Room for one more: Perth Symphony Orchestra

AHG motoring group the driving force behind Australia’s newest professional orchestra.

Jessica Gethin is often asked about the challenges of being a female conductor. It’s a question she shrugs off. “I've always enjoyed a few laughs about it with Simone Young  when she travels to Perth. Simone beautifully points out that she wouldn't know any other way as she's never been a male one! 

“A trombonist recently thought he was paying a compliment by telling me that I was the best female conductor he had ever worked under – prompting me to ask what I needed to do simply to be the best conductor.” 

She is the principal conductor and music director of Perth Symphony Orchestra, the brainchild of Gethin, Bourby Webster (a founding member of crossover quartet Bond) and musical theatre producer Annalisa Oxenburgh. Together, the three women have nurtured the PSO from a fledgling idea born over a bottle of wine to the reality of a thriving orchestra that regularly engages up to 100 musicians, many of whom have held principal chairs in other Australian orchestras but are “returning to their home of WA to take up the increased performance opportunities.” 

But Gethin insists that the PSO does not position itself as a rival of the state’s established West Australian Symphony Orchestra. “Over the past ten years we have seen a need for Western Australia to have another professional orchestra, to create new events and opportunities for both audiences and our musicians. WASO has been a huge influence on my career as both a violinist and conductor, but as a large state having one orchestra to cater for all the genres and educational initiatives is demanding on players’ schedules.” 

Gethin is quick to point out that the cultural landscape in Europe supports “many cities with the same population as Perth with up to 12 orchestras operating at once.” 

In Australia, the biggest challenge of getting an upstart orchestra off the ground is securing funding. Gethin reports that it is “all starting to happen now” for the Perth Symphony Orchestra, which has announced its first major sponsor in the city’s Automotive Holdings Group. “As a new orchestra, working with other organisations is critical, as is finding partnerships to underwrite our initial concerts,” Gethin explains.

The deal was set in motion earlier this year when AHG managing director Bronte Howson and his wife saw the PSO perform with David Hobson and James Morrison at Leeuwin Estate Winery. “As soon as I arrived at the post-concert function, the CEO of AHG handed me a business card asking us to call the next day to see how they could assist,” Gethin recalls. The orchestra does not yet have government funding, “instead focusing on securing opportunities for the  orchestra to perform to sell itself.” 

The gamble of playing in outside of the normal concert hall format and moving away from strictly core classical repertoire has paid off in more ways than one. The PSO is currently engaged in recording for ABC Classics the works of Australian composer Carlo Mandofia, and is set to perform in the upcoming WA season of Deborah Cheetham’s indigenous Australian opera Pecan Summer.

 “I feel very passionate as an Australian conductor that one of my roles is to bridge an existing gap, believing classical music can be fresh, energetic, edgy and entertaining for all audiences by  programming a diverse range of appealing and accessible repertoire,” says Gethin. “Perhaps for some the phrase 'I don't like classical music' could be rephrased as, 'I don't like how classical music is presented'.

“For many of our concerts we are focusing on delivering the experience outside the concert hall stage, encouraging new audiences to attend as a non-threatening introduction to classical music by programming everything from traditional symphonic classics and well-loved concerto movements to film music and new Australian works.”

In response to Limelight’s recent article The Australian Maestro Myth, in which editor Francis Merson posits that a lack of interest from the major state orchestras in homegrown conductors has compelled many to head overseas, Gethin is more optimistic. “I have been very fortunate in the opportunities I have received over the past few years, complementing my decision to base myself in Australia while I juggle my career with having a young family.

“I was once told by orchestral management that audiences here prefer to see an international conductor take to the podium, but my personal experiences lead me to believe that the majority of audience members would rather support local Australian conductors, providing they can deliver the product. The response the Australian Chamber Orchestra receives at every concert surely demostrates this support for Australians to lead in the industry.

Gethin says she is “looking forward to watching the Australian music scene develop over the next decade; we are heading for a very bright future.”

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Room for one more: Perth Symphony Orchestra
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