Friday 12th June, 2020

Memories of John Curro

Over five decades, John Curro had a profound influence on Australia’s musical life, as founder and director of music at the Queensland Youth Orchestra. Here Gabrielle Knight, ex-QYO oboist and Words About Music participant at AYO National Music Camp 2020, discusses Curro’s legacy, and the National Music Camp orchestra named in his honour.

It’s a cold, blustery day in Bonn. The excited chatter of the 100-odd orchestral musicians of the Queensland Youth Symphony (QYS) surrounds me, floating up into the rafters of the Church of the Cross. Inside, away from the chill of a German midwinter, we crowd between the pews and exchange our winter layers for instruments. Slowly, we migrate towards the front of the church, manoeuvring our way between music stands and flimsy plastic chairs until we finally reach our respective seats. As we prepare for rehearsal, many of us think longingly of the warmer weather we’ve left behind.

It is December 6, and after departing Brisbane almost two weeks ago we’ve neared the midway point of our 2017 international tour. We were split into two groups to travel from China to Germany, and this is the first time we’ve all been in the same place since then. It’s clear, by the level of noise, that we are all pleased to be reunited, but as soon as maestro John Curro steps up to the podium, everything becomes quiet. We start with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and at rehearsal mark 51, much to John’s surprise, the orchestra deviates from what is written in the score.

The rendition of Happy Birthday is bold, brassy, and remarkably pleasant compared to how QYS usually plays it: when everyone picks their own key, it often devolves into an atonal mess. This time we were instructed, quite firmly, to play in D major. When we finish, John leans back in his chair.

“It nearly started to rain,” he jokes, gesturing to his glasses and then to his music stand. “I won’t be able to see the score any worse than usual…”

Later that night, after an afternoon spent exploring the city, we return to the church for the concert. It would be easy to say that every performance with John at the helm was special, but this time something feels different. In the booming acoustics of the church every note resonates, every chord is amplified. It is one of our best performances on tour; today, on his 85th birthday, we are truly making music for John.

On the morning of November 7, 2019, when the news broke that the godfather of classical music in Queensland had passed away, there was an immediate outpouring of condolences. Social media soon overflowed with messages, people from all walks of life coming together in a wish to express their sorrow over the loss of one man: John Curro AM MBE.

Born to Italian parents in Cairns in December 1932, music actually played very little part in John’s early life. His parents made him learn the violin, but in a 2016 interview for the ASPIRE International Youth Music Festival he admitted to hating every minute of it.

“My whole desire in life was to play cricket for Australia—that was my thing, and I was pretty good at it too,” he remarked at the time.

While studying architecture, a friend introduced John to the violinist Alfredo Campoli. Hearing that John also played, Campoli offered him two tickets to his forthcoming Brisbane concert. It was this performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that sparked a passion for music in John that never abated. In 1955, the same year in which he graduated with his degree in architecture, John also reached the finals of the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition performing the same Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He spent some time studying in Rome, and upon his return to Brisbane in the late 1950s he met violinist Jan Sedivka, who was teaching at the newly established Queensland Conservatorium of Music. In John’s own words, he was “the teaching genius who changed my life.” In just a few short years John made the switch from violin to viola, joined the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, and also became a teacher at the Conservatorium. He met his wife, Carmel, a Conservatorium student of piano and voice, in the early 1960s, and had five musical children.

John was renowned internationally as a conductor and music educator, and conducted many of Australia’s professional orchestras as well as opera and ballet seasons across the country. He received many prestigious awards throughout his lifetime, but it is his artistic mentoring of young musicians and advocacy of music education for which he is most well known.

The Queensland Youth Orchestra (QYO) was established in 1966, almost by chance, as John was fond of saying. A student orchestra was formed to perform at a festival aiming to promote music education in schools. The experience was so successful and popular with the players that they pleaded for it to continue. The Festival Orchestra became the Combined Secondary Schools Orchestra, which would eventually become the first Queensland Youth Orchestra.

