Close to the Flame – Stuart Challender’s Biography – Review Part 1

My daughter went for her P plates the other day. It was nerve-wracking for her, and a bit for me – I hoped she’d pass and have a bit of freedom.  But the day threw me back to my own past post-P plates times in ways I did not expect.

Waiting for her pre-test lesson and test, I had time to kill in Springwood Library, a place I had not visited for more than 20 years. It’s changed a bit in the intervening years. The local council and various other governments have pumped money into the previously under-funded Springwood town centre, and the new library is nice and serviceable.  There was also a poster for an orchestra of which I was a member – the Blue Mountains Orchestra, who have an upcoming concert. The orchestra was for me a place of many musical semi-triumphs and many moments of late teenage awkwardness.

Lots of memories.

In my time there I got into a book – it was Richard Davis’ recent biography of Stuart Challender, Close to the Flame.  I would be in a mood to review it properly – and one day, I will. But this post is not really a detailed review of the book. It is more about what the book was doing to my soul.

For those who don’t know who Stuart Challender is, he was the Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for 4 years, 1987 – 1991. His life is a tragedy in so many ways. He passed away from a condition related to AIDS, just as he was hitting his stride as an Australian born conductor of the SSO who was putting in the hard yards with the orchestra, as opposed to being an overseas based chief conductor coming here sporadically.

His early life struck a distant chord with me, in that he was born into a life and context as far removed from Sydney as could be imagined, to working class parents in Hobart in a time when Hobart was not the hipster haven it is these days.  Reading of a time when he was being bullied at school for being different, and then his stories of a tearaway, ambitious conductor who was organising his own concerts at the age of 15 and then heading off to Europe in his early 20s, it threw me into a swirl of jealousy.

I was into classical music at school and was considered a freak, but I wasn’t organising my own concerts and getting scholarships. In my 20s, I was writing my honours history thesis on the Sydney Symphony, two years after Challender’s death, having never heard him in concert. I was desperately trying to find out at that time why I was so alone, without connection to others my age in Sydney.  I didn’t have the scholarship and dedication to living a big social life that Challender possessed in his 20s.  That’s why I wrote my thesis. As I was reading the book, I realised that a tragedy of Challender’s death is the notion of unfinished business. If had lived on, if there was no AIDS, I would have loved to have interviewed him. Talk about a way forward for the orchestra, how to connect with the new audience members.

My thesis was driven by that isolation from my peers at uni, and was that same loneliness that was at the heart of my notorious blog posts about the “Sydney Push”.  When I feel low and disconnected to Sydney, that’s how I get thrown back to my own early 20s. As I read, I remember the attention I got for those.

Knowing that my attention was slipping, and that I was getting a touch morose, I skipped and jumped around this well constructed biography of Challender, I could see where it was going.  The arrival in Sydney, and his ability – due purely because of his experiences in Europe –  to climb to the top of the Sydney cultural tree. It will be an awe inspiring and tragic tale when I eventually read it properly.

For me, though, I could see where it was going, and where it intersected and dovetailed with my own work about the Sydney Symphony. Here was one rare time when an Australian was being respected for work in Australia, unlike for the original Sydney Push in the 60s, who needed to leave Sydney to gain respect. And then he passed on, and the Sydney Symphony slid back into seeking and revering conductors from Europe and the US. Understandable, considering the nature of the demanding European born Sydney audiences, characterised as the “Schnitzel Squad” in the biography. I am looking forward to digging into the book, as I suspect that it will glean many nuggets of Sydney’s musical and cultural context that are largely missing from other accounts of our orchestra.

“Our” orchestra. This is where the complication comes in for me. Reading the biography threw me back into reflecting on my hate / love relationship with Sydney for decades now, ever since going to Sydney Uni.  I was always an outsider and always will be.  It was that complicated relationship with Sydney which drove my Sydney Push blog posts. I regret writing them these days, in that many have used them to insult me on Twitter. Yet, I needed to write them at the time, as a way of articulating my own anxiety issues, as well as seeking to observe cycles of behaviour, which is an abiding interest of mine.

Now, though, these years down the track, I realise the posts have done me good. They purged me of jealousy and anxiety about such a silly thing as a clique.  I have now moved on, and am much more settled in who I am and in my identity.   The people I characterised as the new push have gone onto do a variety of things and have splintered onto various pathways, even though apparently some of their connectedness lives in on Whatsapp chat group form. Good on them.

Back to the biography of Challender, however, his life had substance and abiding interest for anyone wanting to see how culture and psychology meet.  The book will bring me sustained interest and food for thoughts.  I look forward to seeing how he conquered Sydney, but more importantly, how he was able to bring to this place a heart and soul for music, even though it was all too brief an exposure.