From The Age Life & Style section on Friday 11 July 2008:
A classical education
July 11, 2008
Teaching music has been a lifelong work for Nehama Patkin, and now she's taking it to a bigger stage.
WHEN Jeff Kennett took out a large pad and asked, "What's your budget?" Nehama Patkin looked blank. Budget? What's that? The businessman previously known as premier Jeff looked aghast: she didn't have a budget and yet she wanted to put on a series of family concerts! That will cost money. Where did Nehama want to stage them? "I don't know yet," she replied. "Maybe Federation Square."
Kennett was (a rare event, this) dumbstruck. He scribbled down a few fundamentals, and handed over a list: this is what would be needed if this piano teacher, mother, grandmother and long-ago Play School TV presenter was to pull off her crazy scheme. "I had never been a businesswoman," says Patkin, "but I'm learning."
That session with Jeff was five years ago — he had come to her because he wanted her to teach him piano — and it came shortly after she had travelled to the US on a Churchill scholarship to sample the orchestral climate abroad. Her mission: to serve up the best in classical music for the children of Melbourne. No, better than that: to serve it up with a theatrical flair that would excite them. Mozart with pizazz. Beethoven under a spotlight. Perhaps a forlorn hope in sports-mad Melbourne but, like, Professor Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, by jove she did it.
Just turned 69, this Australian-born daughter of the founder of Mount Scopus Memorial College (she was the first pupil enrolled there 61 years ago) will this weekend stage the fourth in her series of Patma Music Family Concerts at the BMW Edge theatre. Another round will follow in November. Does she make money from the exercise? Hardly. Does she break even? Patkin gives a wry smile. Her kingdom for a major sponsor.
In retrospect, it might seem written in the genes that Patkin's life would follow a musical score. Her mother's father was first flautist in Israel's Ness-Ziona orchestra, her aunt was a piano teacher, and her mother played the mandolin.
Patkin's father, Benzion, was born in Russia, mother Hemda in Israel, and they came to Australia in the 1920s. Starting with a single sewing machine, Benzion founded the Patros knitting mills in Park Street, South Melbourne, where the company name is still visible on the heritage-listed building.
"My mother did art classes in her 70s; she died four years ago, aged 96," says Patkin. "My mother's father had married my father's mother after their respective partners died," she adds. "It's fascinating."
There is little that isn't intriguing about this elfin lady with the appearance of one 20 years her junior. She was born in a historic house at St Kilda Junction, which is now home to an advertising firm, but in between times it was a massage parlour. "In the flat next door was Margot Sheridan, the pianist on the old Channel Seven Tarax Show," Patkin recalls. "Her mother babysat me. Aunty Margot was like my second mother. I went with her when I was 10 and 11 to the Maples parade, the professionals and amateurs show. I met people like Horrie Dargie and the world-famous contralto Lauris Elms. I became showbizzy without knowing it. I started piano and dance lessons at five and at 12 I went to Roy Shepherd, the teacher at Melbourne University."
In 1998 Patkin was awarded an OAM for her contribution to music education. This year she has organised artists for a Jewish fund-raising concert and for a Camcare concert in Boroondara. Years ago she wrote the music for Arena, a work for the Australian Ballet. Now she is a director of the Suzuki music school and in May visited Minneapolis where she taught Latin-American students. A ball of energy, is Nehama Patkin.
So what can we expect from the Patma concerts? Two performances (11.30am and 2.30pm) of A musical storybook this Sunday, featuring works from Bach, Elgar and Bizet and The Story of Babar, and two more of Exploring the World in Music on Sunday November 2. "They will inspire and engage every audience member no matter what age," promises Patkin, who devised the programs with conductor Pat Miller.