“It was very much a case of the blind leading the blind at the beginning,” said John in a 2017 interview for Limelight Magazine, somewhat self-deprecatingly. “I learned alongside the players in those early years and was good at bringing out other people’s visions.”

While the organisation received a great deal of support in the early days, and indeed still does, it was John’s artistic vision, enthusiasm and leadership that helped QYO become what it is today. It is the state’s major orchestral training and performance organisation, catering for nearly 500 young musicians aged 9 to 25 across seven ensembles. The flagship ensemble, Queensland Youth Symphony, has toured and performed extensively throughout Australia and internationally in 13 overseas tours, with past members active in Australia and abroad as soloists, teachers, chamber musicians, and members of major symphony orchestras. He also established the National Youth Concerto Competition, which since 1976 has encouraged young Australian string players to reach for higher standards of playing and helped launch the careers of artists such as Richard Tognetti and Ray Chen.

“John had a vision, and he imagined what could be, and committed his life’s work to building an institution that has resonated with multiple generations,” said John Kotzas, CEO of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, during the Memorial Celebration of the Life of John Curro held on 22 December 2019. “For the past 50 years the QYO and the AYO have been the foundation stones upon which so much contemporary orchestral practice has been built and continues to be built.”

The Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO) originated in the music camps founded by John Bishop and Ruth Alexander in 1948. Since then, AYO has expanded to include not only yearly performance opportunities for musicians, but programs for aspiring composers, arts administrators and music journalists as well.

Each year at National Music Camp, the chamber orchestra is named in honour of individuals who have made a significant impact on the country’s musical life. This year the orchestra is the Curro Chamber Orchestra.

“You have to think about what you want to say, when you’re naming an orchestra after somebody,” said Colin Cornish, CEO of the Australian Youth Orchestra. “In the case of John Curro, the timing was such that it really felt like it was the right time to do it. His impact over the decades is huge, if you think about how many young people have been influenced, and then think about all of those people who now have students or have children of their own.”

Curro Chamber Orchestra with Director, Natsuko Yoshimoto, John Curro's daughters, Sarah and Monica, and wife, Carmel.

It’s a domino effect of sorts, triggered by just one man. However, the orchestra is named not just for John, in celebration of his enormous contribution to music in Australia, but also to recognise his daughters, Sarah and Monica, for their continuing musical innovation and leadership.

“Because we’d already recognised John in a previous year, I also thought it was good to think about how his legacy lives on,” continued Colin. “It’s not only in all the young people who come from QYO to the camp, but both of his daughters, who are tutors at AYO programs. They both hold positions in orchestras and also have their own projects, pushing things forward, doing new activities, teaching. Recognising them as well kind of makes it a lot more relevant, a little bit like passing the torch.”

I mentioned this idea to Monica Curro a few hours later, when we etched out a little bit of time from a hectic National Music Camp schedule to have a chat, and asked her how she felt about the notion.

“Oh, honoured,” she said. “Sarah and I have both been thinking, well, now that he’s gone, it’s left a big hole. We can’t fill that particular gap, but we’ve ended up doing lots of things outside our job descriptions because of Dad and his example, his kind of vocational lunacy."

“We gladly accept our responsibility, and we’re proud to be his daughters.”

Of John’s five children, four have chosen musical careers of their own: Monica and Sarah, both violinists, play with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Daniel is a freelance cellist; David a teacher and part-time violinist; while Jonathan is a computer IT specialist. Naturally, the people upon whom John had the biggest impact were his own children, which can be seen in the busy lives they now lead. Following his example, both Sarah and Monica regularly commission music from Australian composers. Sarah has commissioned ten years’ worth of solo violin works, while Monica’s trio, PLEXUS, has commissioned 106 pieces since the ensemble’s foundation in 2014.

Monica and Sarah Curro (Photo Credit: Daniel Aulsebrook)

“I guess when you grow up with it you think it’s normal, but when you get a bit of distance you realise that it’s not,” mused Monica. “He did a lot of commissioning of local Queensland composers and Australian composers. That may not have occurred to us if he hadn’t shown that to be a priority or a duty, a responsibility. That filters down to the participants of QYO as well. They’re more aware that maybe they could commission something from somebody. New work is important. And it makes you think, well, we don’t just have to play the music of dead people.”

