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Soundings across the Tasman – Over Time

David Garrett surveys orchestral activity in New Zealand and Australia, comparing changes in the past 20 years

devil marbles AustraliaIn the mid 1990s I spent several months filling in as artistic manager for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, based in Wellington. I went on tour with the orchestra, to most of the major cities, and came tantalisingly close to staying in the job. I suppose the main reasons the NZSO asked me to fill in for them were, first, that Australia is not far away (only three hours’ flight from Sydney to Wellington), and second that Australian and New Zealand orchestras, not surprisingly, have so many things in common.  Or do they? I had been planning artists and repertoire for the Australian orchestras, and I knew already that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra had emerged rather further than its Australian counterparts from the chrysalis of its broadcasting origins.

Through the prism of the NZSO I began to grasp more of the differences between New Zealand and Australia, in music and other spheres. My historian father’s work on Christian origins in the Pacific had shown me that New Zealand, partly through engagement with the Maoris who long preceded Europeans in settling the country, tended to have a wider perspective on the Pacific region – perhaps a greater diversity than Australia of experience and outlook. Would this be reflected, I wondered, in how European music was transplanted? How did New Zealand’s experience of this compare with Australia?

I have spent years studying the origins of Australia’s permanent symphony orchestras and turned up some real surprises. Now, I wonder, how this might compare to NZ? In this brief survey of the New Zealand orchestral scene the most informed perspective I can bring is historical and comparative, with Australia as the foil.  It is historical in another sense also, since my direct experience of New Zealand’s orchestras is now 20 years in the past.  Recent contacts with the chief executives of major New Zealand orchestras make me feel a little like Rip Van Winkle (in Washington Irving’s story) – so much has changed, but perhaps a historian from across the Tasman Sea can tell tales of the old days, to suggest what is distinctive about  New Zealand’s orchestras.

In spite of some very obvious differences so many things appear similar. Among these: in both countries the national broadcaster played the determining role in establishing permanent orchestras. New Zealand, however, formed and still has a national orchestra – but Australia has never had one.  Each country has experienced inter-city rivalries over orchestras, but Australia has had no parallel for tours by a national symphony orchestra to centres where there were also local orchestras. Then there is the music of each country to be compared. Was it an accident, I wondered back in the 90s, that New Zealand has already given the world at least one composer with major claims to distinction, at least equal to those of any Australian? And in spite of many early contacts over music and orchestras between the two countries, could the possibilities of Trans-Tasman co-operation be exploited more? My answers now might be different from answers I would have given 20 years ago.

Australia and New Zealand’s once close contacts – social, cultural and political – diminished over time, especially during the 20th century.  The adjacent land masses shared experience of European discoveries, British colonisation, Christian missions, a migratory labor force crossing the sea (especially in mining)….the interchanges were many. Before air travel, shipping made New Zealand an accessible overseas tourist destination for Australians. As for New Zealanders, from their small land they are said to travel greater distances per head of population than the inhabitants of any other country. First populated by a daring Maori migration, New Zealand has avoided isolation. 2015 marks the centenary of the Australian-New Zealand (Anzac) landing at Gallipoli, a joint military campaign on the other side of the world (Turkey), bulking large in the memory of both nations.

Before there was any permanent professional orchestra in either Australia or New Zealand, many musicians were making careers on both sides of the Tasman Sea (colloquially ‘the ditch’).  For European musicians also, who had made the weeks long sea voyage to Australasia it made sense to take in both countries. Then in the early 1920s both countries had a brief glimpse of what a good permanent orchestra could be. The NSW Conservatorium under Belgian conductor Henri Verbrugghen formed what has been claimed to be the first state-supported orchestra in the English-speaking world. Verbrugghen’s orchestra based in Sydney toured to Melbourne (arousing envy there), and also to New Zealand, twice, in 1920 and 1922. While in New Zealand, Verbrugghen said that he wished to make the orchestra ‘Australasian’, but the second tour incurred a deficit, Verbrugghen left Australia and his orchestra, losing its government support, remained a challenging memory.

Stravinsky talking to the NZSO players in 1961

Stravinsky talking to the NZSO players in 1961

That challenge was taken up in the 1930s and 1940s, first in Australia, then in New Zealand.  The outcomes were similar, except in one important respect: only New Zealand got a national orchestra. Some comparative history may help explain why. In Wellington, when I lived there, I got to know New Zealand’s leading historian of music, the late John Mansfield Thomson. What he wrote of New Zealand is true mutatis mutandis of Australia: ‘until the advent of the National Orchestra in 1946 New Zealand lacked any consistent orchestral tradition’.  In Australia the watershed was earlier, but also flowed from the national broadcasting service. The Australian orchestras under the management of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) were sometimes called ‘national’, in the sense of publicly funded, but from 1932 there were multiple ABC orchestras: in Sydney and Melbourne, and by 1948 in all the State capital cities.

