February 2010

The Nation Reviewed


By Gay Bilson
Paul Grabowsky performs during the launch of the ABC digital radio service, July 2009. © AAP Image

At first glance, the 2010 Adelaide Festival program felt, well, small, in a sensible, tightly fused kind of way, with far fewer advertised events than the usual cascade of choices one expects from major-city festivals. It is possible of course that this is the result of a tight budget in tight times, although the last artistic director left Adelaide’s festival purse in good health. Premier Mike Rann, in his introduction to the program, calls it the biggest yet, but the evidence is to the contrary. Instead, the money seems to have gone to carefully chosen, often collaborative and complex performances.

Adelaide may not be on the same scale as Sydney or Melbourne (it is, surely, a large, conservative country town with mixed and mostly thwarted aspirations to becoming bigger and better) but its arts festival retains a mythic cachet. This is largely the result of its venerable age, but the city is also the right size to be dominated by a major arts festival, which includes a hugely popular (and proudly free) Writers’ Week and, in 2010, the promise of a brilliant visual arts program curated by Victoria Lynn.

Paul Grabowsky, 51, the artistic director of this year’s celebrations, thinks a festival is essentially about place, although one suspects that he needs to lay claim to this belief as much as he genuinely believes in it. Adelaide likes to own its artistic directors and the relationship is at best mutually congratulatory (Robyn Archer was spectacularly successful in giving the city not only fine festivals but what it liked) and, at worst, a case of village politics (the charismatic American opera – and peripatetic festival – director Peter Sellars, handed the 2002 festival, was hounded out of town for attempting to change the status quo).

In response to my querying eyebrow about the 2002 festival, Grabowsky reckons the central problem was structural: too many cooks. (As one of Sellars’ cooks I know that the perceived failure of his festival was much more complicated than the surfeit of associates suggests.) Yet Grabowsky praises Sellars for proving that film commissions can play a vital role in arts festivals. Indeed, Sellars used his festival to usher in change, although for the most part Grabowsky’s festival restores the old status quo.

Grabowsky, like Sellars and Archer, is an artist, a practitioner; he is a musician and composer of formidable talent, energy and confidence. He also exercises considerable charm, although I would never call him “culpably delicate”, Dr Johnson’s definition of nice. “Do performers conceive of a different kind of festival than impresarios?” I ask. He smiles and agrees that it is a very different mindset and leaves no answer in the air. I reckon his sympathies are with his own kind.

When I ask about his background, he replies that his family is “failed Polish aristocracy”, which is of course a much more romantic connection to claim than to the successful kind. He grew up in Melbourne after the family’s stint in New Guinea and spent years undertaking a classical music education (his only brother is also a musician). Fluent in German, he spent five years in Munich from 1980.

Grabowsky says that on reading Patrick White in Munich, he yearned to come home to Melbourne. “No writer evokes Australia with the same literary force as White.” We briefly talk about Voss and the indelible scene in which Laura Trevelyan’s beautiful hair is cut off because she has such a high fever, and the box of pears on the dining room table, and the aroma of rotting pears that fills the house.

But Grabowsky’s talk is almost exclusively about music. The London Sinfonietta’s two concerts, which include works commissioned by Grabowsky and collaborations with south-east Arnhem Land musicians, are surely central to his festival and closest to his heart.

I asked about Le Grand Macabre, the Ligeti opera and the coup de foudre of his festival. Grabowsky believes Ligeti is the most important composer of the second half of the twentieth century, a musician who “created a world of micro-tones between tones, a world of close pitches and notes beating against one another”. It is an unavoidably practised response, but deeply felt and persuasive.

The pitch rises as we approach the crucial relationship between performed music and its audience. “Art is a latency until activated by a receiver,” he declares. “An artist cannot second-guess response.” Indeed, the engagement between performer and audience is essentially the invigoration of creative performance. Grabowsky sees each performance and each audience response as changing the nature of the work of art, or, specifically, that of composition. When I suggest this sounds like a corollary for improvisation he mentions a particular performance by Alfred Brendel of a Haydn sonata, which prompts me to remember a performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I felt as if I had heard it for the first time.

But where does this leave the average person who buys a ticket to a particular performance? It leaves her, I suspect, with the possibility of catharsis, or, in the majority of cases, without. She takes a punt, based on prior knowledge, her own prejudices and open-mindedness, and the spin of a festival’s public relations (the publicity material for the 2010 Festival repeats over and over again that Grabowsky is “thrilled” to present this and that. He dismisses the spin but should have curtailed it).

I have attended many Adelaide Festivals over nearly 40 years and contributed to three. I count one performance as an epiphany: Experimentum Mundi, in 1998, an operatic work centred around and celebrating artisanal work without any pretension towards turning the workers into sophisticated musicians. The opportunity is there and transformation is up for grabs. But one epiphany is enough.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

Cover: February 2010

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