From humble beginnings in what was the former Government House stables, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has grown to become a world-recognised institution of higher learning. Back in 1916 ‘the Con’ attracted some of the best musical talent from around Australia with the first intake of 320 students. On May 6 the conservatory will be celebrating its centenary with the Sydney premiere of ‘MASS’, composed by Leonard Bernstein, to be held at the Sydney Opera House.
Today, the conservatory building remains a recognisable feature of the Sydney landscape and retains its reputation as one of Australia’s finest music academies. The Con is home to the University of Sydney music faculty, and also opens its doors to the Conservatorium High School. This year will see around 2500 students studying at the conservatorium.
Music as a continually evolving artform
Although the scope of the curriculum has evolved during the last century, much has remained the same, including one-on-one performance teaching methods, classical class structures and a fair amount of content. It’s actually not surprising, as the Sydney Conservatorium of Music is still a baby compared to some of Europe’s greatest establishments. Nevertheless, some aspects of the Con have moved with the times and would be unfamiliar to traditionalists.
According to Professor Anna Reid, Associate Dean at the Conservatorium, “They probably wouldn’t recognise the broader style of teaching in the tertiary classroom – it didn’t exist then.”
The European-centric focus of the early 20th Century has given way to a flexible curriculum and instruments from non-Western traditions. In fact, many students and lecturers come from backgrounds with their own classical traditions and instruments. Jazz music emanating from the Con is typical of music evolution. Initially closely resembling African-American influences, jazz at the Con now has a distinctive Australian style.
“Today we have students here who learn what from the Western art music tradition could only be called peculiar, but which are absolute classic instruments from China like the pupa, and the shakuhachi from Japan,” Professor Reid said.
A standard equalling Europe’s best
Music students also have a lot more input into their study program, and tutors appreciate individual expression as much as classical learning. The Principal of the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, Professor Karl Kramer, is proud the Con continues to represent the vision of Henri Verbrugghen, the first director in 1916, who wanted the establishment to provide a standard equalling that of Europe’s best conservatoriums.
Students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music study under highly regarded teachers from Australia and abroad. Tutors are often practising composers and established musicians from organisations such as Opera Australia, or from internationally acclaimed orchestras. Professor Reid believes Henri Verbrugghen would be pleasantly surprised to see the Con today.
“We’re still pushing boundaries, we’re still embracing new ways of thinking about music, we’re still bringing in students and teachers that have a wide world of experience in music…I think Verbrugghen would be delighted by it,” Professor Reid said.