What to do about the bloody Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. For the past nine months, Culture Minister Chris Finlayson and his mandarins have been circling the uppity duckling. They've prodded the beast, even admired its swan-like appearance and its mellifluous sounds. But deep down, as the discussion paper into the future of professional orchestras reveals, Wellington still hankers for the APO to remember its place and leave the swan act to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Mr Finlayson said as much yesterday when he ruled out as "unthinkable" the disestablishment of the NZSO, which was one of four options put up for discussion by his advisers.

"The NZSO is a jewel in the cultural crown," he said. "There is no question of its survival under this Government."

So much for discussion and consultation.


With the only radical reform option axed from the discussion before the debate even begins, that leaves three "do little" options, all variations on the present, leaving the NZSO at the top of the orchestral pyramid, astride four "regional" orchestras, and below them, a smattering of community bands.

Missing from the discussion document is the alternative scenario proposed by the APO, which advocated putting the country's two professional fulltime symphony orchestras, the NZSO and APO, on equal footing at the top of the funding pile, and treating the part-time professional orchestras of Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, plus assorted community groups separately.

The APO's submission called on the review team to address the reality of the situation, not just tinker with the existing outdated model. The challenge was ignored.

Ministry of Culture chief executive Lewis Holden skirts the issue in his foreword.

He says the population "is increasingly concentrated in the north of the country", and that this was probably not expected when the NZSO came into being in the 1940s, or when funding for regional orchestras began in the 70s. The report underlines this, noting the regional orchestra model "reflects the 1970s/80s policy that this approach was the best way to supplement the work of the national touring orchestra," and that current-day funding and policy is "more the result of history than design". As a result of this history, the NZSO receives annual government funding of $13.4 million, or 79 per cent of the orchestra pot. The four city-based orchestras share $3.51 million between them, the APO getting the lion's share of $2.2 million.

What this historic model doesn't cater for, and the review document fails to address, is the emergence of Auckland as the country's economic and population centre and the artistic development of the APO into a city-based symphony orchestra which, despite its meagre government funding, is providing stiff competition to the NZSO in quality of playing and repertoire.

If the APO was a sporting team, its rapid growth as a new centre of excellence would have politicians gushing with praise. They certainly wouldn't be suggesting it slink back into some historically-ordained lower grade place in the official orchestral hierarchy. Yet this is what the discussion document hints at.

"The nub of the issue is the historical model of a national touring orchestra and a series of regional or city-based orchestras, without each having clearly defined and accepted roles and relationships."


To me, as an Aucklander and long time subscriber to the APO, the nub of the issue is not the lack of clearly defined roles within the historical model, but the model itself. The national orchestra was formed in the 1940s, bringing together professional players from around the country, to create a touring band bringing quality music to communities throughout the country. In the 1970s, government funding was introduced for regional orchestras to provide accompanying services for touring opera and ballet. For 50 years this worked well, but the musical world has changed. Despite this, the minister refuses to allow debate on whether it's time for an update.

In developing the discussion document, Avi Shoshani, secretary general of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, was brought over to provide expert advice. His report has not been released, but he is quoted as recommending that some of the NZSO funding be transferred to the APO and other orchestras, to give "more equitable remuneration to non-NZSO players".

The document does agonise over the need for "an orchestra of international standard in New Zealand". This is the buzz word in the document for the NZSO.

But anyone from the ministry who attended the APO's recent concert featuring opera superstar Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner, would know Auckland's orchestra can be world class as well these days.

To ensure this continues, however, requires an open-minded review of government funding that isn't skewed from the beginning by ministerial bias.