Sir James Wallace: Time to acknowledge APO's value

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The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra plays free and low-cost concerts throughout Auckland.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra plays free and low-cost concerts throughout Auckland. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The Government has conducted a lengthy review of the way our orchestras are funded and how the sector is structured. It's about time. The last proper examination of the orchestral sector was in 1946 when the current structure was created.

That structure, which comprised one national touring orchestra and a sprinkling of semi-professional regional groups, no longer represents the reality of the sector. There are now two full-time professional orchestras of international quality - the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) - and three regional orchestras of a high standard.

Some 66 years ago it was logical to base a national touring orchestra in Wellington. That is not now justifiable. Over a third of New Zealand's population is in Auckland, while a full half is within 130 kilometres of the city.

Unfortunately, of the four alternative models put forward in the Ministry for Arts, Culture and Heritage's orchestral review discussion paper, three retain that one-plus-the-rest approach, while the fourth - which proposed a completely new structure - was publicly dismissed by the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Chris Finlayson, almost the moment the discussion document was released.

The lack of willingness to entertain a new approach is extremely disappointing and suggests a retention of the status quo simply because it's easier than making substantive changes, along with an entrenched case of Wellingtonitis.

Despite suspiciously misleading headlines, no one is suggesting that the NZSO be disbanded. For the record, I have been a subscriber of both the NZSO and the APO in their different forms since their inception, as well as being a financial benefactor to both.

I also attend many concerts overseas every year and can confidently say that they are both of an international standard and that there is little or no difference in quality between them.

It is time that this is acknowledged by addressing the grossly unfair difference in funding - $13.4 million for the NZSO vs $2.1 million central government funding for the APO.

The gloomy claims that audiences are declining are, in my experience, unfounded, at least for the APO. How fatuous to cite a Sport NZ survey.

Extraordinarily, the role of a 21st century orchestra has largely been overlooked in the ministry's document. A lot of what an orchestra does these days happens out in the community, away from the main concert halls.

The APO's education and outreach programme is second to none, but it could be even bigger with more funding. The demand is there. Between them the APO musicians teach around 600 primary, secondary and tertiary students every week. I applaud this crucial nurturing of young talent.

Similarly, the APO holds free and low-cost concerts throughout Auckland, ensuring that as many people as possible have access to this wonderful resource. All of this encourages younger concertgoers.

To continue and expand these activities the APO needs more certainty of funding and greater funding.

It is expected that organisations raise money through philanthropic means and I have first-hand knowledge of the fact that the APO does an outstanding job in raising almost half of its income that way. However, philanthropy should only complement the certainty of government funding, not replace it.

An orchestra is part of our cultural life, which is itself vital and fundamental to the health of any society. It is time for government to fully and financially acknowledge that the APO is the equal of the NZSO.

If cultural funding is not increased - redressing the iniquitous imbalance between that and funding for sports - then, perhaps, the NZSO touring budget would have to be curtailed (sadly, especially for Auckland), recognising that that role is no longer the vital component it was in 1946.

Sir James Wallace is an Auckland arts patron.

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