QYO: A Moto Perpetuo of Musical Adventures
By Ruth Back Bonetti
Remember the first time you were immersed in orchestral surround sound? My addiction began with Brahms Hungarian Dance in 1966 at All Hallows school under the baton of John Curro.
Early paths into the world music scene were forged by baton-brandishing JC, who fired his young musicians with enthusiasm, drive and vision. His irrefutable “Why not?” would persuade sponsors, politicians and reluctant Executive Boards to support mammoth goals.
He was encouraged by Franciscan priest ‘Father Fid’ Fidelis Stinson, who buzzed around on an instrument-laden scooter, his robes flapping behind. Father Fid played a pivotal role heading the committee of Queensland Secondary Schools Music Teachers’ Association to form a music festival orchestra of 94 players. Players and their parents demanded more.
Back in those days we rehearsed in schools, church halls, a West End theatre, a night club the morning after. Sarah Scholz’ recent book Bravissimo filled memory gaps about 50 years of QYO. She described the essence of QYO as “true adventurers’ spirit, ambition and belief…the capacity to approach a goal of mammoth proportions with imagination and confidence.”
Reflecting back on a half-century’s remarkable achievements, John identified performing at the 1972 International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Lausanne, Switzerland as pivotal to future morale and growth: “In 10 days we went from thinking we were no-hopers to knowing exactly we fitted into the international scene. We discovered we weren’t the best orchestra, but by no means were we the worst.”
Conductor Ezra Rachlin urged the Executive to support as he did: “A MAJOR CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT with enormous potential for future development to the lasting benefit of their country, their state, their city and its orchestra…”
Some needed convincing an overseas tour was a feasible dream. Living through vision in action, this inspiring experience broadened my horizons and increased confidence. Indelible memories include:
• Fundraising frenzies. Manoeuvres to launch an orchestral caravan into the air and onto buses.
• Performing wind quintets in an Alitalia cockpit acoustic, rewarded with champagne. Alitalia Manager wrote that the captain was especially grateful for this impromptu recital.
• A constant flux of celli, tuba and their owners across the plane. Frazzled crew resorted to feeding us to keep us in our seats.
• A mass of jacaranda clad bodies slumped in Rome airport, sweating hotter than back home. (Why isn’t Europe cold? I packed the wrong clothes.)
• Gobsmacked by a first sight of the Colosseum! Michael O’Loghlin’s American joke: “I’ll take two in case one breaks on the way home.”
• Lamps in ancient catacombs; locating phrase book words to dodge shysters.
• A flight to Geneva then bus to Lausanne amid green hills and earthy fresh aromas.
• A Babel hub of languages in the conference dining hall. We made short work of lettuce salads. Hunger pangs mid-morning after breakfast coffee and croissants. We were bussed out for a “real” breakfast of runny eggs the day of the performance.
• Angst as our big performance neared. Would we be good enough? Insecurity flared into blind funk from the top down. Orchestral manager Michael Byrne nudged me to “say something” to a glum MD.
• Onstage, Michael was applauded after setting up the four soloists’ chairs. I panicked, fearing my Mozart Sinfonia Concertante colleagues had gone on ahead of me.
(Lightbulb “aha!”: A genesis of my books Confident Music Performance and Taking Centre-Stage.)
• Relief: resounding applause from audience and critics. We could enjoy our second concert in the courtyard of Rolle Chateau; a lake cruise to Chillon Chateau; a dramatic lakeside 1812 Overture.
• Some visited the Alps. Those chosen to perform Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique in the International Festival Orchestra rehearsed under Walter Susskind. Playing just one movement (the Eb clarinet witch solo), I went down-town shopping and misjudged a return bus. To ominous chords that precede this solo I ran to my seat just on cue, looking and sounding ultra-witch.
• The dubious episode of QYO clothes at the top of a flagpole. Three players spent the night in jail for climbing up to souvenir flags. Swiss police didn’t see the joke.
• Milan airport: Dali-ish horror scene of Michael O’Loghlin’s bass disgorged fingerboard-by-string-by-F-hole-by-dirty-underwear from the monstrous escalator.
• Avanti to ten heady days in Italy!
• Exploring Milan Cathedral while dodging ogling Italian gentry “practising” their English. Bargaining in Florence flea market; vistas of the Duomo seen through Henry Moore sculptures in the Forte di Belvedere gardens.
• We lived it up–and down. Before our performance in Salo’s piazza of the fourteenth-century cathedral our five-course feast was lubricated with molto vino. Euphoria and accelerated tempi. “Stand up if you can” Il Maestro grunted at the final cadence of Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony. Did misunderstanding over the tab see us in tents near Monza for our next few days?
• Thousands-strong audiences loved our performances at Bergamo, Pitti Palace in Florence, Sforza Castle in Milan, culminating with a memorable final performance in an exquisite theatre in Siena. We emerged to the Palio horse race through the city square, its electric atmosphere of flag waving and medieval costumes.
•A blurred flight home; will write up the diary after Singapore…after exams…
Though one of the youngest orchestras to perform at Lausanne, we Queenslanders returned home boosted by international reputation, appreciated both as musicians and ambassadors.
• “When and how can I return?” Why not? I did. For seven years.
In the early decades of QYO, the players’ enthusiasm compensated for lack of experience.
Now, in 2018, 470 performers warm up backstage for their spot in the QYO Finale concert, to display the inspiring growth of this organisation in a half century.
The meteoric rise of professionalism, finesse and standard humbles early alumni who felt privileged to play in the fledgling orchestra. This nevertheless trail blazed across the national scene. Back in the days when Sydney Youth Orchestra was just starting, when other cities managed tiny efforts, John Curro burst open the cultural cringe with a Queensland orchestra that defied condescension.
My own teaching methods owe much to John’s vision and challenges. Especially that he stretched players and students to the edges of their seats. Could we achieve? Somehow we did.
John was moist–eyed when I presented him with my book Sounds and Souls; How music teachers change lives (as we know they do!) and read his dedication:
For two beacons [with clarinet teacher David Shephard] who lit my voyage into music, teaching and indeed, life: John Curro, for opportunities, vision and the challenge of “Why not?”’
We may think our appreciation of teachers and mentors but do we express it? A sentence of thanks, a card or a tribute can uplift teachers who did not realise the impact of words they long forget speaking.
How many others has John challenged outside their comfort zone to reach new heights? In Midnight Sun to Southern Cross I wrote how John spurred me to my pinnacle:
While at university, John Curro, conductor of Queensland Youth Orchestra, sees that I need a challenge. The Copland concerto is virtuosic but also allows me to express the instrument’s singing tone and lyricism. There are altissimo register and jazzy syncopated rhythms to conquer. And John knows that I will enjoy exploiting its introvert and extrovert qualities.
‘Because the next round performance is two weeks away and I have not learned, let alone played, the Copland.’
‘There’s nothing to lose. You can fall back on Weber. Just do it.’
How I practise. Never have I worked so. I climb a technical Mount Everest; slay dragons of my weaknesses; my rhythmic vagaries are drilled into precision, altissimo register runs conquered. Day and night for a month I live, work, sleep and finally surmount the Copland Concerto. My performance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is already a triumph; there is no apprehension about winning—I did so already. This is my moment, charged with electricity. I shine, ecstatic.
This glorious moment will never be repeated. My feet barely touch the ground as I walk through the City Hall foyer after.
Thank you, John, for spurring me to excel, for your insight and inspiration. QYO changed my life. Many thousands more, professional musicians across Australia and internationally, and inspirational teachers, might echo my words from Sounds and Souls:
For many students, music lessons [rehearsals]are a source of rejuvenation in the desert patches of their lives. They can express pent–up emotions in a range of sounds. Those who have to live with critical parents or in dysfunctional homes look forward to interaction with a positive, creative and listening adult.
Many will look back, decades later, and remember the words you spoke, the times you listened, and how your lessons changed their lives.
You help them blossom in arid times. Your excellent work is valued!
Wheels turn. Generations join the momentum. Many of the 7,000 Alumni see their own children and grandchildren dance to John Curro’s Pied Piper call of “Why not?” From Hameln in Germany in 1980 (when QYO was host orchestra for the International Festival of Youth Orchestras) to China, Japan, USA–indeed, the globe–they typify the unofficial QYO mantra of “Moto Perpetuo”.
How many future talents will warm to that stirring question, that vision?
Thank you, John for your legacy, life-changing influence and inspiration.