12 Weeks Today Until Our Season Opening Concert

Janine Hanrahan

Today, I begin writing to successful auditionees who have obtained a chair in the 2016-17 ADO season.  It has been a privilege to take part in watching well over 100 video auditions submitted from all around Australia and quite a few from Australian musicians currently living overseas.

Doing auditions via video submission comprising the entire audition process is yet to be commonly adopted.  The reasons for this are generally self-evident: there is no substitute for listening to a live performance whether it be a set of orchestral excerpts in this case, or a performance of complete work.  The ever improving technology of smart phones and tablets nonetheless has made this proposition viable and, for the ADO at least, a successful means to identify orchestral musicians from all over the country to whom we can offer performance opportunities.

To those players who have not been successful on this occasion, I would strongly urge you to continue to pursue your interest in performing with us and continue to work hard on your instrument.  Whereas the selection process for a place in any orchestra (and especially so for non-string players) ranges from generally competitive even in community and civic-style orchestras, to nearly downright impossible at the upper echelons of full-time professional ensembles, it is my firm belief that a strong orchestral eco-system in Australia will only be maintained by the sector developing far more aggressive innovation strategies to combat the undeniable phenomenon of dwindling audiences.

Our principal conductor, Kevin Purcell, was in Chicago this week (see previous post).  What his post does not mention is that the audience for a CSO program of the Elgar Symphony No. 1 in Ab, paired with R. Vaughan Williams’ Overture to The Wasps and Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus at the Thursday evening performance was only half full.  That the performance under the baton of Sir Mark Elder was, according to Kevin, “…utterly riveting”, as confirmed by Chicago Tribune critic, John von Rhein’s observation that “Elder’s farsighted handling of structure and rhythmic freedom was matched by the deep, rounded and idiomatic sound he drew from the orchestra” is symptomatic of the ennui or, more forcefully, the disturbing malaise besetting orchestras globally.  Rhein’s further observation suggesting, “If this had been London rather than Chicago, the hall would have been packed with clamorous concertgoers. But, faced with repertory many don’t know all that well, the subscribers stayed away in droves. Their loss.” is perhaps more hopeful than realistic. I have seen too many performances to count in recent years in London – with all of the orchestras, under the baton of very eminent conductors – being played to less than half-full houses.

This situation is not just a trivial Twitter-like ‘trend’ to momentarily grasp our attention, it represents a problem of enormous consequence to the cultural health of our country (as it does everywhere else).  The famous poet, W. B. Yeats once remarked, “Art depends on the popular tradition to prevent the pursuit of individualism from ending in sterility.”  The real challenge we face now, in my view, is not whether Australian orchestras or opera companies need ever greater government subsidy (they never ask for less do you notice?) to counter the over-promotion and absorption in ‘sterile’ Art, but to re-allocate a very substantial amount of this same funding toward community orchestras, World Music and Jazz ensembles, literary writers’ groups, visual Arts practice-based communities etc. (not a definitive list).

This, similarly, is not a question as to whether smaller-sized Australian Arts companies should get a better percentage share of Australia Council or state funding body allocations (by the way, they absolutely should) but an analysis of the cost-benefit to our nation’s overall cultural health in the decision to redirect resources to Arts groups who can articulate a strategy to meaningfully increase uptake in Arts participation.  Consequently, it should matter not whether you are a professional, semi-professional, community or other type of Arts organisation.  Put simply, as your organisation is able to prove ever-increasing levels of sustained of engagement, you should receive proportionally more funding.  Now, imagine the impact if we further provided tax incentives to any Australian business or company (For-Profit or Non-Profit) who supported Arts groups who could achieve that end result?

If we don’t tackle this, then these half-full houses in a very short time will become on-third houses, then quarter-full houses until we trigger; analogous to bad days on the Stock Exchange, the alarm bell indicating our combined nation-based artistic wealth has just been wiped out – for good.

One of the main reasons we created the ADO was to not only provide Australian orchestra musicians with greater opportunities to perform, but to investigate, design and implement new strategies for increasing audience engagement in Classical Music in all its emerging forms.  We hope you will join us on the journey.