Classical music festivals are relatively infrequent in Australia, as our analysis in Australian Music Festivals shows. While 13 of a total 21 festivals are located in non-metropolitan areas (see Appendix 1), these locations are either country towns within a reasonably short distance of a capital city, or tourist areas (attractive locations, mainly on the coast). The Oberon location of the Kowmung Festival fits into this pattern, being 180 km or a 2½ - 3 hour drive from Sydney through the Blue Mountains.
Oberon is a highland town with much of its area above 1,100 metres. The most pleasant season is early autumn (March), when the regular annual Kowmung Music Festival was held. The Council area has just over 5,000 inhabitants of whom about half live in the town of Oberon, and most of the rest on individual properties, or in villages including O’Connell to the west and Black Springs to the south, or on subdivisions of 5-10 acre blocks (2-4 ha). The main industry is softwood timber, processed in large factories and based on extensive Monterey pine plantations in the surrounding areas. Farming and grazing also remain important.
The internal migration to the Oberon highland plateau has been significant, mainly from Sydney. Others remain Sydney residents but have properties around Oberon which they visit frequently. While general relations with longer-established inhabitants are harmonious enough, the distinction between long-term “locals” and “blow-ins” is sometimes made. The local organising committees that assisted with the Kowmung festivals largely consisted of “blow-ins”. This should be said because it may also be an issue for other country-based music festivals.
The Kowmung Music Festival was held annually for 11 years between 1997 and 2007. Oberon is located across the Great Dividing Range and most of the locals look 46 km west towards Bathurst (regional population 40,250 in 2012), and beyond to the rest of the NSW Central West. The Kowmung River which gave the festival its name, however, runs from near the village of Shooters Hill south-east of Oberon through the Blue Mountains and Kanangra-Boyd national parks, east of the Dividing Range.
Rohan Smith is an expatriate Australian violinist and conductor who heads the music department of the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Born in 1952, he graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and subsequently became a Master of Music (M.M.) from the Manhattan School of Music. He conducts Exeter’s symphony and chamber orchestras, and has since 2003 been conductor of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra in Brunswick, Maine, a community orchestra with more than 70 members. The Midcoast website contains a summary of Rohan’s international career.
Rohan Smith is married to violinist Eva Gruesser. Born in Germany, she graduated summa cum laude from the Freiburg Hochschule für Musik and is a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York. She holds the Roger Sessions Chair of Concertmaster in the American Composers Orchestra which promotes American contemporary music, and regularly performs with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Eva has performed as guest concertmaster with numerous orchestras including the Sydney Symphony, and she was concertmaster of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra from 2002 to 2007. As first violinist of the Lark Quartet from 1988 to 1996, she won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1991 and the Gold Medal at the 1991 Shostakovich International String Quartet Competition in St. Petersburg. There is much more in Eva Gruesser’s full CV.
Stephen Fearnley took the photo of Eva at the 2007 Kowmung Festival.
With their impressive careers and warm personalities, Eva Gruesser and Rohan Smith were the natural focus through the Kowmung Festival’s existence. But it goes further than this because they were able to persuade current and former colleagues to give their time to Kowmung — many of whom play in the major Australian orchestras. Furthermore, there has been a string of international artists exemplified by the 2002 festival program in Appendix 2. That year a highlight was the performances of Austrian pianists Eduard and Johannes Kutrowatz — the brothers also organise their own Klangfrühling festival in Austria. Eva Gruesser and Rohan Smith have performed there, demonstrating an important positive link with other classical music festivals.
It is obvious from the above that the strength of the Kowmung Music Festival was based on the organisational capability (and enthusiasm!) of its founder, on the fact that he and Eva Gruesser form a nucleus of high artistic quality, and on their ability to convince former orchestral and chamber music colleagues, and artists in other countries, to come to the party.
