Anthony Steel is Australia’s most eminent and experienced festival director. He has directed five Adelaide Festivals, three Sydney Festivals, two Australian Theatre Festivals, two Brisbane Biennial Festivals of Music, the Coriole Music Festival, the 1988 Brisbane World Expo on Stage and the Singapore Festival. He has been general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Adelaide Festival Centre, and management positions with the London Symphony Orchestra and London’s South Bank Concert Halls.
Phew! What a resume! He found time to chat with us before his upcoming appearance with Guy Noble at Classics Unwrapped 2: From Russia with Love, Wed 19 June, 6.30pm, at Adelaide Town Hall.
ASO: Your thoughts on a bold vision for a purpose-built home for the ASO and a centre for music education?
Anthony Steel: It almost amounts to an insult to the ASO and its audiences that the Orchestra does not have a home of its own. The ASO already does a great deal of useful work within the broad community, but not nearly as much as would be possible if it was based in a centre for music education with a purpose-built hall. From every point of view it would be a huge asset to the State and should be a political no-brainer.
Finish this sentence: music is and always has been a fundamental part of the human condition.
What has been your most memorable musical performance?
Attending the world premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry cathedral, conducted by the composer. It is a work that was completely overwhelming at first hearing and has well and truly stood the test of time.
Do you play an instrument?
I used to play the clarinet at a reasonably good amateur level. Both my sisters were professional musicians – a pianist and a cellist – so there was always plenty of music happening at home.
Favourite composer and why?
A completely impossible question to answer, but int view of the context of this blog I will plump for Shostakovich.
What do you love about the ASO?
The same thing I loveabout all excellent orchestras, that those 75 musicians regularly give me infinite pleasure.
During the 80’s you were General Manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, how does the local scene compare, in terms of audiences and musicians?
It is very hard to compare the audiences as the LA Philharmonic’s catchment area has a population about the same size as that of the whole of Australia. Let’s just say that they have a bit of an advantage there. As far as the musicians are concerned there is an old saying ‘there is no such thing as a bad orchestra, only a bad conductor’ and both these two bands certainly try to avoid engaging any of those! When I was in LA the orchestra was not as good as it is now. It is particularly pertinent to note that one of the main reasons for its subsequent improvement was getting its own home, the superb Walt Disney concert hall.
Most memorable ASO concert you’ve attended and why?
Another impossible question but I would have to pick the opening performance at the Adelaide Festival Theatre, whose general manager I was at the time, on 2 June 1973. At the end of the interval I escorted Prime Minister Whitlam to his seat and then ducked backstage to join the tenors in the chorus for Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. For me that was quite a night…
You’re a passionate advocate for the need for the arts to break conventions. Do you believe this should be said for Orchestras as well? How do you think the ASO fares?
If by breaking conventions you mean, as I suspect you do, at least in part, programming more contemporary music, as well as other music that isn’t part of the absolutely standard repertoire, then I think it is essential for orchestras to do so. But it is easier said than done, especially in an isolated city with access to a limited audience and very few major sponsorship opportunities. Strangely enough Los Angeles is in one way a good example here, as it is since the orchestra got Disney Hall that it has come to be considered possibly the most interesting orchestra in all the USA for its programming.
You are featuring as special guest at Classics Unwrapped ‘From Russia with Love.’ What are you most excited about with this performance?
To the extent that ‘excited’ can mean ‘feverish’ I am a little nervous at the thought of my five minutes with the famously wry, if not ironic, Mr Noble.