While PLEXUS has a busy schedule lined up for next year, it is her recent appointment as Artistic Director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, alongside pianist Stefan Cassomenos, that has been consuming her life lately.

“Last year was our first festival. We decided that we’d focus heavily on community engagement, so we had a massive ‘Dad-style’ extravaganza where 75% of the people on stage were from the local five shires around Port Fairy. Nothing like that had been done before,” she explained. John was of the opinion that everybody had the same potential; if they were just given the opportunity, they would be able to thrive. Clearly this is a notion that he passed down to his children.

“It’s really nice for us all to work together because you realise how much people really do love music and how important it is to them. When it’s your everyday job it can get a little bit wearing, you know? So it’s really good to have a reminder of that. They’re such lovely people and they don’t know how good they are, because they don’t get to do it very often. So I guess the last year of my life has been more about community projects.”

In true Curro fashion, Monica also has plans in the works that will hopefully improve the quality of music education in Victoria. Queensland is very lucky in this regard, something I was unaware of until quite recently; it is the only state to have mandatory classroom music lessons in primary schools.

“I’ve met a lot of school teachers – classroom music teachers, instrumental teachers, choral teachers – who are all screaming out for a more standardised kind of curriculum for music in primary schools. Music is just good for everybody. It’s good for school marks, for mental health, socialisation, team building. It makes everyone smarter. I’m just trying to support the teachers of the area with what they want. So that’s what’s keeping me busy at the moment.”

I can’t help but agree. It sounds like more than enough to be getting on with. Then again, Monica is a Curro – and perhaps some of that vocational lunacy is genetic.

How many flutes are too many flutes?

That’s the question I find myself asking as the QYS Alumni Orchestra prepares for its performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, one of John Curro’s favourite works. Whatever the answer may be, there are eight of them playing in this afternoon’s concert; a musical celebration of John’s life. I’m not technically eavesdropping, but I’m close enough to hear what they’re saying and it’s enough to make me grin. I know exactly what they’re talking about, because I’ve also heard the story.

It goes a little like this:

During a QYS rehearsal, many years ago now, the orchestra was working on Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The piccolo player was absent, and had arranged for someone to cover for them. After arriving at the third movement, and a notoriously difficult piccolo solo, John stopped the orchestra afterwards so that they could go back and play it again.

“It’s okay, I’m just filling in,” said the fill-in. “We can keep going.”

But that didn’t matter to John, so back they went, several times, until the replacement piccolo player could perform the solo perfectly. Then, years later, that very same piccolo player found themselves preparing the solo from the third movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra for an important audition. They played the solo, and after a moment’s silence, the panel asked them to play it again.

“Because it couldn’t possibly have been that good on the first go,” John said. “That’s why it shouldn’t matter if you’re only filling in. It’s still worth playing it again and making sure it’s right.”

I first heard this story during my own rehearsals with QYS, ironically enough for the very same piece. But based on the reactions of the flautist alumni, it was a story John was fond of telling regardless of the repertoire he was preparing at the time. He was first and foremost an educator, and never wasted an opportunity when it came to imparting even the tiniest pieces of wisdom to the young musicians of his orchestra.

Having fallen into the role largely by accident, John never set out to be personally successful. He committed wholeheartedly to the organisation, making it his number one priority in life.

“I like the way he framed it,” said daughter Monica. “He said, ‘I like to give children something to do and a place to come and a goal to strive for in the dangerous years.’ So he knew what he was doing was pretty well social work as much as music.”

 John turned down a great deal of professional work simply because saying yes would mean missing QYO on Saturday mornings, and even mortgaged his house so that the orchestra could afford to go on their first international tour in 1972. John considered that tour a critical point in the development of QYO. The chance to compare their abilities to those of nine other youth orchestras from around the world was a great morale booster, allowing the musicians to realise that, “They weren’t just from some silly old backwater in Queensland where nobody could do much,” as he told ASPIRE in 2016.

