More on Wells’s “brilliant” (Dom Post) doco on the NZSO tour

But the New Zealand Herald didn’t see eye to eye with the Dominion Post’s Linda Burgess who reviewed it as television on Monday 1 August.

See William Dart’s admirable, clear-sighted comment in today’s paper:

Subsequent to this post, we’ve been told that the Herald is being pressured to remove Dart’s review.
In case that happens, here it is:

Jeremy Wells’s doco on the NZSO tour

by William Dart

Saturday 6 August 2011 – New Zealand Herald

Last October, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was proud that Jeremy Wells would front a documentary about its upcoming world tour. And Wells, fresh from his rather clever Birdland series, responded that “it was time to align myself with something a little more cultured than birds or half-baked local celebrities. The NZSO was an obvious choice”.

I shuddered at this cruel put-down of the delightful, idiosyncratic characters who made Birdland a success. If this casual insult occasioned shudders, then the completed documentary, The Grand Tour, which screened on Prime TV last Sunday, was rage-inducing.

Shuffling around the concert halls of China and Europe, Wells, the eternal slacker, patched together a script of snide swipes and innuendo. China was the home of Sars and, looking to porn for inspiration, Wells described Garry Smith, the NZSO operations manager, as a fluffer.

Wells’ feeble attempts at in-depth interview had harpist Carolyn Mills valiantly fielding his banter about playing in the nude; trombonist David Bremner was reduced to a giggling school boy when Wells likened his trombone playing to a sex act, or confronted him with scatological humour more familiar in shows like Back of the Y.

We hardly had time to marvel at some of the glorious venues before Wells chirped in with the observation that classical music is woven into German culture like automotive engineering and barebacking. The American soloist Hilary Hahn was asked whether she had tried solvent abuse as a teenager, masseuse Bronwen Ackerman was drawn out on the subjects of “happy endings” and conductor’s erections. Shamefully, Wells teased a German doctor to the point of harassment with a discussion of a surreal testicle injury.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa quite rightly showed little patience with Wells’ interview tactics. When she did respond, she was cut off mid-sentence.

Clearly The Grand Tour was more about Jeremy Wells cracking out a good spit in Shanghai or, for two long minutes, attempting to introduce Lucerne against traffic noise.

There were glimmers of thoughtful commentary here and there but there should have been much more on the rare occasion of classical music making it to prime time. Those who care about New Zealand music have reason to worry about its obvious marginalisation in this film; Ross Harris and his specially commissioned orchestral pieces were neither heard nor discussed.

And what does the orchestra itself think of this travesty, this deeply philistine mockery of indubitably great culture? Most organisations would insist on quality control and final approvals; if this documentary got a tick from the NZSO, then our classical music culture is indeed in a sorry state.

Musicologist Robin Maconie posted a comment on Scoop.

But it’s no use referring you to that because Scoop removed it from their website rather abruptly.

Maconie writes: “This article went global and within a day was pulled from the Scoop website, with no reason given. Scoop is supposed to be an independent news medium. Robin Maconie has refused to allow the article to be reinstated in edited form.”

So here it is:

After the NZSO:

Jeremy Wells plays with his Wiener experience


Like a convict facing the hangman’s noose, a cornered rat turns, bares its teeth, hisses and fouls itself.

Step forward Jeremy Wells, poster boy for a sinking New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Except the NZSO is not sinking. At least, not yet. The rats will eventually leave and the orchestra will survive. It is a good orchestra. It has high standards and a serviceable reputation in the wider world of serious music and musicians. It has still to expose, let alone properly exploit, the cultural  resources of a gifted conductor and hardworking team of musicians. The orchestra recently toured a number of distinguished and not so distinguished concert halls in Europe. A cut-price effort fuelled by desperation and putting considerable strain on the players, organized by a management team behaving as though a symphony orchestra were the equivalent of a national rugby team in drag.

The tour was three years in preparation. While the world economy crumbled around them and the money began to run out, as Wellington bureaucrats do the tour organizers doggedly stuck to their original plan. There was no Plan B. The tour finally took place at the worst possible time for a New Zealand shaken by the first of several major earthquake disasters in Christchurch, then Pike River Mine. The orchestra was accompanied by a photographer and a television crew, but no independent musically competent reporters. A surprising omission, since New Zealand has at least two music journalists of good standing in regular employment, but a decision that may have something to do with the fact that both are based in Auckland, home of the rival Auckland Philharmonia. The only way the New Zealand public was able to follow the NZSO’s tour of fortune in the court of European public opinion – the New Zealand public whose declining subscriber base the entire exercise was arguably intended to recover – was through the intermittent blog of an amiable but not terribly literate brass player and a succession of all too brief and nervously managed press releases of doubtful credibility.

Following the muted triumph of the orchestra’s return home at a time of national mourning the NZSO marketing gurus, crass and insensitive as ever, began loudly complaining that their achievement had not been taken seriously enough by the government or the public.

It was their own fault. A tour planned and staged as a marketing gesture for home consumption – just like a Silver Ferns tour – took place in conditions of almost total media blackout. Apparently it is not the done thing in the world of art music to keep your existing or potential customers informed.  No explanation in the national media as to why the tour was necessary in the first place, leaving readers to suspect that the whole exercise was no more than a promotional quid pro quo to massage the vanity of one or two people at the top.

The frankly obscene idea that inflatable toyboy Wells should front a potentially vote-winning television documentary, and its disastrous consequences, speaks volumes. Wellington, the city of culture? Of course you must be joking. It is what happens when empty heads prevail and responsibility for a national orchestra and national radio part company. The orchestra loses all sense of connection with its national constituency and retreats into a conservative and toxic backwater in desperation to retain its national, tax funded position of advantage. In abandoning the original BBC inspired formula, our national radio no longer sees itself as having a stake in NZSO success at home or abroad, as promotional, educational, and service wing of the orchestra.

