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The Sydney Conservatorium of Music (formerly the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music and sometimes known as the ‘Con’) is one of the oldest and most prestigious music schools in Australia. Located adjacent to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, the Con incorporates a faculty of the University of Sydney, the community-based Conservatorium Open Academy and the Conservatorium High Schoolmarker.

The Greenway Building

Originally constructed in 1821 as the stables for the proposed Government House of New South Walesmarker, the structure that houses the Conservatorium is one of the few surviving works of the convict architect, Francis Greenway. A gothic structure with turrets, the building was described as a "palace for horses" and is a portrayal of the romantic vision of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and the British architectural trends of the time. The stables, located close to picturesque Sydney Harbourmarker, reflect the building techniques and the range of materials and skills employed during the early settlement era.
Front western view
Conservatorium of Music during Macquarie Night Lights from 23 November to 25 December 2006

Origins of the Conservatorium

In 1915 the NSW Government under William Holman allocated £22,000 to the redevelopment of the stables into a music school. The NSW State Conservatorium of Music opened on 6 March 1916 under the directorship of the Belgian conductor and violinist Henri Verbrugghen, who was the only salaried staff member. The institution's stated aims of "providing tuition of a standard at least equal to that of the leading European Conservatoriums" and to "protect amateurs against the frequent waste of time and money arising from unsystematic tuition". The reference to European standards and the appointment of a European director was not uncontroversial at the time, but criticism soon subsided. By all accounts, Verbrugghen was hugely energetic: Joseph Post, later himself to be director, described him as "a regular dynamo, and the sort of man of whom you had to take notice the moment he entered the room". Enrolments in the first year were healthy with 320 "single-study" students and a small contingent of full-time students, the first diploma graduations occurring four years later. A specialist high school, the Conservatorium High Schoolmarker was established in 1918, establishing a model for music education across the secondary, tertiary, and community sectors which has survived to this day.

Verbrugghen's impact was incisive but briefer than had been hoped. When he put a request to the NSW Government that he be paid separate salaries for his artistic work as conductor of the orchestra (by then the NSW State Orchestra) and educational work as Director of the Conservatorium, the Government withdrew its subsidies for both the orchestra and the string quartet that Verbrugghen had installed. He resigned in 1921 after taking the Conservatorium Orchestra to Melbourne and to New Zealand.

The Conservatorium was home to Australia's first full-time orchestra, composed of both professional musicians and Conservatorium students. The orchestra remained Sydney's main orchestra for much of the 1920s, accompanying many artists brought to Australia by producer J. C. Williamson, including the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, who donated money to the Conservatorium library for orchestral parts. However, during the later part of the stewardship of Verbrugghen's successor, Dr W. Arundel Orchard (Director 1923–34), there were tensions with another emerging professional body, the "ABC Symphony Orchestra", later to become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, driven by the young, ambitious and energetic Bernard Heinze, Director-General of Music for the Federal Government's new Australian Broadcasting Commissionmarker.

In 1935, under Edgar Bainton (Director 1934–48), the Conservatorium Opera School was founded, later performing works such as Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff and Othello, Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Die Walküre, and Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, among others. Under Sir Eugene Goossens (Director 1948–55), opera at the Conservatorium made a major contribution to what researcher Roger Covell has described as " the most seminal years in the history of locally produced opera...". Although the most prominent musician to have held the post of Director, Goossens' tenure was not without controversy. Apart from the international scandal surrounding his departure in 1956, Goossens was said during his directorship to have channelled the best players in the Conservatorium Orchestra into the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (of which he was concurrently Chief Conductor), leaving only a student group for the Conservatorium. He disbanded the choir and several chamber ensembles and, some claimed, tended to ignore administrative matters. Richard Bonynge, however, who graduated in 1950, felt that it was Goossens who turned the Conservatorium into a world-class institution, lifting standards and exposing students to sophisticated 20th-century scores (particularly those of Debussy and Ravel).

Expansion and reforms

Verbrugghen Hall, named after the first director of the Conservatorium
Under the direction of Rex Hobcroft (1972–82), the Conservatorium adopted the modern educational profile recognised today. Hobcroft’s vision of a "Music University" was realised, in which specialised musical disciplines including both classical and jazz performance, music education, composition and musicology enriched each other.

In 1990, as part of the Dawkins Reforms, the Conservatorium amalgamated with the University of Sydney, and was renamed the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

A 1994 review of the Sydney Conservatorium by the University of Sydney resulted in a recommendation 'That negotiations with the NSW State Government about permanent suitable accommodation for the Conservatorium be pursued as a matter of urgency'

As in 1916, a wide range of sites were considered, many of them controversial. In May 1997, 180 years after Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone for the Greenway Building, State Premier Bob Carr announced a major upgrade of the Conservatorium, with the ultimate goal of creating a music education facility equal to or better than anything in the world. A team was assembled to work to that brief, resulting in a complex collaboration between various government departments (notably the Department of Education and Training and the Department of Public Works and Services), the Government Architect, US-based acoustic consultants Kirkegaard Associates, Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke Architects, the key users represented by the Principal and Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and the Principal of the Conservatorium High School, the Royal Botanic Gardensmarker and Domain Trustmarker and many others.

