Australia Ensemble, a Rich Musical History

Australia Ensemble resident at the University of New South Wales

Establishment and management

In 1979 Roger Covell (then an Associate Professor and chief music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald) and clarinettist Murray Khouri approached the University of New South Wales Chancellor, Justice Gordon Samuels, to explore the possibility of the establishment of a resident chamber-music ensemble in the university.  Gordon Samuels was enthusiastic and took a proposal to the university Council which passed a resolution to the effect that the University of New South Wales Ensemble be established and that funding for six half-time core musicians be allotted.

The ensemble would be charged with playing a series of six subscription concerts each year, together with six free lunchtime concerts and six workshops.  As well, the musicians would be expected to play in ad hoc orchestras established to support performances in the former UNSW Opera series and, currently, the 80-100 strength Collegium Musicum Choir and the Burgundian Consort performances presented to the public by the University.  The latter groups are trained and conducted by Sonia Maddock, Manager of the Australia Ensemble.

To allow the presentation of works requiring instrumentation beyond the capabilities of the core musicians, provision was made for the ad hoc hiring of guest musicians.

An advisory committee was set up to support the Artistic Director, Roger Covell, and this body was chaired by Gordon Samuels for roughly the first fifteen years; that is, until he was appointed Governor of the State of New South Wales.  Emeritus Professor Roger Covell retired from the Artistic Directorship in October 2013.

The first subscription concert was presented in 1980.  On this occasion, a number guest musicians was required because the programme included Mendelssohn's wonderful string octet, op 20.  The pattern of subscription concerts, free lunchtime concerts and workshops has endured until this day, as has the University's support of the group.  A few years after the establishment of the ensemble, the Advisory Committee persuaded the Council to change the group's name to 'the Australia Ensemble resident at the University of New South Wales'.  Later, as elucidated below, the number of core musicians was increased to seven.

Core musicians

As you may have seen in our recently published interview with Irina Morozova (known as Irena), she is the only foundation member still remaining in the ensemble.  At the time she joined, Irena held the Principal Viola chair of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  Irena has presided over juries of the Shostakovich International String Quartet Competition in St Petersburg and the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and was invited to perform and adjudicate at the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition on the Isle of Man.  Irena has frequently been Guest Principal with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

John Harding, who occasionally played for the Sydney Mozart Society as a young violinist a few decades ago, was the foundation violinist of the Australia Ensemble.  When John decided to move on in 1982, Dene Olding was appointed in his place.  Supported by a Churchill Fellowship for advanced studies, Dene had trained at the Juillard School of Music in New York and, when he joined the Ensemble, was the leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  Dene has won many awards, including the Bronze Medal of the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Violin Competition.  He is Artistic Advisor to the Michael Hill International Violin Competition.  Dene remains the co-concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  It was not long after his appointment to the Ensemble that Dene and Irena became the first married couple in the Ensemble.

Given the Ensemble's wish to play, for instance, string quartets, the employment of a (guest) second violinist became a frequent occurrence.  Dimity Hall played often in this role.  After a while, a gentlemen known to the Advisory Committee as 'Mr X' kindly sponsored a Chair for Dimity for a number of years.  Eventually, the University Council agreed to increase the number of core musicians from six to seven, and Dimity was appointed as the Second Violinist.  Dimity undertook postgraduate studies in Amsterdam where she won the Concertgebouw's coveted Silveren Vriendenkrans Award.  She performed and toured as a casual member of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Dimity has been Principal Second Violinist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, guest Principal of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and guest Concertmaster of the Melbourne and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras.

When the foundation horn player, David Stanhope, decided to move on, the Ensemble was extremely lucky to engage the outstanding flautist, Geoffrey Collins as the replacement core member.  Geoffrey has been Principal Flautist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Associate Principal Flautist, and frequent guest Principal of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  For many years he has been the Principal Flautist of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, a position he currently holds.

In 1991, the foundation 'cellist, David Pereira, decided to move to Queensland.  Julian Smiles was appointed to replace him.  For many years, Julian held the position of Principal 'Cellist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  He has appeared frequently as Principal with both the Sydney and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras.  In 2013, Julian was appointed Lecturer in 'Cello at the Sydney Conservatorium, the music department of the University of Sydney.  It was not long before Dimity and Julian became the second married couple in the Ensemble.

(In 1995, Dene, Dimity, Irena and Julian formed the much acclaimed Goldner String Quartet.  This group in completely independent of the Australia Ensemble.)

The Ensemble's foundation clarinettist, Murray Khouri, was succeeded by Nigel Westlake, son of Donald Westlake, former Principal Clarinettist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Nigel was an outstanding player but, little by little, shifted his focus to composing.  His composition, Onomatopea (for clarinet and digital delay), first performed at an Australia Ensemble subscription concert, was an outstanding success with the audience.   In 1995, Nigel decided to turn his whole attention to composing, producing film music (Antartica, Babe, Miss Potter, etc) and a number of major chamber-music works.  The Ensemble was very fortunate in being able to attract another outstanding clarinettist, Catherine McCorkill.  Cathy had also studied with Donald Westlake before being awarded a Churchill Fellowship for advanced studies in Europe and the USA.  Returning to Australia, Cathy was appointed Principal Clarinettist of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, later taking up positions at the WA Conservatorium of Music and then the Victorian College for the Arts.  She has performed as a soloist and guest Principal Clarinettist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with which she has been Principal Clarinettist.  Cathy is currently Associate Principal Clarinettist of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.  Her première performance of Nigel Westlake's Rare Sugar for solo clarinet and ensemble, a work commissioned for the Australia Ensemble, led to a 2008 APRA/AMC Award for the best performance of an Australian work.

David Bollard, the Ensemble's foundation pianist, served the group for its first twenty years.  He was succeeded in 2000 by distinguished pianist and composer Ian Munro.  Ian's early piano studies in Melbourne were followed by advanced work in Vienna, London and Italy.  He won major prizes at the Leeds, Busoni and Vianna da Motta international piano competitions.  Ian has appeared as a soloist with orchestras throughout Europe and with all the leading Australian orchestras in over sixty piano concerti.  In 2003, Ian was awarded the Premier grand prix at the Queen Elisabeth Competition for Composers and in 2011 was Musica Viva's Featured Composer.

Concert Tours

The Australia Ensemble resident at the University of New South Wales has undertaken many national and international tours.  The latter include tours in the USA, the UK, the then Soviet Union, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and South America.  It has always been well received and has attracted high critical acclaim.  It is frequently said that it is the leading chamber-music ensemble in the country.


I have written these notes about the Australia Ensemble and its core musicians at the request of the President of the Sydney Mozart Society.  For much of the material, I have drawn on my own memories (which may be faulty).  Some of the details about the musicians are based on the 2014 Brochure of the Australia Ensemble resident at the University of New South Wales.  One may obtain copies of this brochure from the Music Performance Unit, the University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW. 2052.

Martin Cooper, Artistic Director, Sydney Mozart Society                  2013 October 27


Photograph below: Australia Ensemble Resident at the University of New South Wales, 2013 - Dimity Hall (violin), Julian Smiles ('cello), Catherine McCorkill (clarinet), Geoffrey Collins (flute), Ian Munro (piano), Dean Olding (violin), Irina Morozova (viola)

Australia Ensemble, a Rich Musical History