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Australia's orchestras are in for a shake-up - and not before time.

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 1 June 2004

James Strong should have no shortage of anecdotal and empirical evidence to sift through when he starts his review of Australia's orchestras.

The review, announced on Friday, is to consider how the Federal government and orchestral groups can improve their relationship to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia's orchestras. These include each state and territory orchestra as well as the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria.

The reality is that orchestras in Australia are in the same position as many overseas - they are living on borrowed time. Lacklustre management, poor commercial focus and lack of ground-breaking ideas are all found in varying degrees.


The Tasmanian, Adelaide and Queensland orchestras are in the red and Sydney and Melbourne are doing it tough. Only the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, led until recently by the dynamic Catherine Ferrari, seems to be making a fist of what it means to be an orchestra in 2004. In fact, Ferrari's business savvy led WASO to hire world-class conductor Matthias Bamert as its chief conductor and achieve record sponsorship in 2002 and 2003. She, and although it's early days, Sydney Symphony Orchestra chief executive Libby Christie, are both business people who understand that running an orchestra is like running any other business - marketing and product development opportunities are critical.

Of course, hiring a hot-shot conductor is not a panacea for an orchestra that is losing customers and dollars. Strong's review ought to consider an observation by Drew McManus in the e-zine on Friday. He said that orchestral managers were relying "too heavily on presenting the music director as a fund-raising and marketing tool, and, as a result, many large donors develop a direct connection between their giving and the music director".

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, in particular, seems to have fallen into this trap in recent years. While Markus Stenz was just the tonic for the orchestra when he joined it in the late 1990s, it seemed to me that Stenz came to represent the MSO - the players did not. As McManus observed: "Music directors should simply be responsible for helping to create a product worth admiring and supporting. Anything beyond that is simply a smoke and mirrors trick from public relations professionals."

Perhaps the most provocative and accurate observer of the modern classical music scene is the English writer, Norman Lebrecht. And in La Scena Musicale magazine in January, he pointed to the model orchestra of the future. It's the venerable London Symphony Orchestra.

According to Lebrecht, the LSO's managing director, Clive Gillinson, has introduced an innovative human resources program that allows "players to tell him how much of their working week they wanted to devote to orchestral playing and what they would like to do with the rest of their time - make music in hospices and prisons, for instance, or give classroom demonstrations, engage with other cultures, play chamber music".

In other words, instead of being offered performances of the LSO en masse week after week, a subscriber or casual concert-goer might attend a concert of LSO players performing chamber music, or the strings and percussion playing a Philip Glass film score to an audience that normally wouldn't darken a concert hall. This revolutionary flexibility is working.


As Lebrecht notes: "The LSO is now, by common consent, the best band in the land and the most far-sighted. Last year, it cut ticket prices to £5 ($A12.80) and opened an £18 million community and education centre in the long-derelict Hawksmoor church of St Luke's, reaching 30,000 new users."

Australia's orchestras also need to cut their commitments to the expensive and poorly distributed ABC Classics label and get into bed with the world's only CD label that is increasing sales and revenue - Naxos. Owned by the entrepreneurial Klaus Heymann, Naxos sells about 3 million CDs in Australia a year. In some countries, such as Sweden, its market share of classical music sales is more than 60 per cent.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has recorded with Naxos for more than a decade and it's fair to say that that ensemble is now on the world map in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. Strong and his team ought to look at why the ABC spends taxpayers' money running a recording label. It is about to announce a new distribution network in Europe, but the reality is that ABC Classics - with most of its CDs priced well above Naxos's $9.99 - will never compete for coverage with Naxos.

The Melbourne and Queensland orchestras have recorded with Naxos in the past but when asked on ABC Radio in Tasmania last week why it was that the TSO isn't talking to Naxos, general manager Nicholas Heyward said that the TSO had approached Naxos some years ago and been rejected. The answer to Mr Heyward - whose orchestra is $100,000 in debt - is that in business you have to keep knocking on the door!

Australian orchestras can buck the world trend of pessimism but only if the Strong review thinks laterally about the structure and role of orchestras in the 21st century. The review is expected to report to the federal government by December 31.

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This article was first published in The Age on 1 June, 2004.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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