What’s happening with the Wellington Orchestra?

What’s happening with the Wellington Orchestra?

15 September 2009

Perhaps the major news story of Wellington music in the past month has been the announcement that longtime general manager of the Vector Wellington Orchestra, Christine Pearce, had resigned.

In comparison with such events in most other areas of entertainment, particularly pop music, television and film, the reasons for this sudden severing of what had seemed a most successful relationship, have remained out of sight and all concerned have been tight-lipped.

What is most clear is the continuing excellent relations between Pearce and Musical Director, Marc Taddei. There has never been such a happy and successful team; which makes unbelievable, speculation about some sort of putsch against Taddei. The orchestra has never been as successful as it has under the guidance of Pearce and Taddei.

Previous attempts to establish a subscription series have rather failed, but in the past two or three years, well-conceived programmes, together with Taddei’s entertaining, colourful presence on the podium, have filled the Town Hall time and again. And no season has met with success comparable to that of 2009, with pianist Michael Houstoun playing all the Beethoven piano concertos.

There have been speculations about the orchestra’s size in recent concerts; for example, in the Last Night of the Proms which did seem to suffer from a lack of weight in several of the items that called for dramatic impact and sheer depth of sound.

Was the orchestra’s financial penury preventing it from engaging extras, as it usually has, to cope properly with big Romantic works?

Christine’s successor has been appointed – Diana Marsh – and her record in musical administration does offer the hope of continued lively and successful management and artistic policy.

Is the orchestra properly funded?

Whatever has triggered this situation, it seems likely that inadequate funding is a not unimportant element.

Of the four professional ‘regional’ orchestras, Wellington’s has always been the least well funded per capita. Creative New Zealand’s largest musical client is, naturally, the Auckland Philharmonia, with $1.8 million (the NZSO, of course, is funded directly, like the Royal New Zealand Ballet, by the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage); whereas the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra used to receive perhaps 50% more than the Wellington Orchestra, it now receives more than twice as much ($600,000). The Wellington Orchestra received $285,000 in the current year, while the Southern Sinfonia in Dunedin gets $265,000.

When you compare the total budgets of orchestras, these funding levels take on a different look.

The Wellington Orchestra’s total budget is around $1.6 million while the Southern Sinfonia’s is between $700,000 and $900,000.

Thus the Dunedin orchestra gets around a third of its income from State sources; the percentage in Wellington’s case is about 17%.

The other revenue sources for Wellington are 29% from hiring by opera, ballet, musical theatre, choirs etc, and 25% from its own concerts.

That leaves around 30% (say $530,000) from other sources – mainly commercial sponsorship. The largest of those are Vector, the New Zealand Community Trust and the Lion Foundation.

It has a always been assumed that Creative New Zealand has tended to feel that with the NZSO based in the city, the need for a second orchestra is not great.

Nothing could be more wrong.

The role of the Wellington Orchestra

Even though the NZSO is based in Wellington, most of its concerts are elsewhere and that is obviously the reason for its far greater budget and level of State support. Thus the other city-based orchestras are in very much the same relationship with the NZSO as is the Wellington Orchestra, and accordingly there is no reason for the big difference in funding levels (on a percapita basis) among them.

The orchestra has an indispensable role as a pit orchestra for opera and ballet, for oratorios and other choral performances, for musical theatre, and most importantly, to take classical music to other centres in the lower North Island. One should also be able to count among its major functions the taking of music to schools, but the orchestra’s activities in that sphere are confined to bring groups of school pupils in to a municipal hall; that is in sharp contrast to the work of the Auckland Philharmonia which is able to run a quite lively educational programme.

Now that the school curriculum has sidelined music as a core subject, has ceased to provide musical instruments and tuition in primary schools, the burden of getting some small amount of classical music into schools falls almost entirely on the independent musical bodies such as orchestras, opera companies, Chamber Music New Zealand (and of course on the sort of support that dedicated and energetic music teachers in schools can inspire from their principals and colleagues to undertake musical activities outside school hours).

Here is another, and very persuasive reason, for providing much larger funding to these not-for-profit organizations.

The other major area of misunderstanding is the need for a part-time orchestra to give as many of its own concerts as possible, in order to maintain technical and artistic standards.

Self promoted concerts are vital, and the happy development in the last two or three years has been to have finally awakened quite a big following for the orchestra’s own subscription series, and occasional individual concerts such as the Last Night of the Proms.

But every concert, even with a full house, runs a deficit; the beloved economic notion of economies of scale works in reverse: the more you do the more you lose.

Yet one still hears the philistine contention that elitist cultural activities like classical concerts should pay for themselves. To do so tickets would probably need to be over $200, and orchestra members would outnumber the audience.