Other music festivals in Australia, of course, have their own strengths that have enabled them to survive, but we hope that this narrative will lead further into defining the strengths and weaknesses of country-based classical music festivals — quite rare animals which should not be allowed to become a threatened species.
We established in the introduction that Oberon has natural advantages; it falls into a group of several existing classical music festivals in a similar position within comfortable distance of a capital city. The other essential factor is that Rohan Smith’s parents owned a “weekender” property outside the town, which Rohan of course visited. The local “myth” (which is actually true!) is that travelling around the area sometime in 1995 or 1996 he came across the sign “Mozart Road”. He had an immediate epiphany or “eureka” moment visualising a classical music festival taking place over two weekends played by well-known musicians in unusual settings. Returning to Sydney, he enthused his colleagues, several of whom became fixtures at the Kowmung Music Festivals in the years to come.
The first festival was held on a trial basis in March 1997, in venues including a local sheep property near Black Springs and “Slattery’s Shed”, a somewhat primitive structure north of town where the chamber music provided an immediate sense of something new and wonderful happening in Oberon.
The trial was deemed a success, and the festival became an annual fixture for 10 more years. Very shortly into this period, the owner of the “Middle Creek” cattle property outside Oberon, the late Peter Dickson became involved and his cattle shed became the “soul” of Kowmung, where audiences approaching 300 could be seated, where the acoustics were quite amazingly enhanced by its steel roof, and where there was plenty of opportunity for the audience socialising with the artists and one another. Peter and Alison Dickson became permanent friends and members of the organising committee. Peter was well-known as a member of the rowing Men’s Eight that won silver at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
The photo shows Rohan Smith conducting the artists in rehearsal in the cattle shed, in March 2004. Eva Gruesser is at the left of the ensemble. The pianist at the back is Susanne Powell, one of several "regular" Kowmung artists. The most "regular" of them all along with violinist Philippa Paige, clarinettist Peter Jenkin, is second left in the back row.
The Kowmung Festival was originally organised without a formal local committee, though friends did provide support. Rohan Smith initially relied on a non-local manager to do the organising. In 2000, a local resident took over the task, but it became clear that the festival was becoming too big and a committee of six to eight persons took over in 2001.
The next section deals with the sixth Kowmung Festival, in March 2002, based on the second of two audience surveys (the first was in 2001).
Most of the survey results from the original 54-page report to the organising committee and the artistic director are included below. Some findings of purely local significance have been left out, and the financial details are not shown explicitly. The full report may today exist only in the copy held by the author.
The response rate (63%) can only be described as excellent. Its magnitude reflects the high degree of goodwill that the audience felt for the festival, its artists and organisers.
The following will be covered in subsequent sections:
Growth can be measured in different ways, but the various measures are not mutually independent. While there was an underlying upward trend in audience numbers per concert (roughly doubling between 1997 and 2002), the policy of featuring different numbers of concerts from year to year affects other variables (Box 1, right). In 1998, the number of concerts increased by 25%, from four to five, but the total paid audience almost doubled and the average audience per concert increased by 54%. In 1998, the first year after the trial festival the previous year, the underlying trend was very strong indeed.
The 1999 Festival, from these numbers, appears to have been less successful, perhaps indicating a reaction after the extraordinary increase in 1998, but when the number of concerts declined further from four to three, in 2000, the total audience still increased by 16% and the average per concert by another spectacular 54% (as in 1998).
The 2001 festival saw an increase from three to four concerts (+33%), but the total paid audience increased by “only” 23% because of an 8% fall in the average per concert. Again in 2002, the increase in number of concerts (from four to five) was associated with a 34% rise in the total audience but the average per concert increased by only 7%. Many people evidently decided to stay within a budget when faced with a wider choice.
The interrelations between the changing annual number of scheduled concerts and audience numbers don’t tell the full story. Earned income, dominated by ticket sales, increased by a higher percentage than the total paid audience, indicating higher average ticket prices. This happened in each year after 1998 – even in 1999 when the total audience declined by 31%.
