Sydney-born Emma Dunch has been tempted back to Australia after nearly 20 years high flying in NYC.

Emma E. Dunch has been appointed as the new CEO of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra following the departure of Rory Jeffes who has left to take up the equivalent role at Opera Australia. Hailing originally from Sydney’s North Shore, Dunch will be relocating to Australia after a successful arts career in New York.

“I love the Sydney Symphony,” Dunch told Limelight. “I first attended concerts as a school student nearly 40 years ago, and I also worked here earlier in my career. But I’ve lived in New York for nearly 20 years — so it’s an honour to come full circle and return home to lead this orchestra, in this city, at this time among my friends and family and with musicians I know and love. I couldn’t be happier about coming home.”

Emma E. Dunch. Photo © Richard Blinkoff

A graduate in Music Performance in Opera from the Victorian College of the Arts, with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Charles Sturt University, Dunch coincidentally began her arts management career in the SSO’s marketing and communications department back in 1996. Later, she travelled to the US where she graduated from the League of American Orchestras’ Orchestral Management Fellowship Program. Among the impressive roster of orchestras with which she has enjoyed an association are the London Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, New York Pops and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

“I’m really fortunate to have been trained in orchestra management by some of the strongest administrators in orchestras around the world and I’ve worked with nearly 40 symphony orchestras and classical music organisations over my career,” said Dunch. “I’ve seen how the strongest and most accomplished orchestras operate at an international level and I’m excited to bring that knowledge base and perspective home to Australia to partner with the staff, board, musicians and Artistic Director of the SSO to see what can be possible for the Orchestra’s next chapter.”

Another New Yorker, SSO Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson, was clearly delighted at the appointment. “A great orchestra not only requires excellent musicians – of which we have 100 at the SSO – but also a leader who can ably pull together all facets of an extremely complex organisation,” he said in the SSO press statement. “I believe Emma has both the professional track record and the required skills to do this successfully for the SSO well into our future.”

David Robertson

That immediate future may be one of considerable challenge as the Opera House prepares to close its Concert Hall for much-needed renovations, requiring the SSO to programme out of the box as it were for the second half of 2019 and the whole of 2020. “Emma has a great breadth of orchestral management experience, which equips her well to guide the SSO through one of the biggest projects in its 85-year history – the renewal of our home at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall,” said SSO Chairman Terrey Arcus. “This includes capitalising on all the opportunities presented by a period outside the Sydney Opera House, as well as relaunching the SSO when it returns to its iconic home with acoustics to match its design. Emma is analytical and strategic in outlook and has a strong network in the global arts community. She also has great strengths in generating income from multiple sources, with a deep background in development and marketing. Emma stood out against a range of highly talented and experienced arts professionals who applied to our global search.”

In 2012, Dunch returned to the League of American Orchestras as chief fundraiser to help launch the League’s centre for best practices in symphonic orchestra trusteeship so she clearly knows a thing or two about running a major arts organisation. Right now she runs DUNCH, a New York-based cultural management firm that has advised over 125 creative organisations from the US, the UK and Australia on aspects of fundraising and strategic planning, and over the years she reckons she has raised more than $250 million for cultural causes.

“I think of the Australian orchestras as undiscovered gems,” she says when asked what the perception abroad might be of outfits Down Under. “We are a long way away but our orchestra, musicians and performances are world class. I would really like to be someone who can be a leader in getting the word out internationally about the quality of Australian orchestras and the SSO in particular and in doing so, continue attracting the top international artists, soloists and conductors to come and perform for our wonderful audiences here in Sydney.”

But what of the perennially tough nuts to crack like audience figures? And does she think classical music has an image problem? “No – I don’t think classical music has an image problem,” she replies. “Classical music has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s not going anywhere. But the way audiences experience it is changing. The most successful orchestras today are those who innovate around the ‘what, where, who, when and why’ of presenting live concerts. We have lots of great opportunities to experiment at the Sydney Symphony in conjunction with the renovation of the SOH Concert Hall.”

“Every arts administrator will tell you that developing future audiences for culture is a long-term game that starts in schools,” she continues. “Look at me: I’m a product of SSO schools concerts that took place more than 40 years ago. So the first step is to continue exposing as many Sydney school kids to what we do and infecting and inspiring them with the power of live music.”

David Robertson with the SSO. Photo © Keith Saunders

As part of her interview process, Dunch had the opportunity to hear the SSO for the first time in nearly a decade under David Robertson. So what does she see as its finest qualities right now, and does she think there is room for improvement? “I was blown away by the artistic quality of the performance I heard,” she says. “The SSO’s extraordinary string sound, rich brass sound and overall performance standard was very much on par with what I hear at Carnegie Hall week in week out. I think any artistic ensemble or artistic discipline is always striving to continually improve – and the SSO is no exception. It’s early days for me, and I think the question of improvement is one for the musicians themselves and for David Robertson.”

One thing she does consider crucial though is reaching out in order to attract Millennial and Gen Y audiences. “These are busy young people who enjoy event style presentations,” she believes. “We can innovate in the way we present our performances while making sure our artistic vibrancy and the quality of our work remains at the highest standard. David Robertson has already made great strides… Playlist, Vanguard, Kaleidoscope and Cocktail Hour are all fantastic new presentation styles designed for today’s busy Sydneysiders – and they’ve been very successful. There’s lots of innovation happening overseas in concert presentation and that’s something we will continue to look at closely here in Sydney.”