The NZSO ain’t getting axed (ditto APO, VWO, CSO & SS)

Yesterday, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage released a discussion paper as part of their New Zealand Professional Orchestra Sector Review.

The above paragraph is a simple, non-controversial, balanced declarative sentence. That’s more than Stuff and TVNZ can say. However, it’s easy for me to take the moral high ground because I’m neither a newspaper chain that needs to drive eyeballs to my website, nor a faux-public broadcaster that has the same commercial imperative.

The NZSO rehearsing for “Leaps & Sounds” at the Michael Fowler Centre.

These two media outlets reported the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the country’s oldest and best funded orchestra, may be “axed” (Stuff) or “scrapped” (TVNZ). Radio New Zealand National didn’t do much better: Checkpoint’s headline was “Culture and Heritage releases report on the NZSO” (yes, and four other orchestras too). Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage Chris Finlayson has since said that disestablishment is “unthinkable”.

I’m going to go with the Minister on this one. Nobody’s suggested severing the NZSO to save the government $13.6 million a year. [Edit: Whale Oil has. I’m unsurprised.] Wholesale dismantling of such a thriving artistic and logistical core would be madness. The report does, however, suggest there may be better ways to share resources across all the professional orchestras.

The historical, top-down view is of a “national” orchestra (the NZSO) and four “regional” groups: the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO), Vector Wellington Orchestra (VWO), the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO), and the Southern Sinfonia (based in Dunedin, not in Southland according to some reports).

In purely monetary and governance terms, the national/regional distinction is accurate – the NZSO is a Crown Entity of the New Zealand government whereas the regionals are generally independent trusts, the NZSO’s budget dwarfs the others’, its players are paid a lot better, and no other orchestra has a remit to tour the entire country. The full picture is more complex.

The centralisation of government funding in one orchestra means that extraordinary events are possible. For instance, the NZSO’s current tour of The Valkyrie has a cast of principals as good as you’ll find in any major opera house around the world, an orchestra at the height of its powers, and a quartet of Wagner tubas.

But despite frequent tours, the players and management of the orchestra have to make their home somewhere, and that place is Wellington. I can confidently say the capital identifies more strongly with the “national” orchestra than the rest of the country – the players do chamber music locally; they teach at the universities in Wellington; and many events like Leaps & Sounds (and until recently, the annual Made in New Zealand programme) take place in just the home city. The cultural life of Wellington benefits considerably having the “national” orchestra based there.

Muddying the water further are the ambitions of the “regional” orchestras. Despite seismic disruption, the CSO is right back up with things, putting on their full complement of 22 concerts, nimbly shifting from venue to venue as acoustics dictate and circumstances allow. It’s not full-time employment for an orchestra and they can’t quite programme to the scale of Mahler 7, but they’re a darn-sight more present in that community than the NZSO is and they’re doing some great stuff, like last month’s gig with The Adults.

The APO low brass performing at Connecting With Music, a concert for high school students at TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre.

Then there’s the APO. The only other group in New Zealand that provides full-time employment to an orchestra-sized core of players, the amalgamation of the Auckland region has meant for a pretty decent funding boost from local government and a good deal more security in day-to-day operation. They also introduce modern masterworks to local audiences, stuff like John Corigliano’s Symphony No 1 this week (the NZSO is pretty unlikely to perform that any time soon), and their education programme has resulted in stunning successes like Remix the Orchestra.

This is the context in which the spectre of “scrapping” the NZSO has come about. The MCH’s discussion paper (PDF) presents four potential scenarios for change:

  • Scenarios One, Two and Three reflect the current model of one national touring orchestra and other city-based/regional orchestras
  • Scenario Four has a configuration of city-based/regional orchestras only.

To crudely simplify, the former three essentially redesign the fiscal plumbing: the dosh would flow from Water Tank MCH via Spigot FAP or Spigot CNZ to Buckets NZSO/APO/VWO/CSO/SS etc.

