Thoughts on the premature demise of an ensemble whose grand dreams were dashed against the rocks of financial reality.

It was an idea born of enthusiasm, idealism and delightful foolishness. The product of animated conversations between me and the rising star of the Australian conducting world Nick Carter, on our collective love of the Romantic-era repertoire. The seed for an orchestra performing Romantic period repertoire in a historically informed manner was sown in the spring of 2009. This orchestra was to be known as “Orchestra Romantique”, and would serve the concert-going public’s untapped desire for 19th-century music performed as closely as possible to the original style. We would present ourselves in small venues at highly appealing ticket prices. Programs were dreamed of, gut-strings discussed, vibrato debated and valve-less brass instruments sourced.

We were very fortunate to be joined at this early stage by the organisational force of nature that is Kim Traill, our general manager. Many other fine colleagues and friends donated their services in order to help sustain the dream. The orchestra’s name was registered, a board was formed and the team was joined by an enthusiastic clique of supporters, all gathered around the most improbable set of ideas and ideals. Alas, the practical reality of supporting a full orchestra, fuelled purely on love of the artform and the generosity of our colleagues, proved similar in outcome to Berlioz’s Romantic-era masterpiece Damnation of Faust.

Orchestra Romantique’s season and objectives were modest: four unique programs. Indeed, who would want to hear ophicleides, serpents, five-keyed wooden flutes and gut-stringed instruments every week? Freshly armed with DGR status – the magical acronym which allows donors to the ensemble to be given full tax-deductibility – we had high hopes for OR’s financial viability. Alas, there were important fiscal numbers that were just never going to add up. Our premiere performances of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique in Sydney and Newcastle attracted a crowd, but finding acceptable payment for musicians was the biggest roadblock. Most of the musicians involved were playing for free – but how long could you keep asking them to donate time and expertise? 

A host of private individuals put forward time, money and effort to help, but the OR ship was taking on water and the forecast was grim. The size of the audiences simply could not sustain the balance sheet. Add into the mix the required insurances, hall hire, roadies, music hire and a ledger of other minor expenses and suddenly the simple orchestral concert, a two-hour feast of emotion and enthusiasm, quickly becomes a many-headed beast. Sydney City Council did come onboard with the generous offer of “in-kind” sponsorship which covered the hall and facilities, but this was just a brief stay of the executioner’s axe. 

The challenges facing OR’s creation and survival are just a microcosm of what confronts orchestras worldwide. Mainstream classical music ensembles are facing pressures perhaps unparalleled in history. The last 50-100 years have seen an explosion in the birth of new professional ensembles, but perhaps now we are seeing a genuine across-the-board contraction in the institution. In the US alone things are particularly dire. The Detroit Symphony’s long-term lock-out of musicians, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s declaration of bankruptcy are the most heralded, however numerous lesser-known ensembles have disbanded and many more are facing severe and often fatal cuts in budgets and personnel.

As for Orchestra Romantique, it must now metamorphose into a smaller and leaner ensemble dedicated to the same ideals and repertoire that gave it life in the first instance but in a condensed and manageable scale. That said, we had several great concerts and learnt much about the fine balance between money and music. If we hadn’t ever tried
then we would never have known.

Orchestra Romantique’s final concert of Beethoven & Brahms, with soloists Kristian Winther & Timo-Veikko Valve, is at the Paddington Town Hall, Sydney, on Dec 16 at 7pm. Tickets are $30 at the door.