Positively Scottish Humans of Oz: Jonathan Mills, the international festival knight

Jonathan Mills Photo: Peter Casamento/University of Melbourne

In this series of regular articles, our Melbourne-based correspondent meets the Positively Scottish Humans of Oz

When Jonathan Mills nabbed the top job at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2006, it ruffled more than a few feathers. Not only was Mills largely unknown in European artistic circles and taking over from long-time director Sir Brian McMaster, he was Antipodean to boot. One of the loudest protests at the time came from arts commentator Norman Lebrecht, who labelled Mills a “minnow” lacking the “intellectual symbiosis” for the job, and suggested that “Aussie misfits” should “go home”. Perhaps Lebrecht had not yet discovered that Mills was actually a Scot by blood, his paternal grandfather hailing from Partick. Down Under, however, Jonathan was already a big fish, having successfully steered music festivals in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, and composed a number of operas and a ballet. When he finally stepped down as director of the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 after eight years at the helm, he’d overseen 958 performances by 16,530 artists from 66 different countries. To cap it off, he’d been knighted, having also received an Order of Australia two years prior. Recently, Jonathan (who doesn’t really bother with the Sir stuff), has been back in Australia to oversee Cultural Collisions, a programme of 10 events he curated in collaboration with academics and students from the University of Melbourne. For this music scholar and qualified architect specialising in acoustic design, it’s been a culmination of his twin passions, built around the work and ideas of three artistic visionaries who all have connections to Melbourne and the university—pianist and composer Percy Grainger (also a graduate of the University of Melbourne), and American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marian Mahony Griffin.

This programme is about the idea that the University of Melbourne is a kind of treasure trove and what we’re doing is lifting the lid off it, saying ‘here is this remarkable thing that you probably don’t even know exists in your community…let me show you’. And let me explain why it’s important.

These people were working in completely different areas, but they were, in their own way, trying to make fundamental changes to the way we understood, perceived, enjoyed and experienced our world—in the case of Percy Grainger through music, and in the case of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahony, through the built environment, architecture, design and urban planning. And I’m wondering whether there was something about this place, not just about them as individuals, but this place collectively that either inspired or influenced them to think they could work and dream the way they did.

There’s 10 components to this programme, from exhibitions to lectures to performances. Most interesting of all is the degree to which our own students at the university are involved. Seven different faculties across the university are collaborating on this, from sculpture students to singing students, from people who are architects or engineers to people who are software engineers or humanities research students who are thinking about the idea of the philosophy of art and architecture.

There is a very great difference between Scottish festivals and Australian festivals, but the main difference is in scale. The festivals I’ve done in Australia are, frankly, tiny in comparison to the Edinburgh Festival.

The other thing is that is because it’s older and longer established, there is a very clear tradition to the festival in Edinburgh and there’s much more emphasis on tradition there. What is interesting though, is the traditional in the UK is counterbalanced by the very opposite. I think it’s a little more middle-of-the road here in Australia.

It’s also much, much, much cheaper in Edinburgh. I don’t think there’s any desire to charge more for things in Australia—I actually think everyone here does a great job at keeping prices down as much as they can—but there are strategic costs that are just unavoidable. I mean, to bring an orchestra to Edinburgh is a charter jet or an hour on an easyJet flight, whereas the same airfare to Australia is probably $3,000 per person and a 30-hour flight.

Plus here, the audiences are essentially domestic, either within Australia or, even more, within the city—whereas half the audience in Edinburgh is international. I’ll put it another way—there’s 500 million people within a two-hour flight of the Edinburgh Festival. There are not 500 million people within a two-hour flight of the Melbourne Festival.

My inspiration still comes from Australia though, because I was born here, I grew up here. And this is the place I return to. I enjoyed the adventure of Edinburgh—I’m still living there, I’m still doing things there. And I’ll continue to. But I’m from a generation where we don’t have to choose. There’s a generation of people who came from Australia to the UK in the early 60s—people like Clive James and Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer—who somehow had to make choices as to where they were going to live because it was too far. But I come back to Australia three times a year.

The first time I went to Scotland was when I was on summer holidays living in London as a child. I was in a school choir and we spent summer being the choir at the smallest cathedral in Europe, called the Cathedral of the Isles on the island of Cumbrae, off the coast near Glasgow.

Though that was my first time in Scotland, I came from there. It was very familiar somehow and I couldn’t explain how or why.

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