It’s Scenario Four that the headline writers have leapt on and which has prompted all the nervous hysteria. This is called a “City and Community Orchestra Network”:

Under this model:

  • There is no government-owned, national touring orchestra
  • There is at least one orchestra of international standard

To retain any semblence of an “orchestra of international standard”, you would have to keep intact the core of the NZSO without reducing staff, players, guest artists and how much they all get paid. You simply remove the NZSO’s remit to tour the whole country, which saves a shit-ton of money in flights, hotel rooms and nationwide publicity coverage. This dosh is (presumably) redirected to Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. For the time being, Wellington has a better resourced orchestra all to itself, but over the medium-to-long term, other cities’ orchestras may catch up to “international standard”. Or for that matter, the NZSO may decline away from it.

It’s pretty clear that MCH considers this the least desirable option. Not only have they placed it last out of four, it’s the only scenario that effectively signs a death warrant for one of the existing pro groups (VWO), which is something they’ve been talking down. Moreover, it would explicitly tell the country that Wellington is more deserving of hearing world-class orchestral playing than the rest of New Zealand, which would not sit well with good old kiwi parochialism.


This blog barely scratches the surface. This MCH report has been a long time coming, especially given Creative New Zealand’s recent implementation of “investment” programmes and resulting anxiety about long-term support among the regionals (particularly VWO and the Southern Sinfonia). There was also that mini-fiasco of MCH bringing over Israeli orchestra manager Avi Shoshani as a consultant in October last year, flying him up and down the country for meetings, but not arranging for him to hear a single concert. (They brought him back for a second trip in February, listen to his interview from 18:04:)

For further background to the orchestral sector reforms, Janina Nicoll’s Listener article from March 2011 solicits a wide range of views. (NB: written before she started work as a publicist for the NZSO.)

I’m looking forward to further comment and analysis from Upbeat on RNZ Concert, Brian Rudman and perhaps also William Dart in the Herald (see Rudman’s 2008 column for a particularly Auckland perspective on NZSO vs APO), Tom Cardy in the Dom Post, Craig Ranapia on Public Address (I hope), The Arts on Sunday on RNZ National, and somebody in The Listener. Bronwyn Bent has called for Metro to do a piece as well – I hope they do.

I highly recommend reading the full report, which includes Avi Shoshani’s conclusions. It brings up all sorts of possibilities of sharing resources, changes in the way players are contracted, co-commissioning new repertoire, and regional touring responsibilities. It also has wider implications for organisations like the Royal New Zealand Ballet, NBR New Zealand Opera, Radio New Zealand and SOUNZ, Centre for New Zealand Music. It doesn’t say much about orchestras in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, despite a rapidly increasing population and past efforts to get professional groups off the ground there.

Finally, and most importantly, the report acknowledges that fewer and fewer people are buying tickets to see the orchestras live. With all the talk about governance, management, funding and turf wars, it’s pretty hard to escape that one fact.

MCH is seeking submissions, which close on Monday 20 August.

Long disclaimer: As a composer, I have had pieces performed by both the NZSO and the APO. As a presenter, I have done work on contract for the APO. While employed full-time at Radio New Zealand Concert (2008-2012), I regularly worked alongside the NZSO and occasionally dealt with all the other professional orchestras. As University of Otago Mozart Fellow, I get complimentary tickets to Southern Sinfonia concerts.

Update, Wed 25 July:

Chris Finlayson was on Upbeat yesterday, professing an open mind while defending the necessity of the NZSO as a national touring orchestra:

And consistent with previous remarks, Brian Rudman in this morning’s Herald champions his city’s band, clamouring for parity with the NZSO.

Update, Tue 31 July:

Something I missed from Tuesday last week: an APO media release with the title “Government review overlooks Auckland Philharmonia status”. They’ve also set up an orchestra review info page on their website, which links to the orchestra management’s 15-page formal submission (prepared already!), a shorter submission from the players, and various appendices. Kudos to the APO for making all this information freely available – I encourage all the orchestras to do the same.