Earned income consisted of ticket sales supplemented by an active program of seeking sponsorships from friends and local businesses, income from program and CD sales, surpluses from post-concert suppers and a special concert held during the year, and a modest amount of advertising income shown as a separate group. In 2001, ticket sales contributed 68%, the friends program 28%, and advertising 4%. With a spectacular increase in total ticket sales in 2002, the share of these increased to 79%, the friends’ share was reduced to 19% despite the dollar amount collected declining only slightly, and advertising income fell to only 2% of total earned income.
Public funding contributed a fluctuating annual amount over these six years. There was a regular annual grant from the NSW Ministry for the Arts (now Arts NSW), two grants from Festivals Australia, one from the Australia Council, and two from the Regional Flagship funds of Tourism NSW. Over the six years as a whole, earned income contributed 58% and public funding 42% of total income. The ratio was very similar in the peak year of 2002.
The analysis of the 2002 Kowmung Festival also shows that numbers varied significantly from venue to venue (see Appendix 2 for details of the concert program). This introduced another variable in the analysis, though it appears to have relatively minor influence on the total (maybe because the policy was always to mix venue sizes to cover some of the villages around Oberon like Rockley or O’Connell). Of the total paid audience of 846 persons, the two concerts in the main venue, Middle Creek Cattle Shed, attracted 175 and 275 persons, respectively. The second weekend featured Austrian piano duo Eduard and Johannes Kutrowatz as the only performers at the second of these concerts. The first Middle Creek concert was actually pipped at the post by the Arch Cave concert, which despite its remote location in the Abercrombie Caves more than 70 km south of Bathurst and over 100 km from Oberon attracted 180 bookings. The Arch Cave concert featured a distinguished cast of Johannes and Eduard Kutrowatz, Johannes’s wife soprano Ruth Gabrielli-Kutrowatz, Eva Gruesser, Rohan Smith, clarinettist Peter Jenkin (prominent in Australia especially in contemporary classical music and with his wife, violinist Philippa Paige, a Kowmung mainstay), and leading Canberra-based cellist David Pereira.
There were smaller audiences of 133 for the Irish concert at O’Connell (actually filling the hall to capacity), and a disappointingly small audience of 54 at the only urban venue in 2002, the Marble Hall at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst.
The total number of people attending Kowmung concerts increased from 632 in 2001 to 846 in 2002, as noted below Table 1. The number of individuals attending these concerts was established using the detailed booking records that had been set up to market the festival from year to year. It showed an increase from 389 in 2001 to 503 in 2002. The average number of concerts attended by each person increased slightly from 1.62 in 2001 to 1.68 in 2002, which taking into account the uncertainties was probably not statistically significant. Sydney residents were already the largest group in 2001 (32%) but increased their share to a much higher 43% in 2002. The proportion living in the Bathurst Region declined from 30% to 20%, while the share of Oberon residents fell from 20% to 14%. There were also relatively fewer people from the Blue Mountains (down from 9% to 7%), while the share of the rest of the Central West region of NSW increased from 5% to 6% (Orange, Cowra, Parkes etc.), and the share of the rest of NSW and the ACT doubled from 5% to 10%. A tiny handful lived in other states or overseas.
This suggests that the 2002 Kowmung Festival benefited from greatly increased demand from the largest market, Sydney, but it was a cause for concern that local markets went backwards. Indeed, the detailed analysis showed that the estimated total number of both Oberon and Bathurst residents went backward in 2002, while it remained unchanged for people from Blue Mountains. The increase in the number of Sydney residents compensated for all that, but the loss of local support was not a good sign.
The age distribution of Kowmung participants was very different from the general age distribution of the adult population. There were very few young people (Chart 1). The major age group was 50-59 years, accounting for 43% of the total Kowmung audience in 2002. Another 25% were 60-69 years old and 9% 70 and over. Only 22% of the 2002 audience were aged below 50, compared with 63% of the total population aged 15+. The age distribution of the Kowmung concert goers was identified as another cause for concern. It would be interesting to find out what has been the experience of other classical music festivals in Australia.