The building process saw the temporary relocation of the Conservatorium’s performance activities, and the Conservatorium High School to the Australian Technology Parkmarker from 1998–2001. With the Conservatorium's Composition, Music Education and Musicology Units housed in an office building in Pitt Street, the challenges (which had existed since the 1970s) of a split campus connected only by an umbilical railway line from Redfern to Wynyard became acute.

By the time of the relocation, the historic Greenway building, Governor Macquarie's stables, had housed music students for longer than it had housed horses. Nevertheless heritage was a sensitive issue. The redevelopment has restored Greenway's historic castellated building, removing newer additions to discreetly complement, enhance and enlarge the public green space of the Royal Botanic Gardens. For the city of Sydney it makes a major step towards the completion of the vision first enunciated by the then Conservatorium Director Eugene Goossens in 1947 when he lobbied Joe Cahill (Minister for Local Government, later Premier) for an Opera House on Bennelong Point to create a music precinct in the lower end of Macquarie Street. For the Conservatorium, it provides facilities of outstanding acoustic and architectural quality in which to serve the music and wider communities, and to educate future generations of performers, musicologists, composers and music educators.

Centenary commissions

To mark the centenary of the Con in 2015, it will be commissioning 101 new works, the spread designed to represent those who have shaped music over the past 100 years. The first work in the series will John Corigliano's Mr Tambourine Man, based on the poetry of Bob Dylan, which will be presented on 11 September 2009.

Newcastle Conservatorium of Music

The Newcastlemarker Conservatorium of Music opened as a branch of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music in 1952 with an initial enrolment of 163 in the first week of opening. In its first year of operation, 388 students had enrolled and in the following years, 1953 and 1954, 562 and 608 students had enrolled. Its staff consisted of both local teachers and teachers from the Sydney branch. Prior to the establishment of a local Conservatorium, up to 60 students were travelling to Sydney every week for lessons.

The Newcastle branch was supported financially by local industry and commerce, groups and individuals and later a State Government Grant (which it still receives to date), along with tuition fees. Money was raised from businesses and community to help students with scholarships. The Newcastle City Council also awarded scholarships and facilitated popular end of term student concerts in the Town Hall.

After having occupied various buildings, including a "timber barrack building" on King St, the 3rd floor of the now Newcastle Regional Library and an adapted warehouse, the Conservatorium moved to its current site, the old Salvation Army hostel, a 5 storey building on the corner of Gibson and Auckland Streets. With 50 dormitories, a central location and sufficient land for expansion, this was deemed an appropriate site for the Conservatorium which moved there in 1981.

Construction of a new, state-of-the-art concert hall, as well as an entire new wing including mixing and recording facilities, more teaching studios and administration offices was completed in 1988.The 'Harold Lobb Concert Hall' is now considered to be one of the best, if not the best acoustic halls in Australia, and constantly draws comments of admiration from visiting national and international performers.

In 1990, the Newcastle branch ceased its relationship with the Sydney branch (now the Sydney Conservatorium) and became known as the Faculty of Music at the University of Newcastle. In 2001, it amalgamated with the university's Department of Drama, and is now known as the Conservatorium: School of Music and Drama.

The Conservatorium currently sees around 220 tertiary students enrolled in its 3 year Undergraduate program. There are also a number of fourth year students enrolled in an Honours program.The Conservatorium aims to increase enrolments and widen its approach through offering a greater variety of subjects such as improvisation, recording and electronic music production. Such changes are being made under the guise of Head of School Prof. Richard Vella, and encompass the addition of contemporary genres into the curriculum. However unlike Sydney conservatorium, Newcastle does not offer two separate degree programs for traditional and contemporary musicians. Instead it attempts, rather ambitiously, to cater for every conceivable musical style in the one degree program. Students therefore receive a breadth of knowledge covering all styles but a rather shallow understanding of any particular one. As a result many courses which prepared students for careers in a romantic orchestra or other large ensemble, such as traditional harmony and ensemble skills classes have been highly diluted.

There have been mixed attitudes toward the new changes to the curriculum. By contemporary, jazz and world musicians it has been undeniably welcomed for its inclusivity and educational benefits. The criticisms derive primarily from classical instrumentalists who are affected the most detrimentally by the changes. Ironically throughout history it is these classical instrumentalists who have made up the vast majority of conservatorium students. The largest number of proposed changes is to the ensemble studies course. Students are no longer required to attend a large ensemble (e.g: orchestra). In addition to this students are only allowed one assessable ensemble and must pay the Conservatorium another fee separate to their tuition fees in order to participate in any other ensemble. Due to the popularity of chamber groups and the increasing number of contemporary musicians there are concerns from instrumentalists that the large ensembles will cease to exist due to a lack of numbers. This poses problems for classical instrumentalists whose sources of employment consist often of a combination of chamber and large ensembles.

Numerous ensembles (have previously) included:
  • University of Newcastle Wind Orchestra
  • University of Newcastle Chamber Choir (of recent fame)
  • University of Newcastle Symphony Orchestra
  • University of Newcastle Jazz Orchestra
  • The Conservatorium Choir
  • StringTech Orchestra
  • The Guitar Company
  • Percussion Ensemble "Concussion"
  • Brass Ensemble
  • Cello Ensemble

Heads of the Conservatorium

Professor Kim Walker has been Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium since 2004. The past directors, principals and deans were:

Notable alumni

Notable teachers


External links

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