David Nalden: Auckland's orchestra equal to the NZSO but different

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

"Each has an identity, a sound, an ethos of its own." Those words appeared in the London Evening Standard under the heading 'Why London needs five orchestras'. Their author was Barry Millington, chief music critic of that paper and distinguished Wagner scholar.

Change the headline to 'Why Auckland needs two orchestras', and Millington's words could apply very aptly to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in current discussions on the future of New Zealand's professional orchestras .

To my mind comparing the NZSO and the APO is like choosing between apples and oranges. Both are orchestras of which New Zealand can be proud. And they are as different in musical approach as they are distinctive in character, which is why they tend to attract two different audiences, according to tastes.

Having followed both for over three decades I would not venture to choose between them.

They represent an important enrichment to the large and increasingly cosmopolitan Auckland community, with its diverse cultural requirements.

The APO has made its position clear: it aspires to be recognised as an orchestra of international standing, and funded accordingly. The possible alternative, as a secondary regional orchestra on reduced funding, could lead to the erosion of its present outstanding achievements.

These were won by years of unflagging dedication, sheer hard work and, above all, a level of musicianship and technical skills equal to those in many fine orchestras I have heard overseas. Their downgrading would be the destruction of a heritage treasure.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage's discussion document avoids taking an overt position on the future prospects of our four regional orchestras. Only the NZSO's position is guaranteed. But a closer perusal of the paper is revealing on this score.

In defining the meaning of an orchestra of international standing the document specifies that, among other provisos, such an orchestra must be "able to recruit and retain musicians in the international job marketplace".

Dare I point out that the same reasoning would lead to the incontestable conclusion that the All Blacks would not qualify as World Class if the loss of top players to wealthier clubs overseas were considered more important than their performance on the pitch?

Even so, the APO, while proud of its core of New Zealand-born players, fits the Ministry's criteria. The members of the orchestra are distinctly international and have trained at the world's leading institutes.

As well as rank and file players recruited internationally, the APO also has a Bulgarian concertmaster, Canadian principal viola, Bulgarian principal cello, American principal bass, Canadian guest principal oboe, American principal clarinet, American principal bassoon, Australian principal trumpet, Russian principal timpani, and American principal percussion.

The current orchestral review is timely, and necessary, especially in today's financial climate. But, to take a random example, the discussion paper's reference to APO audiences as "mainly European, female, over 50, with a tertiary qualification and earning above average incomes", is inaccurate, as any concertgoer will tell you.

It ignores the fact that Auckland's rapidly increasing Asian population is gradually filling our music departments, both secondary and tertiary (and consequently our concert venues, on-stage and in the audience), with talented and highly motivated young people, all eager to study and perform the same Western classical music that was once scorned by an indignant majority as the preserve of an elite, elderly white minority wealthy enough to pay for their pleasure themselves.

Similarly the inclusion in the discussion document of a 2011 survey for Sport NZ showing that "those surveyed (saw classical music) as conservative, boring, for older people and losing relevance" may have had traction in the past. But today it is a shaky basis for planning the future of our orchestras.

Rugby clubs are expressing their concern at the drop in numbers of match attendeesand a survey commissioned by the APO demonstrates that the number of sports fans who attend its concerts is so significant that concert dates are now scheduled to avoid clashes with important sports events.

Funding imperatives are, understandably, at the heart of the orchestral review. Surprisingly this leads to the consideration of one of the most important initiatives of all: the APO's education, outreach and community programme, known as APO Connecting.

Between them, the APO's musicians reach more than 600 young people each week. Studies prove that learning an instrument aids cognitive development in young people, and international examples such as El Sistema - a New Zealand version of which, Sistema Aotearoa, is operated in Otara by the APO - show that music programmes can help reduce youth crime, increase school attendance rates and offer alternative paths for young people who would otherwise have succumbed to gang membership or drug dependency.

A single child who is rescued from a life of crime and imprisonment will save the taxpayer the average of $91,000 it costs to house a prisoner for a year at today's rates. What could this mean for the future? Given time, these savings could be multiplied by hundreds, eventually dwarfing the few million it would take to recognise the APO's true worth today.

Even the hardest-nosed business tycoon could not ignore these projections. The potential benefits in human terms are incalculable.

* David Nalden is a violinist and violist and former orchestral player in Belgium, Italy and London. He was a senior lecturer in violin and viola at the University of Auckland school of music until 2006 and is currently an honorary senior lecturer (research).

- NZ Herald

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