Sarah-Grace Williams explains how The Metropolitan Orchestra is aiming to launch the careers of eight Aussie composers.

World premieres are an attractive thing for orchestras to programme, but a second performance is generally a lot harder to secure. Having conducted many world premieres over the years, I often feel that by the end of the rehearsal period many works would benefit from being further finessed rather than going straight to performance. It’s a shame when the piece feels underdone before its premiere and the situation is particularly problematic with less experienced composers.

Workshopping with orchestra is something many composers can never dream of doing

Workshopping a piece with an orchestra is something many budding composers can never dream of doing, it is far too costly. I know many composers who are searching for that elusive break but find it a challenge to get their work up to a viable standard for submission to orchestra artistic administrators for potential programming.

To help redress these problems, The Metropolitan Orchestra has introduced an exciting new initiative to our calendar: TMO’s inaugural Composer Development Programme. In 2015 we won an Arts and Cultural Projects Grant through NSW Government and Arts NSW, which enabled us to go ahead with a scheme to give eight NSW composers the opportunity to workshop pieces across three months with conductor and small ensemble, then with full symphony orchestra.

We didn’t set an age limit as we wanted to be open to anyone who has not yet ‘made it’, and so we didn’t know what kind of applications we’d receive. In the event, we were blown away by the volume and standard of the scores that arrived. It took our panellists hours of study and discussion (aided by litres of coffee and several packs of Tim Tams) to whittle the entrants down to eight. 

Applications were strong. We didn’t want to let some of these compositions go, which resulted in a few heated discussions (we each had our favourites), but we eventually reached a consensus on the finalists. A wonderful surprise was that one work was so polished we all felt it wouldn’t benefit from workshopping – it was in essence ‘finished’. It’s such a fine piece that we are planning to premiere it in our main stage concert series in 2017.

The eight finalists range in age from 17 to 53, with the sexes divided equally. Each is at a different stage in their lives and careers (two of the composers are still in school!), yet their passion, aptitude and obvious talent is palpable. The youngest travelled from Albury-Wadonga to Crows Nest for the first session with me.

In May we completed Stage One where I got to work one-on-one with each of the eight to prepare them for our principal players in Stage Two. We examined scores and parts, identifying issues that should be addressed before meeting with the small ensemble. Things we looked at included layout of parts, orchestration issues, effective written communication of desired sound, use (and non-use) of musicians, and how to best prepare for the ensemble workshop.

Following the ensemble sessions, we chose the four finalists whose work we will workshop with full symphony orchestra at our performance home at the ABC’s Eugene Goossens Hall. Each work will receive a recording, which the composer can use to aid future submissions to other orchestras. This full-day orchestral workshop is open to the general public, to experience the process and to hear each work performed in full (as well as giving these hard-working composers some well-earned support). 

We will be delighted to programme one of these works in our 2017 Met Season, after which we hope to run this initiative again and perhaps reach composers who may not have heard of the programme this time around. 

I’m really excited about the orchestral workshop sessions in July. The programme has the potential to give these four composers the opportunity they have been dreaming of. If we can be a part of that journey, and help to get some of these works programmed by Australian orchestras, then we will have achieved our goal.

The Metropolitan Orchestra’s Workshop Finals will take place at Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney on July 22