The Con Commemorates Its centenary with Bernstein’s Mass

The Con in 1915, the year of its opening. Image: State Library of NSW, courtesy University of Sydney
The Con in 1915, the year of its opening. Image: State Library of NSW, courtesy University of Sydney

The Sydney Conservatorium of Music, fondly known as “the Con” turns 100 in 2015!

The iconic castle-like building with its distinctive turrets, sitting on the historical site of Sydney’s first bakery, housed Governor Macquarie’s horse stables in the 1800s and was then turned into a prolific music school in 1915.  It will celebrate this historic anniversary in the way it does best – with spectacular music!

To mark its official birthday on 6 May 2015, an epic performance of MASS by Leonard Bernstein will be staged at the Sydney Opera House, performed by over 400 high school and tertiary students, staff and alumni of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and guest performers from Sydney Children’s Choir. 

This theatrical piece for singers, players and performers, Bernstein’s MASS was first commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in memory of her late husband John F Kennedy. It premiered in 1971 for the opening of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Several of the Conservatorium’s ensembles, including the symphony orchestra, jazz and blues ensembles, opera singers and choirs will take to the stage simultaneously.

The New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, as it was first known, opened its doors under the leadership of Belgian director and violinist Henri Verbrugghen on 6 May 1915. Its mandate was to ‘provide tuition of a standard equal to that of the leading European conservatoriums’. “A century on,” says Dr Karl Kramer, Dean and Principal of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, “the Con remains true to the vision of its founders. Much has evolved in the Australian and international music scene over the last 100 years, and the Con has played a pivotal role in nurturing the best teachers, composers, singers, orchestral and jazz musicians this country has seen.”

The Con’s founding consortium was led by composer, critic and city organist William H Wale, with several distinguished patrons including the newly elected Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Dr James Graham, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Sir Arthur Renwick. 

The decision at the beginning of the last century to convert the old Government House stables into a music school was not without its politics. Some Sydneysider wanted the horse stables turned into a restaurant – a dispute that became known as the ‘battle between the sausage and sonata’. Then in 1912 Campbell Carmichael, Minister of Public Instruction and an impressive reformer who had reformed the University of Sydney’s governance – rallied the support needed to overcome considerable opposition.

Today ‘the Con’, is home to the Conservatorium High School, Open Academy and Music Faculty of the University of Sydney, where approximately 2500 students receive specialist music training each year.

Tickets for the Bernstein MASS on 6 May 2015 at the Sydney Opera House will go on general sale from 18 December 2014 at

The full centenary program of events, Con history, and birthday messages by musicians, alumni and others can be found here.


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