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Remaking the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra as a chamber ensemble would pay dividends

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Five years ago prominent company director James Strong released a report he and a small team had been commissioned by the Howard government to research and write on Australia's orchestras. Strong bravely told the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the nation's smallest "capital city" ensemble, that it should remake itself as chamber orchestra to have a better chance of surviving what would be a rugged future for classical music in Australia.

Strong's views met with almost uniform hostility from the Tasmanian political, media and arts establishments and his plan was pronounced dead on arrival by a electorally nervous and culturally inept Howard government.

It is a pity that Tasmanians could not see the inherent merit in Strong's vision because the TSO survives today courtesy only of major chunks of taxpayers' funds, both state and federal. The Orchestra produces fine music but its audience is greying, its marketing is woeful and its appeal to a global audience is hamstrung by the conservatism of its management and the narrow repertoire beloved of its musical director, conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.


What Tasmanians who rejected Strong's view of the world did not understand is that being a chamber orchestra would have catapulted the TSO onto a larger stage. That having the word "symphony" in your title is not some sort of prestige symbol which brings with it tangible benefits.

The TSO's uncertain future can be gauged by resort to these figures.

According to the Orchestra's 2009 Annual Report, which is a calendar year review, a staggering $7.6 million of its total of $10.2 million in revenue came from government. Sponsorship and ticket sales accounted for only just over $2 million.

The subscriber base for the TSO reflects the State's demographic. Tasmania is the fastest aging state in the Commonwealth and by 2050, without a major migration push, the Island will be a virtual nursing home.

The other issue which hamstrings the TSO is that it is still stuck, as it has been for many years now, with an arrangement whereby it records with the ABC's recording label. This limits the capacity for the TSO's name and profile to be marketed to key overseas markets.

Any large scale orchestra in the position of the TSO, that is heavily reliant on government funding and with very limited opportunities to expand markets, faces a future that will be at best difficult to negotiate.


The answer is to revisit the Strong Review and free the TSO from the shackles that currently bind it by turning it into a nimble, peripatetic chamber ensemble.

Before hands are thrown up in horror at the idea that a symphony orchestra be "downgraded" to a chamber entity, consider this. Some of the leading orchestras in the world are chamber orchestras - that is, smaller in size than full service ensembles. The famous Academy of St Martins in the Fields from the UK; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which prominent Australian conductor Charles MacKerras conducted for many years; the Australian Chamber Orchestra; the St Paul Chamber Orchestra in the US etc etc - the list goes on.

Does anyone suggest that these groups are inferior beings? In fact, it is beyond doubt that the above mentioned ensembles offer a superior musical experience to many full size symphony orchestras around the world. It is the quality that counts, not the quantity.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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