Mahler, Expats and Australian Culture

Reading The Monthly, there were two mentions of Gustav Mahler – two mentions that had a vastly different contexts.  The first was part of a scathing assessment of Australian culture through the lens of Barrie Kosky; the other was a review of a performance of Mahler by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The Barrie Kosky article, written by Peter Conrad, characterises Australia as a small minded provincial, gridlocked cultural backwater that doesn’t understand the “brilliance” of Kosky and his understanding of European history and culture.  This is why the mentions of Mahler are accompanied by descriptions of Leonard Bernstein conducting it in New York; or as descriptions of a “overwrought, collapsing world”.  This is placed in direct contrast with the description of Australia as “cheerily untragic and so studiously casual”, with Melbourne described as a “small, bad attempt to be Manhattan”.  The message we are encouraged to take away from this image of Mahler is that Australia just isn’t suited to performances of it – hence while Kosky was “pretending to conduct Mahler records in his Melbourne bedroom… his better-adjusted contemporaries spent playing their air guitars”.  Kosky takes this idea further when he says that Shakespeare is pointless in Australia, because we don’t have the same tragic weight in our history.

What this does, with a cavalier sweep of the hand from a man who doesn’t seem to want to understand Australia, is to imply that Australians do not have the capability of understanding a Mahlerian world and that we don’t have the cultural sophistication to mount and respond to thought provoking theatre and music performances.  Anyone who walks the streets of Sydney in the morning, or walks in a particularly raucous suburb on a Friday night knows exactly what Mahler is.  The same goes for Shakespeare – Bell Shakespeare, for whom he once worked, do a great job of contextualising Shakespeare – without resorting to cheap shock and sexual innuendo, which appears to be Kosky’s enfant terrible schtick – even now, through setting a recent production of Kiss Me, Kate in some kind of bordello.  Kosky isn’t original in all this loathing of a perceived cultural backwater.  Cultural cringe has been alive and well for most of our cultural life.  His is a more extreme, caustic one.

Kosky’s “I Still Don’t Call Australia Home” hagiography was undercut somewhat with two other articles.  One was a superb exploration of the poetry of Les Murray by another ex-pat, Clive James, showing that ex-pats can still engage with Australian culture without cavalier sweeps of generalisation.  The other was a review of the Sydney Symphony and its Mahler cycle, conducted by Russian pianist / conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy.  This might be the musician in me, but I tend to place more weight in the opinion of a musician about things like Mahler than a theatre director without the musical skills to support conclusions.  The article was implying that Ashkenazy enjoys conducting Mahler in Australia, losing himself in the music – even if he wouldn’t ordinarily listen to it.  That’s a musician’s take on it.  He conducts around the world and doesn’t seem to think that Australian performers can’t perform Mahler because they aren’t from Europe.  Audiences, too, seem to enjoy Mahler immensely – I know this because the few times the SSO sell out is when Mahler was on.  We also had a Prime Minister who understood exactly where Mahler came from and what he had to communicate to a modern Australia.  Messy, grand, veering into vaudeville, inspirational, tawdry – that was Mahler and that was Paul Keating.

Barrie Kosky, apparently, adores Berlin.  I, personally, think Melbourne’s Berlin Bar is a fantastic little place to visit and enjoy.  Now, which Mahler symphony will I put on?  No, hang on – I prefer Shostakovich.  Much less self-promoting drama queen material.

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