Females accounted for 57% of the Kowmung audience, males for 43%. This compares with the 2001 census the shows 7.66m of the total Australian population aged 15+ were females, of a total population of 15.06m (just under 51% female). The detailed survey data seem to suggest that the discrepancy in the audience statistics were concentrated in the 40-49 year age group (which accounted for a disproportionate 51% share of the under fifties), but the sample is too small to be conclusive.
Just over half the audience were part of a pair. Of a total of 321 persons in 169 groups, 62 were alone, there were 82 pairs (164 persons representing 51% of total individuals). There were 12 groups of three, nine groups of four, two of five, one of six and one consisting of seven persons.
Forty-two percent of the audience came from Sydney, 7% from the Blue Mountains, 14% from Oberon, 20% from Bathurst, 5% from the rest of the Central West region, and 12% from further beyond, which overwhelmingly meant the rest of NSW and the ACT, with very few from other states or overseas. This distribution is further discussed in the next section.
This photo was taken during the Kowmung Music Festival in March 2007 and shows the audience in the background and the artists performing on a dance platform erected by goldminers in 1880. It remains solid and is used for concerts, Christmas carols, and the occasional wedding. Photo by Stephen Fearnley.
The Kowmung Music Festival was designed to subject concert goers to unusual rural venues in which to hear great music. The 2002 survey asked questions to find out what attracted patrons to the festival (Table 2). A further distinction of the audience which was becoming important as the sixth Kowmung Festival was launched was whether those attending for the first time had different perceptions from people who had attended one or more Kowmung festivals in the past.
This proved to be so. People attending for the first time did not fully appreciate the special attractions of the venues and general atmosphere and the quality and nature of the music. People who had attended more than one Kowmung festival were much more likely to praise these attributes.
The largest proportion of first-timers (69%) had come on the recommendations of friends and acquaintances, compared with only one-third of those who had attended in the past.
First-timers and people who had attended previously were in general agreement that the unique rural settings were a strength (Table 3). But those who had attended previous festivals were much more likely to praise the skill of the musicians, the mix of music, and (reflecting a significant feature of the festival which most past audience members would remember with pleasure) the social dialogue that was associated with the performances.
The total number of repeat visitors in the survey represented a majority of 54% (170 of a total 313).
Table 4 attempts to find a correlation between the attitude to contemporary music and the concert venue. For example, the first Middle Creek concert had a significant contemporary content: two of four pieces as shown in Appendix 2. The second Middle Creek concert was purely classical: Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, Antonin Dvořák.
It is notable that at the Arch Cave concert 38% of newcomers thought there was too much contemporary music at that concert. This was in stark contrast to persons who had attended previous Kowmung festivals; every single one of these thought the mix was right. As the concert program in Appendix 2 shows, the contemporary composers represented at the 2002 Arch Cave concert can hardly be accused for what conservative listeners might label extremism: Estonian Arvo Pӓrt, and Australian composers Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe.
Generally, new audiences seemed to grow into the Kowmung repertoire even if they could be a little hesitant getting there. This was in harmony with the concept that the artists had planned — a classical repertoire with a significant contemporary component. The apparent conversion of repeat visitors to the Kowmung mix seemed to confirm this policy as realistic. It may have discouraged some from returning, but the survey showed overwhelmingly that 96% of first-time visitors and everyone who had attended before the 2002 festival would be back in 2003. Intentions are not necessarily realised when predicted a year in advance, but that is still powerful evidence.
Another way to look at the contemporary music issue (to the extent that it is an issue for the acceptance of Australian classical music festivals) is to identify the opinion on “too much contemporary” by the home address of the individual.
Jazz was introduced at the 2005 festival, featuring famous saxophonist Sandy Evans with a group. The first jazz concert was held under canvas on a property close to the source of the Kowmung River. Sandy Evans is standing to the left on the stage. Photo: Hans Hoegh-Guldberg.