My research into the pre-history of these orchestras found many advocating a single national orchestra. Before the ABC in the late 1930s became fully committed to its six orchestra policy, the press in Australia sometimes urged that there should be  a single national orchestra, and even suggested it would be more viable if New Zealand was included in its regular touring itinerary. This national orchestra idea, a path not taken, has poked up in Australia from time to time since – visiting English conductor Malcolm Sargent suggested it in the late 1930s, and so by implication did Australia’s Prime Minister Paul Keating in the early 1990s, when he favored the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to be Australia’s flagship orchestra. ‘The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service’, to give it its first full title, gave its inaugural concerts in 1947, founded by the government and under the management of the public broadcasting service.

Advocates of one national orchestra, on both sides of the Tasman, assumed that Australia and New Zealand’s population size, level of musical development, and resources could only support one full-time orchestra of high professional standard.  Whether that was true or not, national differences help explain why Australia and New Zealand diverged. Geography made touring a symphony orchestra to all major centres possible in New Zealand (to varying degrees), but prohibitively expensive in far-flung Australia (where Sydney to Perth, for example, is a five-hour flight). There were issues of local and national ‘ownership’ too – New Zealand had abolished its provinces in 1876 in favor of a strong central government, whereas Australia’s federal structure made it difficult to deny any State what was provided for another. In Australia a national central broadcasting organization, partly modeled on the BBC, founded six state orchestras. Arguing in the 1930s against a national orchestra Australian conductor and orchestral strategist Bernard Heinze claimed that any orchestra’s most vital bonds were civic and local. Given that the national orchestra Heinze feared would probably be based, like the ABC headquarters, in Sydney, he was protecting the interests of ‘his’ Melbourne Symphony Orchestra!

Half a century later civic pride had played its part in making control of the local orchestras by a centralized national broadcasting organisation seem out of touch. From the mid-1990s on Australia’s orchestras were devolved from ABC management.  New Zealand had anticipated this in 1988 when their government gave the NZSO direct funding and its own board, no longer forming part of the broadcasting organisation. New Zealand was at least a decade ahead of Australia in moving towards corporatisation and putting organisations previously in the public sector on a more competitive footing, opening them up to greater private support and initiative.  Even after the orchestras were cut loose from their radio moorings though, concerts continued to be broadcast, both in Australia and New Zealand – the broadcasts had always been part of the justification for public funding. (Radio New Zealand estimates there are 12 listeners on radio for every audience member.)

My historical reflections stimulated by direct experience in New Zealand ranged over music as well as orchestras. A vital orchestral culture has a thriving relationship with home-grown orchestral music – is duty bound, in fact, to get it heard. I had wondered whether much Australian music was to be heard in New Zealand. Percy Grainger? Perhaps that honorary Kiwi Alfred Hill? I knew working for the NZSO I would have to get more familiar with New Zealand composers of orchestral music. I even chaired the score-reading panel that considered newly-composed works.

As for the major, established figures: I’d read about Douglas Lilburn, I’d even heard some of his music, but it took my experience in New Zealand to instill wonder – a country with a  population less than Sydney’s produced, and gave due credit, to at least one composer easily comparable in stature to any from Australia, ever. I never met Lilburn. By 1995 he rarely left his home on Wellington’s Terrace, and his formidable persona was described to me by his friends such as John Thomson. The more I knew the music, the more was I impressed. John Hopkins conducted some Lilburn in Australia, but since Hopkins’ time at the ABC 40 years ago, the only Lilburn I can remember being played by an ABC orchestra was programmed by me, after my return from New Zealand.

Peter Sculthorpe was an Australian composer of comparable importance. How much of his music, even now, is heard in New Zealand? I remember recommending Tamara Anna Cislowska for a performance of Sculthorpe’s Piano Concerto with the NZSO.

But sometimes there are reasons why music does not travel readily from one country to another. My sampling of response to Lilburn’s music suggests Australians find in it the same subdued light, the greens and greys characteristic of the New Zealand landscape (Lilburn’s most often played orchestral piece bears the Maori name for New Zealand, the Overture: Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud.)  One of New Zealanders’ favorite adjectives for Australians is ‘brash’. Do they find in Sculthorpe signs of the often harsh brightness of the Australian light, and the sense of vast uninhabited spaces (think Irkanda, think Sun Music)?


Sistema Aotearoa is a programme offered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra free of charge to students in the Otara (South Auckland) community, using orchestral music making as a tool for social development.

As I criss-crossed the ditch, 20 years ago, I also started asking myself why there hadn’t been more trans-Tasman orchestral collaboration. In particular, given the airfare costs of importing conductors and soloists, why wasn’t New Zealand more often included in Australian itineraries and vice-versa? There was exchange in the past – composer and conductor Alfred Hill (1870-1960) was so involved with both sides of the Tasman that it’s hard to say which has the greater claim on him. (Waita Poi, a Maori dance song composed by Hill, Thomson calls his ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, his ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.) More recently Englishman John Hopkins had come to Australia in 1963 as Director of Music for the ABC, via New Zealand where he played a vital role as chief conductor of the NZSO from 1957, consolidating the orchestra in its intended national role. These people never forgot New Zealand. They went back as welcome visitors. Hopkins was one of the conductors in 1965 when the Victorian State Symphony Orchestra (now once again named for Melbourne), went to the Pan-Pacific Festival in Christchurch. Yet even the efforts of such as Hopkins seemed not to make a mark on the Australian musical consciousness – it needed a Kiwi name to do that: Kiri te Kanawa, or Teddy Tahu Rhodes…  Since Verbrugghen, and Hopkins, symphony orchestra touring has been pretty much one way traffic.  In 1974 the NZSO played in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide (Dame Kiri among the soloists), and in 2000 they took part in the Sydney Olympics Arts Festival (Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who conquered Everest, was speaker in Vaughan Williams’s Antarctic Symphony).

My secondment to the NZSO coincided with the network of Australian orchestras instituting (or perhaps resuming) the invitation of key people from the NZSO to their conferences.  That orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia continue as Associate members of Sydney-based Symphony Services International, the corporatised descendant of ABC Concerts which once ran concerts for Australia’s broadcasting organisation. The artistic administrators of both these orchestras attend meetings of their Australian counterparts. One of the main purposes is to plan the sharing of soloists and conductors.  The Auckland Philharmonia makes itself available for parts of Symphony Services’ conductor training program. Not surprisingly, given proximity in a specialised field, both Australia and New Zealand have featured more and more in the career paths of orchestral staff from both countries.

In 1995 I experienced in New Zealand a debate within its national orchestra, about how much touring it should do, what centres the tours should visit, and how often.  The smaller centres had never had professional symphony orchestras. But several larger New Zealand cities to which the NZSO toured at least once a year had orchestras, and audiences there came readily to hear them.

Meeting New Zealanders involved with the arts, I soon realised that the two major South Island cities, Christchurch and Dunedin, both have aspirations – with some history on their side – to be cultural initiators and nurturers. They have orchestras of varying sizes and professionalism, and had them before there was a national orchestra. So did Auckland, and since my time in New Zealand, Auckland has further outstripped Wellington as the major population centre. Was bringing an orchestra from the capital to give concerts in these cities taking coal to Newcastle? Could local music movers and shakers, and the audiences, be wholehearted in their acceptance of a national orchestra that wasn’t theirs? What would be their loyalty as between that orchestra and their local one, especially if the national orchestra was taking the lion’s share of funding? Was the attitude I was sensing from Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin like what I noticed in citizens of Australia’s national capital: a greater support for the semi-professional Canberra Symphony Orchestra than for visiting orchestras (from Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, or the Australian Chamber Orchestra) – local ‘ownership’, perhaps,  sometimes reflected in ticket sales? I was told in 1995 that the Auckland Philharmonia’s concerts often outsold those of the NZSO, when it visited that city.

I was wondering, 20 years on, how things have shaped since. How, for example, does the NZSO, still based in Wellington, dovetail with other orchestras to meet the country’s need for professional orchestral services?

I got answers to most of these questions from the managements of the NZSO and the Auckland Philharmonia, and summarise them here with some risk of oversimplification. Christopher Blake, the CEO of the NZSO, told me in March 2015 ‘The landscape has changed a bit since your time here!  The main development was the government’s orchestra sector review which was the first time in NZ that all of the professional orchestra sector was included’. The professional sector is made up of the four Creative New Zealand (Arts Council) funded orchestras – Auckland Philharmonia, Orchestra Wellington (formerly Vector Wellington), Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Southern Sinfonia (based in Dunedin) and the government owned and funded NZSO. One of these orchestras, the NZSO is over 70% government funded. By contrast, the Auckland Philharmonia gets about a quarter of its revenue from each of central and local governments, and generates over 50% of revenue itself.  The NZSO receives close to 80% of the national government funding given to orchestras.

As it did when I was associated with it in the 1990s, the Wellington-based NZSO continues to travel to Auckland and present a concert series there – giving more concerts in that city than anywhere else outside its home city. The result is that half of all professional main concert hall performances in New Zealand are in Auckland. As the major population centre, that city has the audience potential. But the question has been raised, and not only by the Auckland Philharmonia, whether Auckland is getting more than its fair share, and whether the NZSO should consider using some of the time and resources it gives Auckland to service other parts of the country.

APO points to the stats that in 1946 when the national orchestra was designed, New Zealand had 1.78 million people, 12.5% of them in Auckland. By 2012 1.5 million Aucklanders comprised 34% of the population. APO was formed in 1980, and presently employs 70 full-time professional musicians. Its broadcasts on Radio New Zealand Concert (its musicians claim) make it NZ’s most broadcast orchestra.

Clearly the Auckland Philharmonia has matched the development of Auckland by raising the level of its activities, and also its artistic standard – so much so that in recent government reviews of the New Zealand orchestral sector the Auckland orchestra made a case that New Zealand now has two full-time professional orchestras of international standard.

In the government review’s Final Report (February 2013), the submissions from some supporters of the APO were noted: that NZSO could travel less frequently to Auckland, because the APO already provides Auckland with a high quality orchestral experience. But the Review concluded that Auckland was not over-serviced, for various reasons, notably that Auckland has scope for growing paid audiences (for both orchestras). The recommendation was for the NZSO to continue to tour to Auckland and collaborate with the APO to meet the needs of Auckland audiences.  The NZSO was also encouraged to provide access more evenly to live orchestral music in medium-sized cities, and to help make that more possible, not require  NZSO to include in its tours centres with populations below 50,000.

Both Christopher Blake and Barbara Glaser, the CEO of the Auckland Philharmonia, confirmed to me that there is discussion especially about Auckland programs aiming at a diverse and balanced offering. There is also some sharing of players.

The NZSO naturally welcomed the review’s affirmation of its ongoing role as an international standard national symphony orchestra providing national orchestral activities and services as a touring orchestra. NZSO was also encouraged in its ‘stronger’ leadership role in building performance quality and musicianship across the orchestral sector.

The Auckland orchestra was similarly pleased that the report acknowledged its status and standard, as a ‘metropolitan’ orchestra. The tenor of the report was that these two leading orchestras had a joint role to play.

One of the recommendations encouraged the orchestra sector to establish a leadership body to increase collaboration. The revitalised cooperative group is known as APOA (Association of Professional Orchestras Aotearoa). The managements of the orchestras meet four times a year once in each city. Another recommendation is for both the NZSO and also the APO to take a stronger leadership role. The NZSO compiles an Annual Collaborative Plan on behalf of APOA outlining collaboration work and ‘mapping’ orchestral services in New Zealand..

These updates from current orchestral personnel were a salutary reminder to a historian that inquiry into the past points us back to the present, with an extra layer of understanding. As an Australian working with orchestras in the 1970s, 80s and 90s I lived through major changes, especially in the relations between orchestras and public institutions and sources of public funding. I became all the more curious how such relationships were established in the first place.

Underlying all policy considerations is the existence of a past and living orchestra repertoire, and a commitment to perform it. This is what is meant by providing orchestral services. Over the past century, in the Australia and New Zealand corner of the world, government has played an increasing, then a decreasing role. The analogy may be drawn with public transport – government stepped in where private enterprise was not achieving – in this case orchestral permanence and high standards. Broadcasting (where, similarly, government stepped in on both sides of the Tasman Sea) was a sphere needing musical resources. Of course there were significant and sometimes admirable attempts at orchestral excellence before broadcasting took up the baton. And it could be argued – not by me – that broadcasting control of orchestral music stifled some civic and private initiative. The debate over this has moved decisively one way since the 1990s, in Australasia.

If history can suggest lessons, maybe it makes us ask if early conditions required a broadcast solution? If new markets now allow for the city-based organisations that are the best ground for a cultural institution? History allows us to hope that less-populated countries (Australia, New Zealand) can keep their orchestras thriving because, just as Scandinavia and the Baltic have provided classical music with some of its most interesting new voices, the world still has the potential for interesting new voices from this part of the world – as long as orchestras continue to survive ‘down here’.

David Garrett, © 2015