Orchestra funding strikes the wrong note

By Geoff Cumming

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage's consultation paper cites a 2011 survey commissioned by Sport NZ, which showed respondents saw orchestral music as 'conservative, boring, for older people and losing relevance'. Photo / Supplied
The Ministry of Culture and Heritage's consultation paper cites a 2011 survey commissioned by Sport NZ, which showed respondents saw orchestral music as 'conservative, boring, for older people and losing relevance'. Photo / Supplied

The battle over public funding for our major orchestras has all the ingredients of comic opera, if not farce.

There are the two massed camps, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) and the Auckland Philharmonia, with worried regional orchestras in the wings. The highly strung main players have a history of envy and mistrust but both now face a common enemy: meddling bureaucrats whose view of how the orchestras fit into their funding model seems out of touch with reality. Looming as jester is Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Arts and Culture who, having raised the curtains, is busily trying to duck the spotlight.

Behind the discord is a Ministry of Culture and Heritage consultation paper, which many believe will see blood on the floor at the NZSO or the APO or the regional orchestras in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. No one knows who the fall-guy will be, which adds to the tension.

The discussion paper's release last week prompted one online news site to cry "NZSO could be axed", which led Finlayson to bellow a quick rebuttal.

But that only heightened anxiety levels elsewhere, with the APO this week rallying supporters to flood the ministry with submissions. For its part, the NZSO is reminding fans of its status as the "pinnacle of orchestral achievement" and the need to keep things that way.

Even the overture had brinksmanship: the Vector Wellington Orchestra threatening High Court action against Creative New Zealand over planned funding changes in 2010/11. That subsided last year when Creative NZ backed off.

Observers are already taking sides: outsiders saying reining-in orchestras to match dwindling demand makes sense; insiders arguing more taxpayer funding is needed to help orchestras to grow their audience and play a positive role in the community.

The backdrop to the orchestra sector review includes pressure on arts funding as the Government struggles to balance its books and debate about where classical (mainly European) music fits in an increasingly diverse society - one where most find their cultural fix in a quick hit of rock; the equivalent of Twenty20 cricket to a five-day test.

This familiar (read: Treasury) logic permeates the consultation paper - the product of a two-year review process which will culminate shortly in recommendations to the Minister. It says two-thirds of orchestral revenues come from taxpayers and ratepayers, yet many don't enjoy orchestral music or have difficulty accessing it. Audiences are "mainly European, female, over 50 ... and earning above average incomes" - and declining.

Barriers include ticket prices, the length and format of concerts, and "more diverse communities finding the atmosphere at 'serious' music concerts sombre and ritualised". The paper cites a 2011 survey commissioned by Sport NZ, which showed respondents saw orchestral music as "conservative, boring, for older people and losing relevance".

This is news to the regional orchestras in Wellington and Christchurch and to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, which in the past six years has reinvented itself - from a cash-strapped, bickering player co-operative to a busy metropolitan orchestra of the highest standing. The combo of increased ratepayer funding (through the Auckland Regional Amenities Fund) and better governance mean the orchestra is more active in the community and playing better than ever, earning both audience and critical applause.

"I think the APO can now deliver what only the NZSO could deliver 10 years ago," says Barbara Glaser, the APO's chief executive. "I don't think the Government is ready to acknowledge that."

The APO has 70 players on full-time retainers (though pay rates are far from world-class) who perform almost daily for most of the year in engagements ranging from schools and community outreach through pit work (backing opera or ballet) to full-orchestra concerts.

It sees further potential in its youth and "community outreach" initiatives such as Remix the Orchestra (with hip-hop artists) and Sacre -the Auckland Dance Project, a seven-month programme with school students last year, which led some participants to pursue tertiary-level dance.

"Music is so transformative," says tuba-player Jonathan Baker, a 20-year APO veteran. From where he sits, he's noticed a change in audience ethnicity and age - he says the ministry is pigeon-holing both the APO and classical audiences. "This has the potential to hobble the entire sector."

The APO wants to go to the next level, says Glaser, becoming a full-sized touring orchestra paid at international rates - a destination orchestra like Sydney's or London's. That vision hinges on more government funding. Trouble is, the ministry's discussion paper places it on the second tier - a regional symphony alongside those in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin; part-time orchestras whose reach and repertoire reflect their much smaller state funding (though they have ambitions too).

"The document is saying: 'APO - get back in your box'," says Glaser who, were she a musical score, would be played prestissimo (very, very fast). "It is painting such a gloomy picture which is not in line with the reality we see. We can't satisfy demand at the moment, we could be doing so much more ..."