John has left an incredible legacy behind, in part because of his unwavering levels of commitment. He trained orchestral players, and he trained them well. He impressed upon his orchestra the importance of listening, to know where and how your part fits into the bigger picture, until that became a default setting for his players. He could take a brand new string section and within weeks have them producing a unified sound. He reminded his orchestra, even those not playing wind and brass instruments, of the importance of breathing together so that an entry would be clean. And he would spend a great deal of time with the wind section, tuning and balancing them, because to him that was the core of the sound of the orchestra.

“Bad intonation is not an option!” he would proclaim, often and loudly, and was delighted when the viola and cello sections had shirts made with that quote on them to wear on the 2017 international tour.

The Bamberg Concert Hall is packed to the brim, both on stage and off. Every seat in the audience looks to be filled; the Queensland Youth Symphony fits neatly into the semicircle of stage risers. We’ve just finished our final performance of the tour, or at least the audience might think so; but we know better. John walks off amidst thunderous applause, a volume of sound that only increases when he returns to the stage. He looks around at us expectantly, raises his baton, and then we’re off.

The Radetzky March is a piece that everyone in the orchestra knows very well. We’ve all played it at least once, and heard it many times over – it is probably the only constant when it comes to QYO’s end of year Finale Concert. It’s a crowd favourite, and almost always results in the audience clapping along. The responses in Germany, just a stone’s throw from Johann Strauss Senior’s homeland of Austria, have yet to disappoint. The audience in Bamberg is delighted. They recognise the tune from the very first bars, and their clapping accompaniment remains perfectly in time as we skip and dance through the piece.

Other than making sure we all started at the same time, John has very little to do as we play. Compared to the other pieces we’ve played over the course of the year, and crammed into many performances over the last three weeks, Radetzky is easy. This means that, like any great performer, he has an opportunity to pander to his audience. Except for one fondly exasperated frown, aimed in the direction of the double bass section when they heave an almighty “OI!”, this is what he does. He turns around. He waves his baton, conducting the audience instead of the orchestra. They’re remarkably good at following his dynamic cues. Then, when we reach the end, he raises his arms in exactly the same manner as a triumphant string section and the audience once more erupts into cheers and applause.

Backstage after the concert the atmosphere is chaotic, fuelled by the emotional rush of adrenaline that comes from completing a three-week international tour. Musicians clad in red, beige and blue are everywhere, packing up instruments, chatting with friends—and lining up outside John Curro’s dressing room, hoping to take a photo with the rockstar himself. John, of course, takes it all in stride. He welcomes every individual and group warmly, even though he is surely the most exhausted of us all, and happily poses for each photo.

These pictures end up in various places: Facebook, Instagram, maybe Twitter, if people still use that. QYO reposts some of them on their own social media channels, as well as the blog on their website. Nearly two years later, when I finally get my act together, I print mine out, frame it, and hang it on my bedroom wall. Just a few weeks later, I see it projected above the stage during a video presentation at John’s memorial concert.

I spent only a single year as a member of QYS, a relatively short tenure when compared to many of the musicians I shared a stage with, as well as the hundreds, even thousands who came before me. I was just one drop in an ocean, one of the many who have benefitted from the incredible institution that John created.

You don't have to look very far, particularly at National Music Camp, to see the great effect he had on classical music in Australia. Two tutors at camp this year, Shane Hooton (trumpet) and Sally Clarke (viola), are QYO alumni, as are all three orchestra concertmasters: Julia Hill, Claire Weatherhead and Fiona Qiu.

Current and former QYO members can be found throughout the various AYO programs; they have been for years, and will be for many more to come. Casting a broader net, QYO alumni can be found as principal and section players all across Australia. Others have gone on to cultivate successful international careers as soloists, orchestral players and educators. Ask any of us and I’m sure we’ll agree that we owe him a lot. To borrow John’s own phrase—he was the teaching genius who changed our lives.

Maybe his concert is over, but his encore has just begun.

This article was written by Words About Music participant, Gabrielle Knight