The value of the Kowmung Music Festival, apart from its cultural connotations, needs to be assessed economically, which proved possible from the survey and other work. In fact, it was a condition of the Regional Flagship Grant that the festival received from Tourism NSW that we attempted to measure the economic value to the communities involved. This was part of the author's motivation to design, carry out and analyse the 2001 and 2002 surveys at no cost to the festival. A summary is given here.
We begin with visitor accommodation, as revealed by the survey. Of the total audience, almost half lived in or close to the area and required no other accommodation, 25% stayed with friends or relatives, and 26% in paid accommodation (Chart 2).
The paid accommodation in which 26% of the responding audience members stayed mainly benefited establishments in and around Oberon (55%). Another 24% stayed in the Bathurst Region, 15% in the Blue Mountains (Mt Victoria, Blackheath, Medlow Bath and Katoomba are an hour or less away from Oberon by car). Six percent stayed in other Central West locations (Chart 3).
Five out of six (83%) of those staying overnight came “just for Kowmung”. A large majority of these (three-quarters) came from Sydney and 85% of these came just for Kowmung. The same applied to a small number from the Blue Mountains and 74% of people with other home addresses.
These numbers do not in themselves indicate economic value. The specific assumptions were:
It was also assumed that the festival broke approximately even. Ticket sales, other earned income and public funding were balanced by expenses. This was indeed the situation over the life of the festival.
Chart 4 shows that the value to Oberon was mainly from visitor spending rather than festival expenses. It was the reverse for Bathurst where the main benefit was from festival expenses. Adding the two components, 54% of the total primary value benefited Oberon, 38% Bathurst, and 8% other areas.
Of the total estimated value to Oberon, Bathurst and the other areas counted as local, 61% was visitor spending and 39% festival expenses (Chart 4 again).
The festival had other expenses which didn’t benefit the Central West or Blue Mountains economies. These expenses, including artists’ fees and travel, amounted to $20,600.
The above values are shown at 2002 prices. The relevant consumer price index increased by 36.4% between March 2002 and December 2013 (the most recent index available when this update was done). The $55,500 estimate of direct local benefit is therefore equivalent to about $75,700 in today’s values.
This represents the local primary economic value of a two-weekend festival. The added primary values themselves lead to successive waves of spending (multiplier effects), which may leak out of a smallish area like the Central West fairly quickly, into the wider world. We conclude, however, that our estimates of local economic value are on the conservative side, if anything.
The Kowmung Music Festival progressed to what was probably its best year in 2004. Audience numbers moved close to 1,000, the program was as outstanding and adventurous as ever, and the festival for once produced a decent financial surplus from earned income and a $10,000 grant. The three following festivals (2005 to 2007) largely broke even.
As noted above, it was during the latter period that jazz was introduced to the festival, featuring eminent artists like saxophonist Sandy Evans (who performed with her groups at the 2005 and 2006 festivals).
All members of the organising committee worked hard and energetically towards a successful outcome, resulting in the success of the 2004 Festival. The good work was carried on in subsequent years with another member of the committee in the chair, and he and his wife held the fort with other members helping until 2007. A certain fatigue had set in, however. No one else in the organising committee or elsewhere in the local community was willing to take on the responsibility. The Kowmung Music Festival appeared to have run its course, at least for the time being.
One problem must be mentioned. Leading up to the 2004 festival, some members of the local committee felt that they should have more power vis-à-vis the artistic director (who, being a busy expatriate artist, was not always available). There were arguments in favour of shaping another vision for Kowmung than its founder had dreamt up, and generally move from the role of practical local organisation to wanting to influence the artistic ideas more actively (against the notion that the local organisation was formed to support, not change, the artistic director's plans for venues and repertoire). This was disputed by others and led to some conflict. The festival did continue as a going concern for another three years, but the local fatigue that may have been associated with the dispute could have contributed to the demise of the festival as an annual event, since it depended on practical local support to continue.
