Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Twisting of views deserves chorus of disapproval

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Photo / Supplied
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Photo / Supplied

This week, Culture Minister Chris Finlayson has been singing the praises of the Government's joint venture with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, teaching Otara kids to play musical instruments.

Stung by criticism of his Government's alleged lack of support for the arts in the Listener, Mr Finlayson highlighted "the 2010 establishment of Il Sistema, the community project for introducing children in disadvantaged areas to the study of orchestral music". He claims it "may turn out to be the most significant achievement of any recent Government in the arts".

For Aucklanders fighting for fairer state funding of orchestras - the APO in particular - it was encouraging to see the Wellington-based minister clutching for the Auckland city orchestra in his hour of need.

Of course to most APO supporters, the most significant achievement he could make to the arts would be to introduce a more equitable state funding model for the country's five orchestras - one based on present-day realities rather than on a model designed in the 1940s.

Aucklanders have until Sunday to convince Mr Finlayson and his advisers here. Admittedly, neither the ministry's discussion paper nor Mr Finlayson's comments on it offer much hope of meaningful change.

A month ago, when the paper was first released, the minister stymied discussion by instantly rejecting one of the four options his advisers had put up for discussion - the slaughtering of Wellington's sacred cow, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Calling it a "jewel in the cultural crown", he said "there is no question of its survival under this Government".

It was a red herring, as none of the other orchestras was calling for its demise. In the APO's case, its desire was to be officially recognised in the pecking order as one of the country's two professional, full-time orchestras and funded accordingly.

The "discussion" paper doesn't buy into that, preferring the archaic pyramid model with NZSO on top and a gaggle of regional orchestras, with little differentiation as to size and quality, below.

The Government flew Avi Shoshani, secretary-general of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, here twice to listen to the various orchestras and provide expert advice. It took me a week of badgering before the bureaucrats finally made his report public. A cynic might suspect the delay had something to do with Mr Shoshani's rejection of the Wellington-centric view of the world.

For instance, he wrote: "It was stated to me that the NZSO is the flagship orchestra and is a very good one according to international standards." In response, he dropped the bombshell that having heard recordings of all five orchestras, and all but Dunedin's in live concert, "I must say I see no major difference in quality between the NZSO and the other four orchestras". Ouch!

The discussion paper also attributes views to Mr Shoshani that do not appear in his report. It claims that on page three of his report, Mr Shoshani "agrees the NZSO should differentiate itself by presenting difficult repertoire and argues it should leave community engagement and education activities to the regional orchestras".

But he doesn't say that at all. On page three he states that "all five orchestras are necessary to their communities and essentially provide and guarantee the right quality of life required for a civilised 21st century society". It is the state's responsibility to fund them "in a dignified way".

He adds that "each city wanting to have, and justly deserving, a coherent, complete cultural life must have its own orchestra and the orchestra should be versatile and able to participate in whatever musical activity is required by and being initiated for the city. No visiting or touring orchestras can undertake such a role and become a coherent part of the cultural tapestry of the city's community."

Nowhere does he propose that the hard repertoire be the preserve of the NZSO. That's just Wellington bureaucrats unable to believe Auckland's city orchestra - to say nothing of the others - can match the acknowledged excellence of the venerable NZSO.

Not only is it wrong, but it's outrageous that they should pass off their prejudices in an official report as the word of the outside expert.

Mr Shoshani modestly suggests $2 million should be pruned from the NZSO's $13 million government grant and redistributed among the other four orchestras - the APO getting half of that.

But that's just tinkering. Auckland music-lovers have until Sunday to demand a more equitable deal.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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