David Slater: What travel has taught me


Vienna is currently home for me. What strikes me whenever I return is that so much of the advertising, even on train stations, is for museums, galleries, concerts and the theatre. Even on my street there are posters in windows for choirs and orchestras, pianists and singers, book readings, exhibitions and lectures on the arts. Yes, there is the usual stuff for shops and brands, but here the mix is different. Culture is embedded deep into the psyche. Here it's an essential part of life. That's why I love Vienna so much.


In 2009 I took an Australian orchestra to perform in China. Arriving in Beijing with a swag of official invitations, we promptly had all our instruments confiscated. The charge was illegal importation, and no argument was accepted. A hastily rearranged schedule saw me whisked away in a limousine to some offices where every instrument had been thoroughly documented. A customs agent was engaged; negotiations, signatures, much "chopping" and an exchange of money ensued. That night all the instruments were mysteriously returned and our first performance took place the next day. C'est la vie.


Being blessed with so much in Australia prompts me to visit countries where this isn't so. Asked to take a class at short notice in Mandalay, I gladly accepted. When I turned up, the "classroom" was a three-walled shed with dirt floor and benches. At the front sat around 50 young women, behind around 50 young men and at the sides 30 or so Buddhist monks. The class lasted three hours, no resources but me, yet the students were so keen. My reward? A bowl of noodles and a ride home on the back of a motorbike. More than enough.


In schools at home I always struggled to find enough time for rehearsals. In Japan I have worked with school orchestras which rehearse every day, and on the weekend meet for several hours. During this time they break into sections – trombones here, clarinets there, percussion down the hall, et cetera. For two hours without an adult in sight they diligently practice, entirely student directed. Needless to say, I am always staggered by the complexity and quality of their performances.


Music takes me many places every year on the faculty of international music festivals. We might think the world is a messed-up place in the hands of the current crop of leaders. But when thousands of musicians, aged eight to 80 from many nations come together at such events to share peace, unity and goodwill through music, you have to wonder why it is all so hard. Soon I will work with a youth orchestra from the occupied Palestinian territories, founded in the hope of peace by the great Jewish-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Maybe if we replaced our emphasis on economics with Mozart, and spent more time with Beethoven than on political ideologies, getting along mightn't be so difficult after all.

David Slater has studied, taught, performed and conducted the music of Ludwig van Beethoven for more than 40 years. He now lectures, performs, gives masterclasses and sits on international music festival juries. David is Australia's ambassador to the World Choir Council and has won many awards. Next year he will lead Traveller readers on the Happy Birthday Beethoven journey in Europe, to mark the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth.