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Offshore Perspectives


‘We do concerts in all the boroughs here in the summertime. Let me tell you, when you’re staring at 50,000 people in Central Park on a summer’s evening, you realise that you’re really making the New York Philharmonic available to the city.’ – Matthew VanBesien, Photo: Chris Lee

Australia’s orchestras have always had visits from international artists but, since the mid-1990s, the country’s artistic administrators have increasingly come from Europe or America – and gone back. I wanted to talk to people who have worked with Australian orchestras and see if I could gain a sense – from their international perspective – of the current state of orchestral music and where Australian orchestras fit in the world. The Podium has previously noted the more recent phenomenon of Australian orchestral administrators going overseas, and published articles by Raff Wilson (now with the Hong Kong Philharmonic) and Antony Ernst (Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg). My interviewees were Peter Czornyj who was with the Sydney Symphony in the Ashkenazy years and is now at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Texas, and a trio of former Melbourne Symphony staff – former CEO Matthew VanBesien who is now President of the New York Philharmonic, former Director of Artistic Planning Huw Humphreys, now at the Barbican in London, and former Director of Operations Barbara Glaser, who is Australian but now CEO at the Auckland Philharmonia in New Zealand.

Now that they’ve left Australia, I wondered what their lives were like these days. For Matthew VanBesien his time at the New York Philharmonic has been ‘four years of running at 1,000 miles per hour all the time’ but ‘in a good way.’ Huw Humphreys describes his work at the Barbican as ‘hectic. There’s an awful lot going on. And London is just…it never stops. When you consider that the Barbican presents classical music, contemporary, jazz, non-classical…even things from Grime to Renaissance music – that brings with it an absolute wealth of experiences.’

Though Huw has become Head of Music at a complex that I would describe as London’s one-stop arts megaplex (he can knock off work and go and see Star Wars or the Royal Shakespeare Company), the other three have gone to other orchestras. What differences do they notice from the Australian experience?

Says Matthew: ‘When I was in Melbourne the orchestra was going through a transition with the concert hall and looking for a new conductor, so in some ways it’s like history has repeated itself. In the time that I’ve been here in New York we’ve had a Music Director search and just announced Jaap van Zweden; we’re working on a kind of transformational renovation here on the Lincoln Center campus. I describe our agenda here as being quite robust, considering the scope of what we’re trying to do coupled with some of the normal inherent challenges of a major US orchestra.’

Peter Czornyj makes the point that ‘American orchestras are facing many of the same challenges that orchestras around the world face: being relevant, staying connected with communities in a meaningful way, and importantly, catching and creating as much media attention as you can to keep yourself in the minds of your audience and potential audiences. It’s just that here you have a different set of challenges under those fundamental challenges. You have to achieve what you do with very little support from government funding bodies and it’s been like that for many years.’

You could be forgiven for sometimes wondering if the word ‘struggle’ is being left unsaid when orchestras describe their pitches for audience, but Huw’s experience at the Barbican suggests there actually is a big audience for the arts. ‘One thing I’ve really noticed being back in the UK is that ticket prices are so much more reasonable here – incredibly. I mean, the majority of the London Symphony Orchestra concerts have a top price of about 30, 35 pounds. You can get in to almost everything at the Barbican for 10 pounds or less.’ It’s partly because of the level of subsidy from the City of London, ‘but there’s also a real sense of responsibility that ticket prices should not go higher: keeping ticket prices affordable is absolutely part of our business.’

I find myself wondering who goes to the Barbican. ‘It’s fairly weighted toward Londoners,’ says Huw, ‘but next year Crossrail is going to go from way out west to way out east in superfast time, right past the Barbican, with stops at Moorgate and Farringon on either side. That’s going to be a total game-changer for us.’ I ask Huw if he has any evidence to suggest that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra reaches its citizens in the same way.

‘Every year at the Myer Bowl, the free concerts,’ he says. ‘And we presented a whole raft of different works there – the Melbourne public always came. They came in thousands. In a city the size of London you can of course say, “Oh you need five or six orchestras”, but that central place that the MSO has in Melbourne’s fabric…You know, the MSO has appeared at everything from the opening of the World Cricket Cup final to singing onstage in the Comedy Festival with Eddie Perfect. Everywhere you could fit 30 music stands, the MSO would be!’

As for introducing new repertoire. ‘I have quite a lot of contact with board members,’ says Peter Czornyj, ‘with volunteers, with regular patrons of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and I’ve never shied away from seeking people’s views about what they like and don’t like to hear. You don’t always get the answers that you want but it is important to know what people feel. It does surprise me more and more that there is a lot of support for adventurous programming as long as it’s presented in a balanced setting.’

The Dallas Symphony’s Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, was recently announced as the new Chief Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the announcement Matthew VanBesien mentioned above. At the time of the announcement of van Zweden’s appointment, some New York critics expressed skepticism about his commitment to new music.

Says Peter Czornyj: ‘Jaap has some strong partners in contemporary music. He likes to work with Christopher Rouse, Mason Bates, Conrad Tao…In his remaining seasons with us, we’ll be doing Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto (with James Ehnes). I think these are the names that you’re going to find coming up again and again. Add to that his passion for Wagner and Mahler and Bruckner and the great classical/romantic symphonies – I think that’s a great recipe for success. There’s a balance there.’

But what about Australian composers? Might Americans enjoy learning more about them? ‘Some composers have already made the jump,’ says Czornyj. ‘I can think of, actually quite recently, a piece by James Ledger played in Toronto as part of their New Music series. I’ve just been down to the Austin Symphony Orchestra to hear Lior sing Compassion by Nigel Westlake which I commissioned when I was at the Sydney Symphony. And of course, Brett Dean is featured quite regularly in America.’

For Barbara Glaser, the one interviewee whose career began in Australia, a commitment to local composers now means New Zealanders. ‘Among the many things we do, including a Sistema-based program in South Auckland, is maintain an ongoing relationship with one of New Zealand’s senior and most-respected composers – Ross Harris. We also have a new composer-in-residence every two years and that composer-in-residence has a mentoring role with the next generation of composing students coming through. It’s very hands-on. We’re very, very aware every single day, of the city that we live in. I don’t think you can just kind of drop any orchestra into any city. It won’t work without a real connection to the people and communities.’

All four of the people I spoke to vouch for the fantastic lifestyle on offer in Australia. When I ask Huw if he misses Australia, he begins by saying that January is a ‘tricky’ time to ask. ‘There’re three weeks of holiday in Australia with a pool in the back garden and then you go to the beach.’ Peter Czornyj cites Sydney, the NSW coastline, and the Hawkesbury area, ‘just the most beautiful places on the planet, and you know the quality of life, the quality of the air is something that we’re not finding so much in some locations in the northern hemisphere.’ Matthew VanBesien cites ‘being within an hour’s drive of several really great wine-makers, the Macedon Ranges and all that. We need to get the Victorian wine producers a bit more organised about exporting.’

Barbara Glaser mentions noticing the absence of the big wave of immigration from continental Europe which came to Australia after World War II and which really shaped a lot of Australia’s cultural life. New Zealand has had the more recent large Asian and Pacific migration but there’s ‘a lot more English/British-heritage’.

Of course all the ‘Australians’ who’ve gone to America cite the contrast in forms of funding. ‘There’s a lot more dependence placed on community philanthropic support here,’ says Peter Czornyj. ‘Many of these orchestras have private donors who extend back through many generations, people donating today who are members of important families through the 20th century. Developing that network of strong supporters and through the generations is really a key part of the American business model.’

Even in a country where there is stronger government support, New Zealand three hours across the Tasman, Barbara Glaser notices a difference: ‘When I was at the MSO there was a funding stream that came from Melbourne City Council, another that came from the Victorian government, and another from the federal government (the Australia Council). We’re missing that middle layer here. New Zealand is one country and doesn’t have state boundaries. I still get a surprise when I get off a plane in Wellington or in Christchurch and don’t have to throw my fruit out. I guess the other thing about New Zealand is that a lot of the big international companies have their head office in Sydney or Melbourne, so getting large quantities of sponsorship can be difficult here because you’re not dealing with the regional head office, probably a very similar situation as for the non-Melbourne/Sydney orchestras in Australia.’

Matthew VanBesien adds that ‘When I was leaving Australia I felt that, you know, we were all sensing a kind of long-term squeeze on public funding in terms of perhaps not having as much indexation as is needed. Yet it seemed to me that if Australia can actually strike the balance between government support and having philanthropy and sponsorship then it may actually be in a much more sustainable position than some other places around the world.’

What are the overall impressions from canvassing the views of these overseas voyagers? One, surely, is that classical music now spreads out across a huge international network and we can benefit from a broad range of experiences. But perhaps, also, we can take note of things that Australia may be doing right. ‘I knew there were orchestras in Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane when I arrived,’ says Peter Czornyj. ‘What I didn’t realise was how wonderfully rich and so deeply-rooted in society the orchestral scene was.’ ‘I’m staring at my office wall and pictures of Bernstein and Mahler and Toscanini,’ says Matthew VanBesien from New York. But ‘for me as an American and coming from Texas I felt much more connected to the UK and European music scene when I was in Melbourne than I did in Houston.’

I feel somewhat chuffed by these observations. We obviously have things to learn, but also a strong base on which to build.

Gordon Kalton Williams


Jaap van Zweden conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Mark Kitaoka