The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has topped composer and lecturer Ian Whitney’s annual analysis of Australian content in the announced seasons of the country’s Major Performing Arts funded orchestras. The ASO has set the highest record, at 15.9 percent of its advertised season, since Whitney began his count five years ago, and it is the only MPA orchestra in 2020 set to perform more Australian music than music by Beethoven.

Whitney’s count has become an annual event in the Australian music calendar, the composer giving an overview of the state of play for Australian music, along with, as he once put it, “the occasional snide observation”.

Such observations have become a touch more pointed for the 2020 season, which sees the orchestras celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

Whitney described the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s jump in local content for next year as “a dramatic increase from their shared wooden spoon in 2019.”

The ASO tied in last place in 2019 with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, each with two percent Australian content. For 2020, however, the ASO has a commanding lead, with more than double the Australian content of the next contender, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which has clocked up 6.5 percent Australian work in 2020, and 12.1 percent Beethoven.

Coming in third is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, with 6.4 percent Australian works (an increase on 2019’s five percent), and the lowest Beethoven count of all the orchestras, at 10.3 percent.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has moved up the ranks, with 5.8 percent Australian content – well up from 2019’s two percent – coming in fourth. “The West Australian Symphony Orchestra have a strong commitment to Beethoven, with 20.3 percent – one in five – of their advertised works being of the genus Ludwig van,” Whitney said.

Queensland Symphony Orchestras has plummeted from its leadership position in 2019, where it came first with 11 percent, down to 4.9 percent and fifth on the board for 2020. “They’re also frighteningly low in Beethoven, at 10.8 percent,” Whitney said.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra has also dropped down the rankings, from second in 2019 to second last for 2020, with 4.4 percent Australian work. “The roving troubadours of the Australian Chamber Orchestra show a superb appreciation of LVB with 23.5 percent of their advertised works being Beethoven,” Whitney said.

The 2020 wooden spoon goes to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra who, alongside 15.6 percent Beethoven, have advertised the least amount of Australian work of any of the major orchestras. “You have to squiz very hard indeed to see it at just 1.6 percent with just one of those two pieces actually for orchestra and for the second year running no advertised commissions,” Whitney said. “There are even more problems than just the shockingly low number. For starters, in the year of our Lord 2020, they haven’t programmed a single woman composer which is almost impressively perverse in its complete ignorance of the current – forgive me – discourse around classical music.”

Whitney’s count is limited to the MPA funded orchestras – hence the exclusion of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra – as “they receive the highest level of financial support from the Australian taxpayer, so I do believe they should have a correspondingly higher level of scrutiny,” he wrote in 2017. It also excludes the the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. While the orchestras may announce galas and other concerts after the launch of their seasons, which may include more Australian work than initially flagged, the count is based only on the season as advertised at launch: “As a statement of artistic intent for the year ahead, the brochure is not a bad source,” Whitney said.

While the rankings have changed, Whitney’s numbers show there is little change in the overall performance of Australian content by the MPA orchestras year on year. “With five years of data, the trend still remains constant at about 6 percent of advertised works being Australian,” he said. “The [graph above] shows that 2020 has a marginal increase to 7%, but this is due to rounding up from 6.5 percent and can largely be attributed to Adelaide’s Herculean record-breaking effort.”

The average for Beethoven across the orchestras is 14.1 percent, interestingly only slightly up from the 11 percent Whitney recorded for Beethoven in 2016. “If I were a cynic or a pessimist, I may state that it is slightly worrying that an entire orchestral canon in this country rests on the shoulders of a single dead German for 2020,” Whitney said.

And, as Clara Schumann fans well know, it can’t all be attributed to anniversaries. “Although it is a bit of well-worn cliché that programmers love nothing more than an anniversary to guide their seasons, the music of Anton Reicha (1770-1836) does not seem to feature in 2020 at all.”


Ian Whitney’s full analysis and commentary