, they presented their pieces with the same commitment, pride and love they’d have brought to a Bach suite or a Beethoven sonata. One imagines many of these pieces, fitted to the performers like bespoke suits, will stay in their repertoires.

Such was the festival’s success that the newest batch of ANAM students is asking where their pieces are, and Nick Bailey and his new artistic director, Paavali Jumppanen, are beginning to imagine the next ANAM Set. Their hope is that South Melbourne Town Hall, repurposed as cultural hub, will host it in 2025.

But in the meantime, what of the new federal government? Could history repeat itself? Bailey likes to tell the story of a visit to ANAM by then Arts minister Tony Burke in the dying days of Julia Gillard’s term as prime minister. Two student pianists were rehearsing Olivier Messiaen’s modernist masterpiece Visions de l’Amen. It is a demanding piece and a complex score, the pianists requiring page turners. Burke offered his services to one of them and acquitted himself with aplomb.

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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Andrew Ford is a broadcaster and composer.

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