Programming for the home team

The Darwin Symphony Orchestra has programmed six premieres this year, emphasizing that orchestral music is evolving here and now.
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Matthew Wood conducts Darwin Symphony Orchestra at Uluru Image via DSO

I have been asked by Arts Hub to write on the importance of supporting Australian composers by programming their works. The answer, for me at least, is quite simple. Engaging with composers and artists of today is fundamental in maintaining a modern and relevant role within the society to which we belong and to which we serve.

A key objective of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is to take the magic of a symphony orchestra to the people and places that would not normally have access to this form of artistic expression. As an orchestra of and for the people of the Northern Territory our aim and scope is to be as diverse as the wonderful landscape and cultures of which we are part. The Territory is unique, a place full of cultural diversity and wonder, therefore so must be its orchestra.

We approach this in many ways. We tour to some of the most remote places imaginable and collaborate with many inspiring musicians and artists from all genres of the creative arts. Integral to this eclectic mix is an elastic and engaging approach to programming, a fundamental part of which is the performance of new music.

Our relatively small and youthful orchestra has always supported Australian music and in 2015 we take this to a new level with no less than six world premieres of Australian composition. Alongside this we aim to include Australian content within all of our indoor performances.

Any orchestra is essentially an organism of extreme diversity. The mistake is often made in the misguided concept that an orchestra plays historical music only, therefore itself becoming at risk of obtaining an ‘old’ and ‘outdated’ image, something akin to a long established club with an invite only heritage, a thing of privilege and of a certain class, a place not for the young, a place of dress codes and complicated etiquette.

All of this is of course complete nonsense. If anything, many orchestras have excelled and proven their ability to adapt and to evolve. Here in Darwin the orchestra has firmly planted itself within the community as a cherished part of its diverse society, mainly because of its versatility and the varied platforms we use as a concert hall.

Nevertheless, arts organisations across the globe are all under significant pressure to fill houses and to generate new audiences and income.  This indisputable and endless challenge isn’t something that is new and the answer should not be at the expense of educating an audience in new work or in the sacrifice of new undiscovered experiences. We must also be extremely careful in nurturing our regular subscribers who often crave new experiences programmed alongside cherished repertoire staples, such as Bizet’s immortal Carmen, which was itself a box office flop. How bitterly ironic that one reason it should now be programmed to ensure box office success!

Therefore alongside our “Carmens” we have an obligation to continue programming new music. All music was itself once new.

Our future and our relevance balances on being able to provide a platform for both our cherished and tested repertoire while supporting the generation of new music that resonates with our current time and place.

All art is of course intrinsically linked to time and place and when we perform a piece of music we immerse ourselves in not just the notes on a page but also within the historical context in which the work was conceived. 

 History reveals why the notes exist in the first place.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is of course a cleverly disguised treatise on the severe social and political practices of the day. We still debate the underlying meanings of the terrors in a Shostakovich symphony. Why did Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring create such turmoil at its infamous premiere? What does the music of Sculthorpe say to us if we remove its important relationship to the challenged cultural and physical landscape of Australia?

Music has been telling stories about our lives and culture for a very long time and it is an abhorrent and incomprehensible thought that a living, breathing symphony orchestra is only a vessel for yesterday’s stories and not an active participant in the creation of todays.

With this of course comes very significant challenges, part of which can be overcome with a steady focus on the amount of people we reach and subsequently the amount of people engaged with our art form in general. Central to this is how we reach new audiences, which I believe can be achieved in part through a diversity in programming that mirrors our own diverse cultural surroundings, a significant and vital component of which is music created within the context of a modern day society.

We are, after all, managers of the performing arts and musicians of today.  Part of this privileged position is to ensure that this will become the music of tomorrow.

Matthew Wood
About the Author
Matthew Wood is Conductor and Artistic Director of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra.