Six symphony orchestras giving thirteen programs in six weeks was more than Olympic Sydney 2000 could afford. Only Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov packed the Concert Hall at the Opera House. Premium prices kept some away while free seats swelled audiences. Eavesdropping revealed Sydney-siders making their first visit to the Opera House to performers of whom they had not previously heard, whether jazz pianist George Shearing, or German cabaret star Ute Lemper.

The September schedule had begun with the SSO’s concert version of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung. The moral of The Ring cycle is more apposite than ever in its highlighting the choice that our species faces between love on the one side and money or power on the other. Which Olympic hierarch has the best claim to be the back-stabbing Hagen? At least Siegfried loses because he is drugged without his knowledge.

Those who did attend the complete round of symphonies could track musical debts from Beethoven to Wagner, Mahler’s borrowings from Wagner, Shostakovich’s adoption of Mahler’s omnivorous burlesques, and Bartok’s satirising a theme from Shostakovich. Through these cross-currents swelled music that tells a story, epitomised by the Seventh Symphony of Vaughan Williams, reworked from a score to accompany the 1948 film on Scott’s trek to the South Pole.

If we become what we do, young composers are now in danger of fitting their orchestral writing not only into the mould of film scores, but worse still, into the model of soundtracks that offer little more than sound effects. Hence, every commission for music for its own sake is to be prized as a prophylactic. The Australian Youth Orchestra premiered an overture from the 24-year-old Queenslander, Steven Baker. Overtures had been invented to quieten the hall, an aspect which Baker mimicked with drum blasts and double basses, before joking about famous predecessors. Despite this irreverent noisiness, his piece remained disorder to a formula.

Andrew Denton’s belief that Australia’s reputation is safe so long as we beat New Zealand suffered in the Olympic Arts Festival where the New Zealand Symphony spotlighted their nation’s cultures while we hid ours in the cracks.

The NZSO opened with the Tainui ensemble’s performing a Maori song and dance. The two organisations have a pact to find ways of invigorating each tradition through collaborative creations. The orchestra premiered two pieces from thirty-two-year old Gareth Farr. The first was a concerto for percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and the second a suite built on Maori and Pakeha compositional legacies. Both works suffered from Farr’s inability to bridge transitions, whether from soloist to ensemble, or between musical styles. He had not supplied the materials with which to establish new harmonic or rhythmic structures. In his concerto, his writing for drums eschewed melodic dimensions. If he continues to compose he could start over from the brief passage after the xylophone solo. Those bars hinted at a capacity to move beyond a cooptation of scenic effects which was where Alfred Hill reached with his Maori-inspired compositions in his 1890s.

Farr is not the only contemporary artist who could take lessons from Sir Edmund Hillary who spoke the words with which Vaughan Williams had prefaced the five movements of the Antartica Symphony. A conversational tone was all Hillary needed to make Shelley’s line, ‘This is alone life, joy, empire and victory’, sound convincing. Hillary’s own life supplied a conviction that rhetoric could never attain. The mistake was to accompany the music with an NZ Broadcasting Commission home movie, replete with cute penguins, when the spirit of that wasteland is its stillness. On the second New Zealand night, soprano Deborah Wai Kapohe and baritone Jonathan Lemalu gave their Mozart arias fresh dramatisation.

On the next two evenings, Ricardo Muti led his Filarmonica della Scala through the byways of early twentieth-century music – Elgar, Busoni, R. Strauss and Respighi’s March on Rome. Muti’s direction is formidable. The instant his baton slashes the air for a close, a vacuum of silence snaps into place. This detailing applied through every section so that the base drum clouted and cut out with equal precision. Opera Australia should have cancelled its performances to compel attendance of its aspiring conductors and players, instead of letting them saw away next door.

Festivities ended with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra accompanying Vengerov in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, once dismissed as raw. Vengerov’s technique escaped the treacle pot. In Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the SSO carried the audience across the interminable first movement. Although the finale is another of the biggest noises in the repertoire, this gigantism points to its fakery.

Whatever their faults, the Russian works derived from a culture certain that music communicates more than technique. The absence of that belief in our corner of the globe accounts for both and the showiness of the New Zealand effort and the reluctance of the Australians to show our wares.