Editorial: Philharmonia needs help from home

The trials and tribulations of the Auckland Philharmonia revealed by the Herald in recent days make sobering reading. Few who have seen and heard the orchestra in full flow could have imagined the extent of its governance and funding woes. Or that, according to a consultant's report, it is wracked by internal conflict "verging on dysfunctionality". All in all, the Philharmonia's 25th year has become far from the celebratory occasion it should be. It need not have been this way. The orchestra's funding difficulties can be laid, in large part, at the door of miserly local authorities. Equally, sponsorship and donor dollars would be flowing more freely if its governance issues had been accepted, and then addressed more adroitly.

The Philharmonia was born a small co-operative in which the musicians made the decisions. It is now the victim of its own success. The original structure is inappropriate for an organisation boasting annual turnover of $6.3 million and striving for artistic excellence, while dependent on a mix of private and public money. Professional management and accountability are the price that, quite reasonably, comes with private funding in particular. And standards can only be raised when musical directors have the power to dismiss poor performers.

This is never an easy transition. Musicians, some of whom earn as little as $35,000 a year, fear the loss of job security and control over their working conditions.

In the case of the Philharmonia, it appears the process has been handled poorly. Draft rules regulating musicians' behaviour were described by consultant Graeme Nahkies as "highly prescriptive and detailed, even insulting". Unsurprisingly, disputes prompted by a poisoned atmosphere are still being worked through.

On one score, however - that of public funding - there is a straightforward solution. If the financial support of many local bodies was not so lamentable, the orchestra would not be struggling. Auckland City provides $300,000, while the rest supply a pittance or, in the case of Waitakere City, nothing. This despite the fact that 7.2 per cent of the Philharmonia's audience comes from that city. This problem is not unique to the orchestra, but perhaps in no other instance has there been such woeful consequences. The upshot is that, compared with comparable Australian orchestras, the Philharmonia must rely to an unfair degree on its box-office popularity. Consciences should be pricked when the Philharmonia seeks additional funding from the Auckland mayoral forum tomorrow.

This local authority niggardliness is often excused on the basis that the Government also gives only limited financial support, particularly when compared to its funding of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Creative New Zealand gave more than $10 million to the NZSO in 2003, and provides just $1.5 million to the Philharmonia. Why, the argument goes, should there be such a disparity when turnover for the NZSO last year was $14.4 million, little more than double that of the Auckland orchestra?

But the Government has a point. It must be accepted that the Philharmonia is a regional orchestra. Whatever the quarrels about the validity of a national orchestra, or the comparable standards of the two, the Philharmonia does not traverse the country in the manner of the NZSO. Therefore additional public funding should come not from Wellington but from the local authorities of Auckland whose residents receive the full benefit of the orchestra.

The Philharmonia will undoubtedly report a loss for the latest financial year, following upon a $341,393 deficit for 2003. That figure, while undesirable, is not unduly dramatic. It suggests that greater local body funding, allied to a governance structure that encourages private support, would put the Philharmonia on a stable and sustainable footing. The orchestra, its musicians and the people of Auckland would all benefit.

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