Throughout the world major cultural festivals inevitably reflect the social environment and historical background of the cities in which they are held. Look at Australia for example. The highly successful and always innovative Adelaide Festival has built its brand on both the intimate layout of the city itself and decades of strong patronage of the arts. The Perth and Melbourne festivals have been traditionally more conservative in their programming, relying heavily on proven festival content from abroad.
Here in Sydney our own festival has a somewhat chequered history, one that says a lot about the brash, opportunistic and at times chaotic nature of this city. After many years of experimentation, punctuated by numerous hits and misses, the festival would appear to have reached a certain equilibrium – financially successful and warmly embraced by the populous at large. But it wasn’t always that way.
Established in 1977 under the directorship of the late Stephen Hall (aka ‘Festival Hall’), the early years reflected the pageant like celebration of its predecessor The Waratah Festival combined with an increasing artistic input. Hall often attracted criticism for his more populist approach that included miniature train rides for kids in Hyde Park but slogged it out, gradually adding more and more highbrow content.
Hall remained as director until 1994, clocking up an incredible 17 festivals but was finally axed after his final festival ran up a loss of $500,000 – a lot of dosh at the time. Since then most of the directors have held tenure for around three years with the idea that a turnover of supremos encourages new ideas and diversity.
Whilst the last few decades have seen theatre, dance and the visual arts well catered for at the Sydney Fest it’s often the music content that has captured the attention of audiences. There have been some memorable hits and misses here. Following Hurricane Katrina the 2006 Festival staged a superb tribute to New Orleans with concert in the Domain featuring The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Preservation Hall Band and Terrance Simien.
For many years the Bacardi Club in the Hyde Park Barracks operated as a popular outdoor venue, featuring both local and international artists. There were many great shows but one night that is worth recalling is the appearance of Afro American blues and soul singer Margie Evans. There was a sudden downpour before the show and the audience were all handed white hooded ponchos. As Margie was about to take the stage she caught a view of the crowd for the first time and later joked she was horrified at the thought she was about to confront a Klan rally.
Other festival music highlights worth particular note include Celia Cruz at the State Theatre, Tuareg guitarist Bombino and soul great Lee Fields in the Spiegeltent and a tribute to the late Jackie Orszaczky with the Budget Orchestra in the Festival Village.
One of the less successful music projects during the past decade was the transformation of the cavernous Sydney Town Hall into a giant nightclub style music venue, labelled Paradiso. The 2013 and 2014 roster featured some fine international acts including Japan’s Osaka Monourail and a reunion version of the legendary Kashmere Stage Band from the US. The venue looked super and the shows were well attended however the sound was a shocker – a muddy acoustic soup (like most heavily amplified music in the Town Hall) and many punters left disappointed.
Nevertheless this kind of experimentation and innovation is what arts festivals are all about and directors should be encouraged to take a gamble, rather than just playing safe and protecting their box office figures. There is something about those balmy January nights in Sydney that says it’s time to be adventurous. Personally I would like to see the miniature train rides back in Hyde Park but I guess that’s another story!