Current Issue #488

Nation-building through the gentle art of music

Nation-building through the gentle art of music

While the ABC continues to wind back the Adelaide operations of Classic FM, put the iconic Studio 520 in mothballs, and now dismantle its extensive sound library at Collinswood, another national organisation continues to serves the arts in exemplary fashion: Musica Viva.

Musica Viva, of course, is not a statutory body like the ABC, but that might be to its advantage: as Australia’s oldest independent professional performing arts organisation, it likewise operates from Sydney but through a well-developed committee structure and grassroots volunteer support in each state, and a 66-member national advisory council.

Its South Australian office may be small (it’s tucked away in St Paul’s Creative Centre on Pulteney Street) but it nevertheless looks here to stay. Currently, the changes are instead at the top. After nearly 20 years, the duo of Mary Jo Capps and Carl Vine have decided to call it a day, as CEO and Artistic Director respectively. Capps leaves first, at the end of this year, and Vine at the end of 2019.

“It is very important to the both of us that there is an orderly process to get the best people and it would have been a bad thing for both of us to leave at once,” Capps says.

Mary Jo Capps, Musica Viva’s outgoing CEO

In Musica Viva’s concert series that takes place in each capital city, they have provided the pinnacle of chamber music in this country, in addition to which they claim to run the most active commissioning program of any Major Performing Arts organisation in this country. That places it above the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the ASO and its interstate siblings, and our larger theatre and opera companies.

What also clearly matters is educating our young people: less visible to the wider public is the fact that Musica Viva operates an extensive In Schools program in all states in which nearly 300,000 children participate. It also has a residency program to build instrumental teaching and singing to primary schoolkids.

So when stewardship changes at the top, one hopes that the vision and good work continue.

For Capps, it all owes to the respect she has for the people who have made Musica Viva what it is, going right back to the beginning when the organisation got going with the passionate efforts of a handful of individuals in each capital city. Edith Dubsky was one of these, she says. She ran Musica Viva concerts here in Adelaide virtually single-handedly for 34 years as state secretary.

“In many ways, Adelaide probably has the closest link to the origins of how Musica Viva began,” Capps says. “I was fortunate to know Edith, and through her this wonderful sense of Musica Viva being owned by the people of Adelaide. I put it down very largely to Edith and her energy. She knew everybody and every seat, and we cherished those early subscribers. Elsewhere, we have moved around between venues, but in Adelaide it has always been the Town Hall. It is acoustically a gem, and Musica Viva performers have loved it pretty much above all venues.”

Capps tells a lovely story of how, when Dubsky passed away, a single white rose was placed on her seat in the Town Hall at each concert. Capps explains: “It harks back to how she attended concerts right up until her death, and it was a gesture of saying no-one could sit in her place.

“Since those days we’ve of course had to be careful about not wanting Musica Viva to feel like an exclusive club, where one has to literally wait until somebody died before they would bequeath their seat. This was very much how it used to be right into the 1980s. Since then, we’ve wanted to make sure chamber music is welcoming for everybody.”

She and Vine set this as one of their major tasks. Vine’s programming has been inclusive and progressive at the same time, and on top of that has been a raft of new activity. One was Musica Viva’s Ménage series a few years ago with cellist Hilary Kleinig, and more recently came FutureMakers, a program for early career artists – Ukaria hosted this last year with Arcadia Winds.

“It is about nurturing these voices,” Capps says.

For Vine, it is also been about aspiring to four tenets in programming Musica Viva concerts: excellence, diversity (embracing any combination of instruments as long as it’s in the classical music canon), challenge (including new compositions to break up the mould), and enjoyment, whereby listeners share a sense of joy in the process. It could be a template for life.

“If you have particularly good music, audiences are receptive,” Vine observes. “Adelaide audiences are that: we cherish them, as they tend to be stayers and Adelaide has a 90 per cent retention of subscribers. Listeners might not always like a new work, but they always say they’re glad when we include them in a program.”

It comes down to how one may view life itself, Capps suggests: music must constantly dance between tradition and innovation. “Chamber music captures a zeitgeist,” she says. “With amazing artists, one can learn directly and intimately about the world”.

Musica Viva begins its 2018 season with German clarinettist Sabine Meyer and Alliage Quintett at the Adelaide Town Hall on Thursday, March 8

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