It is difficult to define in detail what may have been the main weaknesses of the Kowmung Music Festival, whereas its main strength is evidently the high artistic quality that carried it through eleven largely successful years. Bearing in mind that country-based classical music festivals — few as they are in number — could become a “threatened species” in Australia, it is worth outlining some of the possible pitfalls:
The Kowmung Music Festival had it 90-95% right. A lot of people have expressed dismay over its demise as a regular event. As this article is reaching its conclusion seven years after the last annual festival took place, there are signs that attitudes in the local community and political framework are becoming more open to a possible revival. The founder of the Kowmung Music Festival himself has never given up his hope that local support can be revived with a new generation of local supporters. He also has his sights set at the State-heritage listed Art Deco Malachi Gilmore Hall as a possible venue. It is located in the centre of town and served as a multi-function entertainment centre and cinema for four decades, and there have been recent attempts to acquire it from its current private ownership. Furthermore he realises that the festival might have sustained its success better if it had been more active fostering new and more altruistic links with the education system ranging from local schools to the regional conservatorium in Bathurst. If the enthusiasm and continued high quality of the artists could only be matched with renewed local support and enthusiasm, the prospects for a revival may indeed prove quite realistic.
Of 13 non-metropolitan classical music festivals in Australia, six are within two or three hours’ drive of a capital city, located in Kangaroo Valley, Bowral, Bangalow and Tyalgum in NSW (the first two adjacent to Sydney, the last two to Brisbane), Woodend in Victoria, and McLaren Vale in SA. Kangaroo Valley and Bowral on the Southern Highlands are also favoured retirement areas for Sydneysiders. One other festival is in a wine district — actually operating within a winery in Mudgee, NSW. McLaren Vale, in addition to being close to Adelaide, is also a wine district.
Five festivals are in tourist areas near water: Bellingen and the Sapphire Coast (both in NSW), Mildura on the Murray River on the NSW/Victorian border, Townsville in Northern Queensland, and Bridgetown, coastal south-western WA.
This leaves Moorambilla which is described in Moorambilla Voices: Up Close in Remote NSW and is clearly in a special position. It is not a classical music festival in any conventional sense.
All but one of the non-metropolitan classical music festivals fit into a pattern — six of the twelve are within two or three hours’ drive of a state capital city, and the other half are in significant tourism areas.
Please note that this analysis is based entirely on the information from the lists. There is no reflection on other merits, or weaknesses, that individual festivals might have.
The Kowmung Music Festival, had it existed to be included in Carolina Triana’s lists, would have fitted comfortably into the pattern of festivals reasonably adjacent to metropolitan areas (even as an area where people move from Sydney, though to a more modest extent than in the Southern Highlands). It is 2½ to three hours’ drive from Sydney; visitor numbers are significant; mid to late March when the festival was held is a particularly nice part of the year in this highland district; and the natural surroundings are pleasant, including the Blue Mountains National Park an hour or less away. It is close to other tourist attractions, notably the Jenolan Caves 30-40 minutes’ drive from Oberon, and in recent years the large “English-type” garden which has been developed around Mayfield west of the town.
Metropolitan Classical Music Festivals
The eight festivals are: Australian International Music Festival and Musica Viva Festival in Sydney; Melbourne School Bands and Strings Festival and Peninsula Summer Music Festival on the Mornington Peninsula, on the southern fringe of Melbourne; Coriole Music Festival (Adelaide); Baroque Music Festival (Perth); and the Canberra International Chamber Music Festival and Canberra International Music Festival. Websites: See Australian Music Festivals: Lists.
Hans Hoegh-Guldberg. Entered on Knowledge Base 14 March 2014. Hans was on the organising committee of the Kowmung Music Festival from 2001 to 2007, the initial three years as its chair. Sincere acknowledgements to Rohan Smith for comments on a draft version.