The discussion paper says full-time professional orchestras are "neither easily affordable nor easily sustainable" as a business model. More integration could improve the sector's viability. It flags more flexible employment contracts and sees potential in more collaboration (like sharing soloists) and cost-sharing - and in philanthropy. Split-funding between the ministry and Creative NZ contributes to "less than optimal coherence in the policy and funding framework".

There's no argument that arrangements for orchestra funding (as for other musical genres) are muddled. The NZSO, with 90 players based in Wellington, is direct-funded by the ministry - receiving $13.4 million last year to fulfil its mandate of being a world-class touring orchestra. Three-quarters of its funding is from central government; the APO gets 50 per cent from central and local government combined and last year raised another $4.6 million privately through ticket sales, sponsorships, donations and other fundraising.

The four "regional" orchestras, including Auckland, shared $3.5 million from "contestable" government sources, mainly from Creative NZ (the former Arts Council). They begged a similar amount in grants from local councils, which are under pressure to keep rates down and concentrate on "core business".

Glaser argues that the roughly equal central/local split of public funding for Auckland is unsustainable and out of tune with Australia, where the split for city orchestras is around 3 to 1.

In an early submission to the review, the Auckland orchestra said, "A glass ceiling has been hit by APO. It cannot proceed to its next step as the full-time symphony orchestra that Auckland demands because it does not have sufficient core funding. ... APO is significantly underfunded by central government."

If no additional money is likely - taxpayer funding is capped at the 2009 amount - that leaves the option of reslicing the existing pie. That found favour with Avi Shoshani, the Israeli consultant who made two visits last year and whose report has had some influence on the discussion paper. Shoshani emphasised the state's duty to continue to provide for orchestras, to expose people to classical music, to help them reach out to communities and to educate children. But the discussion paper omits his call to cut up to $2 million from the NZSO's allocation and redistribute the money to other orchestras - half to the APO because of the population it serves.

Options for change, which are identified include an arm's-length company to manage funding; a funding assessment panel reporting to the two departments; and Creative NZ taking charge or working with an industry body. The NZSO's future varies with each: one involves it losing its Crown-owned status and continuing as a private entity. It was this that ignited the "NZSO could be axed" scenario which Finlayson quashed, saying that the national orchestra was "the jewel in the cultural crown" and there was no question of its survival. Whether that leaves wriggle room for meaningful reform isn't clear - the minister is reluctant to comment further during the consultation phase. But in Auckland, his statement has been taken as dismissing much-needed change and reinforced belief that the discussion paper is the product of an out of touch, Wellington-centric ministry.

"No change is not an option for us," says Glaser. "For the APO, that equals stagnation. It will mean another big fight because we're not going to lie down and accept this."

The APO's musical ascent dates from the 1990s and means Auckland classical music fans have long enjoyed the best of both worlds, with the NZSO - still basking in the afterglow of its 2010 European tour success - visiting at least a dozen times a year. Another overseas tour is planned for 2015.

No one wants to shut out the NZSO from Auckland - its Die Walkure at the Aotea Centre last weekend had the full-house in raptures. But Glaser and others question whether the NZSO needs to tour quite as much as it does.

"Domestic touring is enormously expensive," says Baker. "When you think of the proportion of Government funding being spent on airfares and hotel beds in downtown Auckland where there's already an international class orchestra, it is very frustrating."

Two full-time professional orchestras may seem one too many but Glaser and the APO's players dispute the conventional wisdom that attendances are falling and audiences dying. That's also the view in Christchurch and Wellington, which report increased attendances and subscriptions. "We're the orchestra that played on," says Christchurch Symphony Orchestra executive chair Therese Arseneau. "We have ambitions to have a stronger regional presence but to fulfil our vision we do need some more funding.

"I'm not sure the paper describes the [post-earthquake] reality in Christchurch - some of the things they are suggesting we are already doing."

The APO suggests the solution may lie in changing the NZSO's mandate. It was set up in the 1940s to "jump-start" an orchestra culture but with population changes and the APO's rise in the area of growth, the NZSO could diversify - part-orchestra visits to small towns, for instance - while still taking the most technically demanding works to the main centres.

"We don't see our role as being the national orchestra - the last thing we want is the demise of the NZSO," says Glaser.

It's unclear how this would work in practice. Glaser says what's needed is robust economic analysis, some hard data-crunching to map out the future role of the NZSO.

That should strike a chord with some in Wellington.

Orchestra sector review
Submissions on the discussion document close on Monday, August 20.
Full details: http://www.mch.govt.nz/orchestra-review

- NZ Herald

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