The Canberra and Darwin Symphony Orchestras are on the rise, thanks to their dynamic young maestros.

It was a hot October afternoon in the heart of the Northern Territory, the sun low in the sky as the Darwin Symphony Orchestra sat, bows poised, at the foot of Uluru. It seemed almost a contradiction in terms having a symphony orchestra, steeped in European tradition, transplanted to this iconically Australian setting. 

The gargantuan landmark seemed nonplussed by the goings-on, but for everyone else present, including international critics from the likes of BBC Music Magazine and Italian Vogue, there was a palpable buzz of excitement in the air. The Darwin Symphony was about to become the first orchestra ever to play at Uluru.

For people in cities like Sydney and Melbourne, the happenings of the Territory orchestras have always been something of a mystery. What exactly do the Darwin Symphony and Canberra Symphony do? Who plays in them? How do they operate?

This lack of awareness may be due to the lack of funding allocated to these orchestras by the federal government. While major orchestras such as the Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland Symphonies flourish, the Territory orchestras have, perhaps, been left out in the cold. 

With $9 million in Arts Council funding going to state orchestras such as the Melbourne Symphony, the $203,934 allocated to the DSO and $251,606 to the CSO, respectively, remains a slightly perplexing reality. With little money for self-promotion or marketing, it is hardly surprising their activities have gone somewhat unnoticed by the average Australian music lover.

Which is why these orchestras are having to get creative when it comes to promotion. When the DSO performed at Uluru, the orchestra made headlines internationally, in one grand gesture establishing itself as a contender on the world stage. Australia’s least-known orchestra was suddenly reborn as its most adventurous.

The catalyst behind this large-scale undertaking was the orchestra’s new chief conductor Matthew Wood. A student of legendary maestro-maker Jorma Panula, Wood boasts a dauntingly impressive CV. Recently described by the Irish Times as possessing “a compelling and beautifully proportioned” conducting style, he has worked with the Royal Ballet Covent Garden, Bournemouth Symphony and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.

Wood snagged the Chief Conductor job with the DSO in 2013 after beating out a field of 50 international applicants, becoming one of only three Australians leading major Australian orchestras (the others being Nicholas Milton with the Canberra Symphony and Nicolette Fraillon at the Australian Ballet). While all six of Australia’s major “network” orchestras (those formerly run by the ABC) have been given charge to international imports, conductors like Wood and Milton are something of an anomaly in the national orchestral landscape. “I feel very privileged to be in my position, but I feel saddened by the lack of Australian conductors in similar positions with our other orchestras,” Wood said, finding time to speak to me in-between conducting performances of Giselle at the Royal Opera House in London.

Milton, chief conductor of the Canberra Symphony, has led the orchestra since 2007. Like Wood, he boasts an international reputation, having worked with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic, Konzerthausorchester Berlin and NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg.

For the CSO, 2014 has brought good news, with a federal funding increase of $162,000 bringing total annual grants from artsACT and the Australian Arts Council to $762,956.

“The boost in funding allows us to build stronger artistic standards, present the larger symphonic repertoire and provide more employment opportunities for regionally based players,” Milton said, catching up with me while on a brief trip to Sydney.

Wood similarly keeps a positive outlook on the Darwin Symphony’s financial health. “We are very grateful for the funding we receive,” he says earnestly. “Budget constraints and red tape are prevalent in many situations, but it is surprising how far a bit of creativity and diversity in thinking can go in what we can achieve,” he said.

Certainly, this sense of on-the-job creativity has resulted in the fulfilment of several innovative concert ideas for the DSO.  Besides the orchestra’s appearance at Uluru, the ensemble recently staged a collaboration with local Northern Territory singer-songwriters. The orchestra also still manages to perform roughly eight concerts a year, its 60 members made up of local and imported musicians, professional and amateur, tied together by Wood’s mission to establish the DSO as an ensemble of national and international renown. 

Indeed, with the success of the Uluru concert, Wood is currently planning more large-scale outdoor events in unexpected locations, the details of which are still under wraps.

“My main objective of the DSO is taking the magic of a symphony orchestra and bringing it to the people and places that wouldn’t normally have access to it,” he told me. With 1,200 tickets sold at between $95-$495 for the outback concert – combined with significant local and international press coverage of the event – such large-scale undertakings certainly seem an effective way of generating revenue and publicity.

The Canberra Symphony similarly employs creative ways of reaching new audiences each year. Performing a mix of indoor and outdoor gala concerts, along with a successful schools outreach series, 2013 saw one of the highest box office returns in the orchestra’s 57-year history. 

