A Sea of White: A Glimpse into Canberra’s Classical Music Scene

A simple survey of the white-capped heads of the murmuring crowd, atop the plush red seats of Llewellyn Hall, indicates the age of the majority of Canberra music goers. Scattered amongst these greying domes are only a few younger couples and individuals. Attendance at classical musical events is dominated by those who have seen many more bitterly cold Canberra winters than most of us who wander between the odd collection of buildings at ANU.

Iconic events such as the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) picnic concert at Government House and the four-part ActewAGL Llewellyn Concert Series are permanent features of the classical music calendars of Canberra’s elderly musical audience. In general, Canberra’s cultural (and in particular musical) scene is very well attended by Territorians. Free concerts at the High Court are often at full capacity, and regular concerts at the ANU School of Music’s Llewellyn Hall contribute to this scene significantly. However, classical music concerts in Canberra often lack younger audiences despite the diverse repertoire, targeted student ticketing campaigns and the convenience of many of these concerts.

Llewellyn Hall really is an extraordinary cultural and educational asset for Canberra and ANU, attracting some very high profile musicians and groups right on the doorstep of a large student population. The Hall has recently seen the vibrant and highly professional Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO) playing an eclectic and energised program, which included the work of notable contemporary Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe and world-renowned Proms soloist cellist Li-Wei Qin. With facial expressions of deepest concentration, bows swiftly striking down in the string section, the musicians were ably led by renowned British conductor Andrew Gourlay, who conducted the orchestra in a sublime and refreshing interpretation of Rachmaninov’s second symphony. The 2nd movement, in particular, demonstrated the tremendous skills of some of Australia’s finest young musicians through its buoyant rhythmic passages and intense moments of Romantic climax. The AYO produced a truly enthralling performance within minutes of the ANU campus and all for the cost of lunch and a coffee at God’s Café.

Local musical talent at all levels can be seen in the incredibly diverse upcoming programs of the CSO and the Canberra Youth Orchestra, taking place both within the traditional concert hall setting and beyond. March will see Jessica Cottis, one of the leading young conductors of the classical world, taking up the baton in the CSO’s first subscription concert with a pastoral-inspired program. Also during this year, the diverse and internationally recognisable artist James Morrison working with the CYO on a Jazz and Big Band inspired program on the 11 November. The awe-inspiring, virtuosic trumpeting of Morrison is something not to be missed! In the upcoming programs of both orchestras, there is considerable diversity in repertoires. From contemporary Australian music to the classic compositions of Beethoven and Mahler, there is certainly something to cater to everyone’s tastes.

Yet the question remains, how do we get uni students into the concert hall?

I could go on at length – I really could! – discussing arguments around the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ and connections between intelligence and listening to classical music, or exploring the emotional and academic benefits of engaging with music. I will settle, for now, with a little more pragmatism – namely location, affordability and diversity. Many of Canberra’s classical and orchestral concerts, including those with international artists, are within walking distance of ANU or even on campus itself. Tickets are invariably under $30 for students, with many concerts often offering ‘student rush prices’. Finally, there are so many groups, artists and repertoires to choose from, you will definitely find an event that inspires you.

Let a bit of curiosity take you down the road to Llewellyn Hall or on a bike ride across the lake to the High Court. There is certainly no guarantee that you will like everything you hear but there is truly something special about live music in a concert hall that neither YouTube nor the best noise cancelling headphones can possibly capture or convey. There is no feeling of nervous anticipation or excitement like the second when the conductor raises the baton for the first time. Every eye glued to the stage, every ear tuned to the downward flash of the baton and the room’s collective intake of breath. So take the plunge. Dive into the intellectual unknown, brave the sea of white and go to a classical concert.