More cause for mourning, down under

More cause for mourning, down under


norman lebrecht

September 10, 2009

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s centenarian Mum, enjoys mother-of-the-nation status in Australia, or at least in the environs of her stately home near Melbourne. Early this year, she co-endowed the city with the southern hemisphere’s first purpose-built chamber music hall, an acoustic marvel in a burgeoning arts quarter that briefly threatened to challenge Sydney’s role as continental capital of culture. I saw the hall as it neared completion and reported with some enthusiasm on its prospects.

What I contained at the time were my concerns about medium-term plans, once the opening budgets had been blown and the centre bedded in to the serious business of building a solid audience for chamber music around a nucleus of local performers. It was never going to be easy, and sure enough, the whole caboodle had just fizzled out.

Last month, the Dame Elisabeth Hall sacked its excellent artistic administrator David Barmby after revealing half-year losses of A$1.5 million. A decision was taken by the board to operate the facility in future as a hall-for-hire, forsaking the original artistic aims and reconstituting it as a garage, where any junk can be stored and staged.

The unimposing chief executive, Jacques de Vos Malan, explained that he was acting on the advice of independent assessors. Any person of conscience in that position would have resigned on the spot, seeing that his job description had been reduced to booking clerk. Further personnel changes are expected soon.

The best hope for the Dame Elisabeth Hall, say Melbourne’s arts leaders, is that it will be merged into the city’s Arts Centre, which is to be run by the returning Wales Centre chief, Judith Isherwood. Ms Isherwood has experience of far larger unplanned deficits – a £13.5 million red hole in her first three years – that ought to bring a dash of perspective to the petty-cash crisis. The Melbourne Arts Centre has much in common with Isherwood’s Cardiff venture. It fills up on ice-dance shows and hoary musicals (booking now in Cardiff: Les Miz and High School Musical 2).

So there goes Australia’s gentle dream of a dedicated recital and chamber music venue, named after its most gracious citizen. I wonder how long it will take for Dame Elisabeth, a genuine arts lover, to remove her name from the door, or how long it will be before another donor can be persuaded that it is not altogether impossible to raise the tone down under.