Patrick Brennan is the artistic director of one of the largest, if not the largest regional conservatorium in Australia: the Central Coast Conservatorium of Music. It’s a role some may only associate with classical music and, for those who see Patrick conducting, he can be the man in the white tie and tails. But the real Patrick also loves to don shorts, a T-shirt and an old hat and put a boat into Brisbane Water to go fishing with his teenage kids, swimming in Waterfall Bay, or camping in the bush. In fact, it was working around the house during Covid-19 that led to a horrific accident in which Patrick badly injured his hand and underwent 11 hours of microsurgery. But after months of recovery and physiotherapy, Patrick is back at work and is keen to direct the talk to his great love: music.
‘My parent’s house was filled with music and singing,’ he says. ‘There was always music of one sort or another playing. My brother and I lived with my grandfather during the holidays for weeks at a time at Blue Bay when we were growing up. I loved the environment and the outdoor life as well as music.’
And then comes a surprising confession from this classically trained musician. ‘The two biggest musical influences in my young childhood were ABBA and Barry Manilow. I’d sit on the lounge room floor and play their records over and over, singing along with them. I’d say that [American singer-songwriter] Barry Manilow was my biggest musical influence. I love the way he sings,’ Patrick says to my surprised laughter (sorry Barry).
Patrick was in Year 2, at a concert band performance, when he heard a family friend play the flute.
‘I was so taken with it that I suggested to my parents that I would like to play. And, that Christmas, I unwrapped a long skinny parcel from under the Christmas tree, with a shiny flute inside.
‘It was a bit of a disaster, even though I played until the end of Year 6. I had lessons but, in hindsight, I was not taught how to practice and play, just to sit in a room and make sounds.’ It’s a lesson he has put to good use throughout his own teaching career.
Instead of continuing with the flute, Patrick joined the school choir and soon found himself auditioning as a boy soprano for the 2MBS-FM Children’s Choir (which became the Sydney Children’s Choir and the Gondwana Children’s Choir) under the renowned director, Lyn Williams.
Patrick was also fortunate to attend Forest High School in Sydney, in Year 9, where there was a well-established music program and a culture that recognised and nurtured his talent. He progressed to head chorister in the Sydney Children’s Choir, and also successfully auditioned and sang in the Australian Opera’s Children’s Chorus.
With the onset of puberty, however, the boy soprano’s voice was in jeopardy. Would it hold out for the HSC or would it be, at that time, a mix of screechy soprano and croaky tenor?
‘In the midst of my dilemma, the music teacher at school said there was a bassoon in the cupboard and “It’s yours if you like”— I think they needed a bassoonist in the school band. So I took that up and fell in love with it and knew that was what I wanted to play in my HSC music exams.
‘My singing background helped,’ Patrick says. ‘We all hear a sound before we are able to produce it, so if you can vocalise it, it will enable you to produce it on an instrument in the way that you want to, without it only being mechanical.
‘My parents gave me an ultimatum in my HSC year: “Practise the bassoon or study.” And perhaps I shouldn’t say this … so I practised the bassoon for hours on end every day! And after the HSC, that enabled me to get into the Sydney Conservatorium for both voice and bassoon.’
When Patrick finished his studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he auditioned for the Australian Youth Orchestra, was accepted, and this in turn led to him performing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
‘My first professional gig,’ says Patrick. ‘It’s one of the best orchestras in Australia, so it was quite intimidating but, as so often happens, you say “yes” then cross your fingers that you can do it.’
After that came casual work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra but it was obvious that there was no permanent bassoon position anywhere on the horizon — there were no bassoonists who looked like retiring from any of the orchestras anytime soon.
So Patrick left music behind to join his father in his financial planning business for 18 months, until one day the ACO called saying they had a month’s work for him.
‘Naturally I said “yes” and had to practise like crazy to get my playing back up to their high standard. I “survived” and after the month I walked back into Dad’s office and resigned. I knew that, somehow, music had to be my life.’
He went back to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to study for his Master’s degree and, in order to earn some money, started conducting school bands. It was there that he discovered his even greater love for conducting.
‘Strangely, I get more out of teaching and conducting school students than I ever got playing on the stage of the Sydney Opera House,’ Patrick confesses. ‘It’s a powerful thing to engage with a whole lot of musicians and, through your movements, to get them to react and respond and feel the music.’
One summer, while surfing, he was dumped by a wave, injuring his neck.
‘After that, playing the bassoon seemed to keep exacerbating the injury,’ he says. ‘So I couldn’t play at the level I wanted or was previously capable of. It was so mentally painful to stop playing suddenly that I haven’t gone back to it.’
Now, since the traumatic accident to his hand, it seems doubly fortunate that he has other loves beside playing the bassoon.
Just over eight years ago, Patrick landed the job of artistic director at the Central Coast Conservatorium, then gained the dual role of CEO and artistic director, overseeing the teaching staff, and about 1,400 students. Since Covid and the accident and, importantly, with the continued growth of the Conservatorium, the timing was right for a management restructure that now sees Patrick, as artistic director, concentrating on making the music programs of the Con the best they can possibly be.
It’s not only management that has gone through a recent restructure at the Coast’s Con. The heritage building — built in 1849 as a courthouse and police station, and the oldest building on the Central Coast — has just gone through a restoration, courtesy of a $2 million grant from the NSW State Government. In addition to replacing the roof and much-needed structural rehabilitation, a central courtyard has been weather-proofed to make it more useable, and the old police cells have been converted into small tutorial and practice rooms, perhaps useful in times of ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolation’!
As a Tier 1 regional conservatorium, the Central Coast Conservatorium has been able to attract formidable teaching talent over the years, as well as producing any number of outstanding alumni who have gone on to achieve academic and performance excellence around the world.
Its patron, Charmian Gadd, a highly regarded violinist, returned to the Central Coast after a 23-year international concert career, and is referred to fondly as the ‘classical music matriarch of the Coast’
As a regional conservatorium, the Coast’s Con teaches students from one-year-olds to 90-year-olds, ranging from the grassroots to the elite level, in pop, jazz and classical music. Patrick believes the vast majority of its students are aiming to be exceptional.
Patrick, too, never stops learning and in 2019 was one of only three conductors in NSW to gain admission to the prestigious Australian Conducting Academy. This program enabled him to conduct the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra while learning with renowned conductor Johannes Fritzsch.
‘It was quite intimidating but also exhilarating because the musicians played with such a high level of skill that every gesture you gave was responded to immediately. Having been a musician on the receiving end of the baton, as well as teaching music, it was an immensely enriching learning experience. And it’s an experience I now bring back to the Central Coast Conservatorium and our community ensembles to bring the best out of our musicians.