It’s great to see that the Sydney Festival will go ahead in January 2021 with an ‘Australian Made’ program – no big name overseas acts but the spotlight on some wonderful local musicians, dancers, actors and artists. Naturally crowd numbers will be restricted with the various COVID-19 protocols but it’s a brave move to stage the event rather than surrendering to the pandemic and postponing until the following year.
Sydney in January has always had a unique buzz about it with its balmy summer nights and unpredictable weather. The latter is something that the Sydney Festival has always had to contend with, especially with its large scale outdoor events.
Back in 2012, Mike Patton of Faith No More fame was presenting his Mondo Cane concert in the Domain, playing the music of Italian pop songs from the 50s and 60 along with a sizeable orchestra. During the first three songs the grassy expanses of the Domain, packed with thousands of festival goers, were hit with one of Sydney’s infamous sudden downpours – torrential rain accompanied by swirling winds. Sheet music from the stage blew in all directions as much of the crowd scattered. After a 20 minute break the indefatigable Patton returned to the stage to reward those who saw out the tempest with an encore of songs.
Similarly the ever popular Symphony Under The Stars has regularly battled the elements with ponchos an essential item in the picnic hamper. Whilst the rain has sometimes reduced numbers, it has never deterred the faithful and the warm summer evenings more than compensate for a soggy behind. Perhaps if weather predictions were a lot more accurate and rain was the forecast, the orchestra could plan ahead with atmospheric inclusions like Handel’s Water Music or Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain.
Back in the late 1970s when the event was known as The Festival Of Sydney, under the direction of Stephen Hall (aka ‘Festival Hall’), there was a more populist, broadbased approach to the programming. The gala opening concert at the Sydney Opera House featured Sherbert, John Paul Young and Johnny Farnham whilst an extensive sporting program included a Soapbox Derby and a tug-of-war competition in Hyde Park. Sure there was opera, theatre, dance and a sizeable jazz festival, but the Festival cast its entertainment net wide for all to enjoy.
That’s not to say the more recent Sydney Festivals have bogged down in high art and neglected the populace at large. The various directors have always looked to a combination of paid and free events that cater to a variety of tastes. Times have changed and it’s unlikely we will ever see free model train rides for kids in Hyde Park like we did in the late 70s, but there is plenty of modern innovation to come. Mind you I would love to see a return of Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck as we did in 2013. Five storeys high and five storeys wide, the big yellow ducky was such a hit with Sydneysiders that it made an encore return in 2014.
This year’s festival director Wesley Enoch may not have foreseen the current election mayhem in the US, but the inclusion of the giant inflatable Trump Baby would have been an enormous coup and a massive crowd pleaser. Imagine too, the Trump Baby, poised atop the big yellow ducky back again 2021, sailing splendidly into Darling Harbour. Now that’s what I call entertainment!