Friday’s Waikato Times carried a letter to the editor which predicts an exodus of orchestral talent if the NZSO is messed with.

RNZ’s The Arts on Sunday led with perspectives from Philippa Harris (Southern Sinfonia General Manager) and Dame Roseanne Meo (APO Board Chairman):

In yesterday’s Dom Post, Wellington writer Dave Armstrong waxes lyrical about Die Walküre, speaks out against the disestablishment of the NZSO, doesn’t touch on the other orchestras, and talks of culture and class:

People wrongly dub classical music an elitist art form. Yes, tickets cost a bit, but that doesn’t mean it’s elitist per se. I don’t think the thousands of people who hire classical CDs from our library’s superb selection each year are all snobs and millionaires.

William Dart, music critic for the New Zealand Herald, reviewed the APO’s Thursday night gig (nothing about the MCH discussion document there) and the NZSO’s Auckland Town Hall Valkyrie, where his last paragraph reads:

Die Walkure has coincided with our community having major concerns about the governmental role in the support of our orchestras. With performances like this, democratically relayed through the country on Radio New Zealand Concert, the only change needed is increased funding.

And discussions continue to rage up and down the country – person-to-person, publicly on Twitter, semi-publicly on Facebook, and more privately in Facebook chat. Submissions close three weeks from yesterday.

Update, Sat 4 August:

Geoff Cumming has written a substantial piece for the Weekend Herald. Most of it is devoted to the APO’s case for more funding – I’d go so far to say that it really only presents the APO’s side of the story.

While the writer has spoken to both Barbara Glaser (APO Chief Executive) and Jonathan Baker (APO Principal Tuba and Board Member), I can’t discern any attempt to get comment from the NZSO or MCH, for instance. Still, it’s bringing the APO’s perspective to a wider audience, and when they’re so far the only orchestra to have made their submission public, fair enough.

In the NZSO’s newsletter eNotes, out today, there’s a link to this page about the orchestral review (although good luck finding that page directly from There’s some puff about Die Walküre, and this concrete line: “we are taking time to thoroughly consider the Discussion Paper and create our submission”. Fair enough too.

Their three main points in the meantime: “maintenance of the NZSO…as New Zealand’s international standard orchestra” (implying the word ‘only’?); “We should continue to be owned by the people of New Zealand” (please, Treasury, don’t take us off the books); and “strengthening of coordination, cooperation and planning across the orchestral sector”.

I’m still keeping a look-out for submissions from the other orchestras… two weeks to go.

Update, Mon 6 August:

Checking back at the Ministry’s page on the matter, it appears they have since uploaded Avi Shoshani’s report in full. Keen readers will note that the main discussion document quoted this source as “A. Shoshani, GMH Consultants, 2012 (unpublished)”.

I have to question why the Ministry for Culture and Heritage did not publish Avi Shoshani’s document in full in the first place. The taxpayer of New Zealand footed the bill for his consultancy services and his two trips from Israel; the taxpayer deserves to see all of his conclusions, not only those the Ministry chooses to share.

Geoff Cumming’s Herald article refers to this recommendation from Shoshani:

In the current situation, the NZSO receives the vast part of the government’s money while the rest of the orchestras receive a very little support. I therefore recommend a cut of up to 2 million NZD from the NZSO’s government allocation and rechanneling this money to other orchestras.

The following isn’t a “recommendation”, but he evidently considers it sensible:

Another potential solution can be uniting the Vector Wellington orchestra with the NZSO as I believe there is a way that such a unified orchestra can meet all the needs of music-making in Wellington as well as touring, if necessary

And here’s a line to set the cat among the pigeons:

I must say I see no major differences in quality between the NZSO and the other four orchestras.

While the APO must be very happy with that quote, they’re probably not too happy being called the “Auckland Symphony”.

Update, Thu 9 August:

Nigel Benson in the Otago Daily Times looks at the situation specifically relating to the Southern Sinfonia. General Manager Philippa Harris ain’t wrong when she says:

“In one extreme, the review could result in us getting a large increase and, in another extreme, our funding could be completely discontinued.”

While almost all readings of the tea leaves guarantee the future existence of the NZSO, the APO and the CSO, it’s the VWO and Southern Sinfonia that are most worried. Vector, because many consider the NZSO to be contributing to the Wellington region more than adequately, and the Southern Sinfonia, because they serve the smallest population catchment but the largest territory.

My opinion is that if a city has a university that teaches classical music, the city needs a professional orchestra. It’s teaching and playing together that provide enough work for professionals to make a full-time living in music; the orchestras have education arms to develop students’ skills outside of the university context; students can gain valuable experience (and income!) as casual players; and student composers can hear a real-life professional orchestra play their pieces.

The University of Waikato Conservatorium of Music seems to do okay without a full-rate professional orchestra in Hamilton, but they’re within commuting distance of Auckland. Dunedin, on the other hand, is ages away from anything. If the Southern Sinfonia can no longer operate as a professional ensemble, over time the University of Otago Department of Music will suffer, particularly in classical performance teaching. Christchurch is too far to go for students to get the experience they need.

Update, Thu 16 August:

John McCrone in the Weekend Press has a big long weekend article about the CSO that contains none of the words “Ministry”, “discussion”, “review” or “funding”. It’s a fascinating read which touches on facilities, the Central City rebuild (including the Town Hall question), and music education organisations (specifically the Christchurch School of Music and the University of Canterbury). It’s nice to read something about a New Zealand orchestra which doesn’t touch on the review. That said, the CSO’s central government funding is probably more stable than most orchestras’ right now.

In yesterday’s Dom Post, an opinion piece by Dame Jenny Gibbs (art philanthropist and APO vice-patron) advocates an even-handed look at how to distribute orchestral funding, recognising that the APO is more than a part-time regional band. This is probably the first time many Wellingtonians became aware that the APO is a full-time orchestra.

Then in this morning’s Dom Post, Tom Cardy leads with VWO fears merger. He seeks comment from three chief executives:

  • Chris Blake (NZSO) ‘did not want to speculate on where policy makers may end up’;
  • Adán Tijerina (VWO) says the APO is ”’acting quite aggressively” in seeking more more funding’;
  • Barbara Glaser (APO) replies ”I certainly don’t think we’ve been aggressive in our approach. I think we’ve been assertive and I wouldn’t expect us to be anything else.”

And since my last update, the remaining three professional orchestras have put MCH review information on their websites:

  • VWO supports the two-tiered model with a national orchestra sitting atop a network of four regional orchestras.”
  • Scenario Three (CNZ as funding and monitoring agency, industry-led body ensuring funding proposals are kosher) “comes closest to the CSO’s vision for the orchestra sector”
  • The main points of this Southern Sinfonia PDF document: integral to the New Zealand orchestral landscape; Vital role in local arts infrastructure; has close ties to its community; “Avi Shoshani [proposes] the Sinfonia’s grant be increased by what is effectively 111%”.

Naturally each orchestra is exhorting its supporters to submit and encouraging them to reflect its own views. My thoughts:

  • Of course Vector supports a two-tiered hierarchy. The more funding the APO gets, the less the NZSO does in Auckland, the more the NZSO does in Wellington, the less VWO has a reason to exist.
  • My comments from 9 August notwithstanding, one must question how vital the Southern Sinfonia is to the local arts infrastructure when they are not at all represented in the region’s major arts festival.

Last of all, MCH has extended the submission deadline to Sunday 26 August, which is good for procrastinators like me.

Update, Wed 22 August:

This’ll probably be my last update to this post before submissions close on Sunday. I’m still yet to write my own submission…

On Monday, Newstalk ZB’s news bulletin said that submissions closed that day. Fact-checking fail.