Promoting the NZSO among the wider population in New Zealand is further hindered by serious broadcast reception difficulties, compared to countries in Europe. The problem affects listener satisfaction in all media: radio, television, and broadband. When the Rolling Stones come to play, they bring their own crew. Rock music is not the same game, is much easier to control, compared to classical music at its best. So ask yourself, if listeners cannot receive a decent uncluttered signal at home or on the road, how can they be expected to develop an empathy for music of high quality of any culture, not just western symphonic and opera. Classical music, whether live or prerecorded, is technically the most demanding of all acoustic signals to deliver to an audience. New Zealand has the engineering and digital skills, but not the smarts nor the will, to address the problem. Appreciation of the NZSO will only improve once our institutions of higher learning take delivery of relevant teaching expertise and introduce suitable training and production skills programmes.

Can the NZ Symphony Orchestra survive the brutalizing attentions of media mouthpiece Jeremy Wells? Certainly it can; the question is whether it deserves to survive under its present regime. The documentary material can certainly be re-edited to present the NZSO in a more flattering light to an international public. All that has to be done is for the television footage to be edited to leave Wells’s contribution on the cutting room floor,  and for it to be gathered up and burned.

It is only too obvious, both from the way the 2010 European tour was sold, and from the series of blunders that led to Wells tagging along and then actually fronting the souvenir documentary aired on Prime last Sunday, that the NZSO marketing people were only interested in impressing the folks back home.

This was a shame. A properly researched international tour would have unearthed real opportunities to present the orchestra and our national culture distinctively and proudly, in a way designed to impress the orchestra’s European audiences and media, rather than leave them feeling perplexed, blindsided and somewhat taken aback.

A tour of Austria and Germany was a wasted opportunity to remind New Zealanders just how much our concert life and traditions are indebted to European refugees seeking a better life in this country who brought classical music with them as part of a precious old world heritage. Think just for a moment of  the cultural commitment of the people of Nelson who, back in 1890,  at the suggestion of visiting string virtuoso Michael Balling, an associate of Wagner and Brahms, willingly subscribed to a scheme to build a School of Music on the European model, and to hire a succession of German-trained specialists to direct it. Today the building survives, mothballed, a neglected relic of cultural heroism in the midst of an indecently prosperous wine community that has lost its soul.

The NZSO might well have taken a very real message back to Europe about our contribution as a remote Polynesian nation to the history and development of European artistic consciousness. But in order to do so one would have to understand more exactly who we are and what we have to offer. New Zealand Maori’s history of contact with European civilization goes back to the time of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. A century in advance of the first All Black tour, European art and music was already reverberating to the exotic sounds and rhythms of plaintive karakia and the violently confrontational haka recorded in widely-published chronicles of visiting eighteenth-century explorers.

New Zealand music can no more repudiate our connection with European culture than we can erase the memory of those Austrian and German explorers and scientists whose skills and patient discipline laid the foundations of our current reputation in conservation and the natural sciences. Or ignore the image of a Nowhere Land described by  nineteenth-century English visitor Samuel Butler, writing letters and commentaries on Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species for the Christchurch Press by day, and by night playing Beethoven sonatas on an upright piano in his isolated sheep station in the Canterbury hinterland.

Who would know that Christchurch was once the home of the Dresden Piano Company, and Begg’s, piano manufacturers and music retailers to the New Zealand settler community from the time of sailing ships? Who among NZSO management cherishes – or even remembers – the young teenage violinist Alfred Hill, sent off to Leipzig by enthusiastic public subscription in 1887 to train as a professional and return to serve his people, only to be insulted and repudiated by the local community after World War I for the double offence of association with the enemy, and for fraternising with Maori. Not forgetting more recent arrivals like the Francis Rosners, the Marie Vanderwarts, the Fred Turnovskys, and the Michael Wiecks, seeking relief from religious persecution in Vienna and elsewhere before and during the era of Nazi persecution.

What publicity value is served, I wonder, either here in New Zealand or anywhere else in the western world where culture is prized, by the shameful spectacle of an ignorant prick  insulting a woman, his senior, and an artist of the quality and international status of Dame Kiri, not only by his words but even by  his blank, shovel-faced presence?

Aided by a compliant and nepotistic administration New Zealand’s cultural life has over the years been infiltrated, not to say contaminated, by a steady stream of articulate and rebarbartive middle-class refugees of conservative taste, mediocre talent, and restricted vision, decision makers and opinion formers who have no idea or interest in New Zealand’s unique history or its place in the greater pattern of world events. They are vain, cruel, cunning, vastly overpaid, and indifferent to the significant damage they inflict on New Zealand’s image abroad as well as what hurt they effect on morale at home.

Why, I wonder, should the NZSO be courting the attentions of such people. And why should the public be content to put up with, let alone pay for, the insult of a Paul Henry style makeover? Such errors of judgement are hugely counter-productive. They risk alienating commercial supporters among media sensitive national industries such as Air New Zealand, as well as international brands such as Siemens and BMW. They only serve to draw attention to national standards of ignorance and vandalism that, as well as being irritating to the local public and calculatedly offensive to members of the orchestra, would be incomprehensible to media watchers in any other part of the civilized world, including Murdoch’s Australia.

Let’s face it. The NZSO management just don’t have a clue. They have to go. For much too long our cultural life has been infected by glib and alienated mediocrities with the gift of the gab but no grasp of New Zealand history or cultural values, empty vessels with a sense of entitlement to badmouth the very values they came to New Zealand in order to escape.