The negative posturing by Arts Minister, Lara Giddings, and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's manager, Nick Heyward, about the orchestra's future is misplaced.
The TSO lacks entrepreneurial vision, has a mediocre marketing strategy, dull programming, a greying audience and a chief conductor who fails to excite the broader community. Furthermore, Ms Giddings and Mr Heyward just don't seem to get one simple fact: around the world, orchestras are being reduced and are having to reinvent themselves and use innovative strategies to attract new audiences.
James Strong, who has recommended to the federal Government that the TSO become a chamber orchestra of 38 full-time musicians, understands this fact. His recommendation for the TSO is inevitable and sensible.
As I have noted in the past, the TSO's recording strategy of using ABC Classics or expensive small labels such as Hyperion instead of approaching Naxos, the fastest-growing label in the world, is flawed. Whereas the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's recordings for Naxos are frequently in the BBC's Classical Music magazine's monthly top 20 list, the TSO is absent.
Furthermore, while its recordings of modern Australian music are worthy, and indeed important, they will not help put the TSO on the map internationally. But as a chamber ensemble the TSO, if it can break free of its conservative management direction, could become a world-renowned band.
A chamber orchestra has a wide and fascinating repertoire open to it, everything from 17th-century baroque to 21st-century contemporary.
Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the TSO's chief conductor, is a fine musician but he does not seem to have assumed a high profile in our community. Perhaps this is the fault of the TSO and not Mr Lang-Lessing. But the contrast between the almost invisible presence of Mr Lang-Lessing and that of the exciting, youthful and eclectic Markus Stenz, who did wonders with the Melbourne Orchestra over the last eight years, is staggering. Walk past Melbourne's Hamer Hall on St Kilda Road and you would see large posters of the photogenic and energetic Mr Stenz. In contrast, the TSO does not even put signage on its concert hall home.
But perhaps the TSO's greatest failing has been to rely on a safe repertoire to suit its greying audience. That the TSO does not understand how more contemporary music can bring a new audience was manifested last year in an interview Mr Heyward did with the ABC's Tim Cox. He told Cox that the music of extraordinarily popular American film and classical composer Philip Glass, who has collaborated successfully with rock legends David Bowie and Brian Eno, for example, was played in Europe by orchestras with government subsidies.
This statement was just plain wrong. Glass packed out Sydney two years ago because he draws a younger, more diverse audience. Of course, the TSO should have been thinking about a home away from home for some time now. Relying purely on the ageing Tasmanian population for revenue and growth is folly. Why doesn't it pursue the option that the Baltimore Orchestra has recently taken: to base itself in Washington DC as well as keeping its home base? Angel Place Recital Hall in the heart of the financial district of downtown Sydney would be a perfect second home for the TSO.
Ms Giddings and Mr Heyward are ignoring the present worldwide direction for orchestras - innovate radically or die.
The London Symphony Orchestra is doing this brilliantly. It recognised some years ago that the 8pm concert on a freezing night was not the most attractive entertainment option in a world where home entertainment options are boosted every year. So it has, for example, broken itself up into parts like quartets and trios and played in different venues at various times of the day.
Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, described the future of classical music and orchestras superbly in a speech in January this year. “I wish that for every story in the media about troubled orchestras there was a matching story about a new composer-led ensemble, a new chamber series, a new program of professional musicians working in schools and so on,” he said. “There are more professional musicians than ever before. More people are going to live concerts of classical music than ever before. There are far more composers writing music - 10, maybe 20 times as many as 100 years ago.
“But musical life lacks a centre. It exists off the radar screen of the major media. It's actually kind of exciting when you think about it. If I were in the business of marketing classical music to younger audiences, I'd make a virtue of this. Classical music is the new underground.”
Take note, Ms Giddings and Mr Heyward. Get out of your comfort zone and see Mr Strong's recommendation as inevitable, visionary and in tune with the times.