Then last night, Southern Sinfonia General Manager Philippa Harris was interviewed on Dunedin’s Channel 9. She makes the excellent point that due to central government funding arrangements (MCH vs CNZ), the NZSO’s funding is assessed under different criteria to other orchestras’ funding, and:

“We would hope that we wouldn’t see our funding cut or disestablished. We’d love to have a million dollars, but it’s just too hard to say what the outcome’s going to be.”

According to MCH’s discussion paper, in 2010 the Southern Sinfonia’s received 40% of its revenue ($325,740) from CNZ and 12% ($95,600) from the Dunedin City Council. Harris continues:

“One of the assertions is that audiences are declining. Now from the Sinfonia’s point of view, that’s not really the case. In fact, our audiences have kept particularly steady, which is remarkable considering there’s been a global recession. The loyalty factor though has increased for the Sinfonia’s audiences – our subscribers have increased year after year for nearly twenty years, which is amazing because internationally they’re declining.”

With four days to go, I’m going to write a quickie post looking at the NZSO’s offerings in Auckland – if you had to cut any concerts to redirect money to the APO, which would you?

Update, Thu 23 August:

Did I say something about this being my last update? Well, the New Zealand Herald put paid to that with perspectives from two important Auckland figures.

Sir James Wallace, arguably the most active arts philanthropist in New Zealand, has written an opinion piece. He cites demand for expanding the APO’s education programme, and…:

“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 [the NZSO and the APO]. It is time that this is acknowledged by addressing the grossly unfair difference in funding…”

Also today, David Nalden (retired violin & viola lecturer) had a piece which makes this excellent point:

“To my mind comparing the NZSO and the APO is like choosing between apples and oranges. Both are orchestras of which New Zealand can be proud. And they are as different in musical approach as they are distinctive in character, which is why they tend to attract two different audiences, according to tastes.”

It’s certainly clear that these two orchestras programme quite different things. The APO is known for choosing adventurous repertoire: Corigliano, Rouse, Szymanowski, Franz Schmidt, etc. The NZSO this year has been going for biiig events: Alpine Symphony, Bruckner this week, and of course Die Walküre. Nalden continues:

“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…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.”

And I finally follow through on my promise to look at the NZSO’s 2012 programme and decide what Auckland could do without.

Update, Sat 25 August:

Brian Rudman does another Brian Rudman. Interesting points:

  • He accuses the Ministry of misrepresenting Avi Shoshani’s position in the discussion document: apparently Shoshani never said “the NZSO should differentiate itself by presenting difficult repertoire” and “it should leave community engagement and education activities to the regional orchestras”.
  • Rudman says that it took him “a week of badgering before the bureaucrats finally made [Shoshani’s] report public”. Interesting…

And my final point from the article:

“Aucklanders have until Sunday to convince Mr Finlayson and his advisers here. Admittedly, neither the ministry’s discussion paper nor Mr Finlayson’s comments on it offer much hope of meaningful change.”

I wrote my submission today. I filled out their SurveyMonkey form, and I was surveyed like a monkey. A lot of the questions I rejected as I went, such as this series:

7. Do you agree there are advantages in having more flexible employment arrangements across the sector?
8. Do you agree there are disadvantages in having more flexible employment arrangements across the sector?
9. On balance, do you think the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages?

What a load of nonsense. How can I possibly give an answer to question nine when you’ve used no word more specific than “flexible”? Provide a concrete set of circumstances and I might be able to comment.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage put out a leading discussion document and designed a leading process of consultation. Can’t help but agree with Brian Rudman on that.

2 thoughts on “The NZSO ain’t getting axed (ditto APO, VWO, CSO & SS)

  1. […] you click through to the piece from 24 July, you will now find over two dozen links to discussion papers, media articles, radio interviews and […]

  2. […] 3: See my post of 24 July for my declaration of orchestral […]

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