Prior to the start of Miltons’ tenure in 2007 however, things weren’t always running so smoothly. At the turn of the millennium the organisation was going through difficult times, with increasing deficit raising a question as to the organisation’s future. Australian conducting legend Richard Gill, appointed Artistic Director in 2001, was responsible for guiding the CSO out of rough waters and into financial stability. Under Milton’s recent leadership, the CSO has gone from strength to strength, transformed from a semi-professional ensemble into a rival for the major state orchestras.

Despite such successes at home, both Milton and Wood spend the majority of their time overseas, basing themselves in Europe. Indeed, for the majority of Australian conductors, leaving Australia in search of greater opportunities is almost a rite of passage. With 130 professional orchestras in Germany alone, there are certainly more places where budding musicians can hand in a CV and wait for a call-back.

However, the very existence of world-class Australian conductors like Wood and Milton, who dedicate themselves to furthering local music but are overlooked by federal grants, makes it seem at times like Australia is shooting itself in the foot… musically speaking.

Milton has been outspoken on how cultural cringe contributed to the lack of homegrown conductors currently working in the country. In a 2012 interview with The Canberra Times he opined that “in this country the word ‘international’ is an adjective that refers to something that must be good. I have a huge problem with that. As soon as you say ‘international artist’ it implies that he or she is bound to be better than what we have here, and I find that offensive.”

With this sentiment in mind, the CSO proudly perform a greater proportion of music by Australian composers than any other orchestra. “I will always consider myself proud to be an Australian and
more than anything, love to conduct in my
homeland,” Milton told me.

Wood expressed a similar idea, emphasising the responsibility he feels to Australian music to give something back: “Australia is an isolated country and we have a duty to our musicians and audiences to provide them with as much diversity and stimulus as we can…”

Despite such strong feelings of patriotism, the appeal of pursuing music overseas is not lost on either conductor. With the comparatively limited opportunities in Australia, both choose to split their time between hemispheres. Wood is regularly engaged at the Royal Opera House in London, while Milton forges a successful career in the opera houses of Germany and Austria.

The members of the DSO are also used to juggling work, with the majority holding full-time jobs in areas besides music. Certainly, the orchestra’s vision of bringing orchestral music to some of Australia’s most remote communities is a noble sentiment. There does arise, however, an obvious difficulty in coordinating a steady stream of concerts while having to negotiate myriad conflicting schedules.

Nevertheless, Wood seems committed to the cause. “What I started to miss freelancing in Europe and the United Kingdom was a sense of belonging,” he told me. “I always intended to return to Australia at some stage – it was just a question of when and for what.”

Speaking fondly of the ‘DSO family’, along with being immediately struck by the organisation’s “vibrancy and enthusiasm”, Wood appears to have found his long-desired home within the Australian orchestral landscape. Wood – who left Australia for Europe over a decade ago – expressed his joy that he is now able to share the experiences he has gained conducting internationally with an orchestra he can call his own. “I am even more delighted that this orchestra is in Australia,” he confessed.

Wood also describes the work he undertakes with the DSO as just as important and meaningful as his work in Europe, citing the physical context of conducting as irrelevant to his level of dedication. “The platform doesn’t diminish the privilege and responsibility I feel when conducting. My work in Darwin is as important to me as working at Covent Garden or with any other orchestra. Darwin is a place of great opportunity and diversity.”

Despite holding a similar commitment to the Australian cause, Milton recognises the greater difficulty that can arise drumming up orchestra funding and public interest when compared to overseas.

“When I consider the success of the CSO and our lack of ability to successfully lobby for the funding for our orchestra that the city, the community and the people of Canberra deserve, I feel frustrated,” he admitted. “I don’t experience that same frustration in Europe.”

The Canberra Symphony go outdoors for one of their annual Proms concerts

Milton is reluctant, however, to make the CSO sound hard-done by with respect to federal funding – or lack thereof. Instead, he cited the orchestra’s historical tradition as separate from the six major “network” orchestras (those formerly run by the ABC). Not bemoaning the CSO’s place in the Arts Council pecking order, he focuses upon the positives. With revenue for the Canberra Symphony more than doubling under his tenure, there certainly seems a lot to be thankful for.

“Building the CSO has been a thrilling quest for all of us,” he said. “The organisation is functioning superbly. I am very proud to be a part of that.”

Indeed, the orchestra now enjoys a 91% subscriber renewal rate – No 1 in the country – and frequently sells out performances in Llewellyn Hall, one of Australia’s biggest concert venues. Outside of Canberra, however, the orchestra may be one of the country’s best-kept secrets. 

With both the Canberra and Darwin Symphonies now on the rise, it may not be unrealistic to expect a seismic shift in Australia’s orchestral landscape in years to come. While both orchestras are struggle with paltry government funding, both have trump cards up their sleeve: a freedom to innovate and take risks, and world-class maestri devoted to performing in Australia.