Lunch with Peter Burch, Musica Viva Melbourne Concerts Manager

Lunch with Peter Burch
Barney Zwartz
The Age, August 27, 2011

He has led an extraordinary life in the arts – and, stabbing aside, has loved every minute of it, writes Barney Zwartz.

LIKE many children in the 1950s, Peter Burch played the piano but then made a massive contribution to Australian music: he stopped.

That is how Burch puts it but 50 years of music lovers in Melbourne are much in his debt, especially for the past 31 years he has spent as Victorian head of chamber music organisation Musica Viva, plus stints on such bodies as the Arts Council of Australia.

Arts administrators must be affable yet steel willed, patient but persevering, be able to network with ministers and millionaires yet soothe stormy subscribers and artists. They must have hides like a wintering rhinoceros, be half tyrant, half doormat and flexible as a python. Burch is the complete menagerie and has a wicked, waspish wit that helps ensure he is a marvellous meal companion.

He chooses to lunch at Bamboo House, a regular haunt he regards as probably Melbourne’s best Chinese restaurant, though far from the most expensive. The restaurant is formal yet intimate and one wall is lined with framed awards that Burch says continue on the wall around the corner.

”Are you happy if I order?” he asks and chooses three entrees and a main course to share: scallops with ginger and shallots, which prove to be the best I’ve tasted; fluffy omelet with crab, which is possibly even more delicious; a minced chicken dish served on lettuce; and Peking duck, accompanied by jasmine tea.

His love affair with Chinese food began while growing up in Bendigo. ”There were a couple of cafes – it would be absurd to call them restaurants – the Golden Dragon and the Toi Shan. They were full every evening. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, all the locals would drive in, bringing in big saucepans, order from the menu, then struggle back to the car – and it was always fried rice, never steamed.”

His palate is more educated now, he says, thanks to places such as Bamboo House.

He was born in 1945 into ”a golden era. It was the best time to be born in the country. Absolutely nothing seemed impossible. Bendigo had all the qualities of a city and the innocence of a country town.”

There were a couple of musical societies, run by spinsters of advancing age, whom his father described as ”unclaimed treasures”. They provided a rich musical diet and the young Burch heard such musicians as soprano Nancy Grant and pianist Ronald Farren-Price.

”The ABC brought out [French pianist] Philippe Entremont. He was this wispy, incredibly thin man with big eyes. I took his hand and firmly shook it, and he said, ‘Ow’, and quickly withdrew it,” Burch says with splendid scorn. ”I was only about 10.”

After a year at Monash University and two at cinema chain Hoyts, he returned to Bendigo for a stint on the radio station with its unfortunate call sign, 3BO, and loved it. ”Radio in the country is very different, very much part of the community. It does local stock reports, local stories and funeral announcements were read on air at one minute to six every night.”

One night, when he got into a taxi on leaving work, the driver asked him: ”Didn’t I just hear you on the radio?”

”Actually, yes.”

”So what do you do for a living, mate?”

It was an epiphany, Burch says; he realised he could not believe he was paid to talk and play music.

Next came three years with theatrical managers J.C. Williamson, working in every department, mentored by people who had done it for decades and tending stars such as singer Charles Aznavour and violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Burch remembers Menuhin as a charming man with an excitable wife, Diana, who had been the last ballerina cast by Diaghilev. She brought a collection of vacuum flasks containing concoctions to sustain Menuhin but the cleaner at the Windsor hotel emptied them down the toilet after smelling them. Here was an early lesson in crisis management: what could Burch do?

”Nothing. It was Saturday night and everything was shut. Menuhin just had to survive on hotel food.”

At the end of the 1960s, Burch was asked by the Victorian Opera and Australian Ballet to manage both companies. At the opera, he achieved near miracles. He got arts minister Dick Hamer to raise the subsidy from $500 a year to about $20,000, brought in a powerful board – including luring Joan Hammond from retirement to be a public face – appointed Richard Divall as an innovative music director and introduced a successful schools program.

He was poached by Musica Viva in 1980 and, after three decades, he still loves his job.

”My whole life, there have been wonderful things and I have met extraordinary people. Melbourne has such wonderful stuff. The problem in Melbourne is not what to go to but what to miss.”

Then there are the people. A life-long bachelor, he says: ”If you’re not married, the quality of your friends is the quality of your life.”

Burch has one public achievement that surely makes him unique among arts supremos: he was awarded a bravery medal for disarming a knife-wielding woman, and getting stabbed in the process, in 2002. It was a twilight concert at Collins Street Baptist Church, he recalls. ”Everyone was inside the church, and I heard a distant voice, ‘I’ve been stabbed! Help me!’ Then the voice said it again, more urgently. I turned around and this little street woman, all rugged up, was walking towards me holding a Bowie knife, razor-sharp, pushing it to and away from herself very slowly.”

He grabbed the arm holding the knife and lifted it, as others rushed to help.

”Inside the church there were 200 old ladies grabbing their mobiles and dialling 000. It was like a Mel Brooks comedy.”

Surreal but not so funny. One of the victims spent six months in hospital, stabbed in the bowel and pancreas. With Burch, the knife penetrated his belt, trousers, and 10 centimetres into his body.

A thinner man would have had vital organs ruptured. Burch has provided yet one more public service: a reason not to diet.

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