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A thriving Artist Development program – what really counts?


Christopher Seaman conducting. Photo: Walter Colley

I have been involved in the Artist Development endeavours of the six professional Australian symphony orchestras (known as ‘the network’) since Symphony Australia was created out of ABC Concerts, the national broadcaster’s concert division, in 1997. During those 17 years I have observed the network’s commitment to furthering the careers of countless Australian conductors, composers and performers through a range of programs that over time have expanded and grown. One of the key differences I have seen during this time is the growth of the orchestras’ own individual endeavours in this area, while still maintaining their involvement with the national program managed by Symphony Australia.

In 2015-16 Symphony Australia, now known overseas as Symphony Services International, will be introducing a range of changes to the program, following 12 months of internal review. During this time we have endeavoured to reflect on the orchestras’ substantial investment in this area and to consider what other companies around the world are doing. It has been heartening to see the long lists of successful Australian musicians who have benefitted from the Artist Development program in one way or another as they embarked upon their careers. Many of them are featured on the “Alumni” pages of our website, along with details of our current activities.

The network is naturally keen to assist those musicians who are likely to enter the profession and potentially work with the orchestras. Our support for performers includes our Orchestral Fellowship program, which in partnership with the Australian Youth Orchestra provides opportunities for talented string, wind and brass players to sit side by side with the professional musicians of the Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras. We are also proud to present the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Awards, which we consider Australia’s most prestigious concerto competition. In recent years we have changed the presentation of this event to a mini-festival format, including a chamber music round. As a result of our review, from 2015 the competition will be biennial instead of annual. This change will encourage the finest applicants to carefully time their participation, and will increase the profile and prestige of the competition. It will also bring the event in line with other similar competitions around the world, including our ‘sister’ competition the BBC Young Musician Award.

The Australian network has always done well by Australian composers, providing commissions to composers across all stages of their career from emerging to established. We plan to increase our support from 2015, including the introduction of a composer showcase event (to be inaugurally hosted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra). Responding to feedback from the sector that indicated a need for a clearer ‘pathway’ for aspiring orchestral composers, Symphony Australia will offer at least one commission to an emerging composer, based on participation in this showcase. We hope in time to introduce a mentorship with a senior Australian composer, and to provide additional workshops and showcases for emerging composers who are identified through the range of composer development opportunities including the Symphony Australia/TSO Composer School, the MSO’s Cybec 21st Century Composers Program, and other training programs offered around the network. Symphony Australia will also continue to assist in co-commissions of works by a range of Australian composers that will receive multiple performances around the country.

We will continue to invest in a range of professional development opportunities for administrative and managerial staff of the orchestras, recognising how important it is for them to learn from the best in the world. We have enabled a number of orchestral staff to travel overseas and shadow their counterparts in orchestras in the US, Europe and UK as well as attending a range of educational and industry/conference events. Symphony Australia has itself hosted a number of national and international Summits, featuring guest speakers that have inspired our Member and Associate orchestras. In 2013 we welcomed Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Brent Assink, to Australia – two years before that we were treated to the expertise of Paul Hogle, Executive Vice President of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Other international and Australian speakers have also featured over the years

So, finally, to conductors. Since 1997 we have invested substantial funds and much time and energy to developing a new ‘generation’ of conductors. We set the goal 15 years ago of seeing at least one Australian conductor working on the international stage within 10 years. Working from a fairly basic starting point, we have created a program which has been described as unique and that goal was reached within the first 5 years.  In 2014, several people including myself, SSO Education Manager Kim Waldock and conductor/alumnus Luke Dollman have undertaken research into the world’s best practice in conductor training, and the results (still being completed and compiled) have been most interesting. In fact, we have confirmed that our own program is something to be proud of! The network orchestras are proactively engaged in the actual training of conductors in a way that many orchestras in the world are not; most orchestras do not actively provide training modules that include podium time for emerging conductors. Our activities and high quality teaching are sought after by participants from around the world.

Still, there is always room for improvement and we will be making some changes in the years ahead. What will not change is the network’s commitment to providing podium time with professional musicians – surely a young conductor’s greatest desire? We also hope to work more closely with those Australian tertiary institutions that engage in teaching conductors to ensure we have common goals and can together support the aspiring conductors most likely to succeed in this notoriously difficult of professions.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing Course Director of the Conductor Development program, Christopher Seaman. The program is now firmly established at a high international level after 11 years under Christopher’s inspirational leadership. We have therefore decided that from 2016 the network chief conductors will become involved in the teaching of the program and consequently Christopher will not continue as Course Director after 2015.

Christopher has been only the second Course Director, following Jorma Panula from 1997-2003. His energy and commitment to the role, and to the young conductors in his care, has been exemplary. Many of the graduates of the program would call him a mentor and friend, and those of us who have worked with him feel privileged for the experience. Many of Christopher’s students have gone on to successful careers, including engagements with orchestras in Australia and abroad as well as winning prestigious competitions and prizes around the world. He has brought to the program enormous experience as both a professional conductor and a teacher, and his warmth and humour will be missed. I am delighted to announce that Symphony Australia will honour his contribution through an annual scholarship to be awarded in his name to a young conductor who shows great potential, to be used in a manner that furthers their training and/or career. Symphony Australia’s board, staff, the musicians of the orchestras and most particularly the young conductors who have benefitted from Christopher’s expertise, thank him.

So, I invite you to ‘watch this space’ with regard to all of our Artist Development programs and activities. As the network orchestras continue to evolve and move with the times, so too must the training activities that we offer on their behalf and I trust that the inspiring and talented young Australian composers, conductors and performers for whom we run these programs will continue to soak up the many opportunities that the Australian orchestras have on offer.

Kate Lidbetter
CEO, Symphony Australia