The Magic Island

The Magic Island

A personal recollection by Simon Rogers, Manager of Artistic Planning, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, on how the orchestra went about developing a new recording for the Hush Foundation in a collaboration that extended its reach and forged new partnerships.

When I was asked by Conductor Northey whether the TSO would be interested in developing a new recording with the Hush Foundation, my immediate response was ‘definitely’! In my experience as a Manager of Artistic Planning, I have found that one of the key functions of this role is to be open to new ideas. This is especially the case at the TSO—due to the small population base and risk of saturation of the subscription audience, it is important to be innovative and create interesting projects and concerts. Being very close to the Tasmanian community comes with a lot of responsibility (our approval rating in the general public hovers around 90% each year) but also is a tremendous privilege and provides the environment to explore these creative opportunities.

The collaboration with Hush is a good example of how arts and non-arts organisations can come together for a significant cause, to the benefit of everyone involved. I thought that sharing our experiences below may be of some use to orchestras and organisations planning similar projects in the future, and I wholeheartedly encourage them to do so.

Great collaborations need great partners, and by any measure, Hush Foundation excels in all areas. Ground-breaking and successful, Hush had already produced 12 CDs, the brainchild of Dr Catherine Crock, a pioneer in patient-centred care, and the driving force behind the recordings and the organisation.

Hush also has strong artistic leadership through Music Directors Paul Grabowsky and Ben Northey, andThe Magic Island project centred on a sound artistic concept—twelve Australian composers were each asked to write a new work. It was undeniably ambitious, quite possibly unique from a compositional and recording perspective.

There was no way to know what the end results would be, but this was another important aspect of the project, be prepared to take the risk—and we all were. It is also important to listen closely to your partners, as they know more about their field of expertise than you do. Hush was adamant that each of the composers should visit the hospital to see first-hand where the music from this album would be played, how it would be used and the impact on the young patients and their families. What set Hush apart is that the albums are not just used for fundraising purposes, but in fact played every day in a working hospital environment to try and make the experiences a little more bearable.

From the outset, Hush felt it was important for me to visit the hospital too, so that I fully understood the context. I actually have some hospital experience myself, having trained as a diagnostic radiographer many years ago, however the visit to the Royal Children’s Hospital was one of the most moving and confronting experiences of my life.

Conversely, it is vital to be patient with your partners, as they are trying to understand your world, and there are many aspects of an orchestral culture that are not immediately understood to an outsider. It is therefore important to take the time to plan the project properly; then do it right. The Magic Island took around four years from inception. We refined the compositional brief many times until we were happy, and there were many conversations amongst the Artistic team about the selection of composers. We elected to split the recording over two years, to give time for the composers the time to visit the hospital, absorb this experience, and write.

Keeping the recording periods short helped to keep the intensity and concentration in the recording sessions themselves – this is certainly something we have learned in our many recordings. One of the best decisions we made was to fly the composers to be present at the recording, to work alongside the wonderful Producer Veronika Vincze. I was very concerned for Hush regarding these travel costs—they were mounting up and were already many times in excess of what had been incurred for previous recordings—however, Hush’s will never wavered from the importance of these aspects. Looking back, it is hard to imagine doing it differently.

The briefing of the orchestra was an important step in the evolution of the recording and we did it well in advance of the recording sessions, as we wanted the musicians to feel part of the project. We found some rehearsal time in a rehearsal for another concert with Ben, and both he and Cath Crock spoke passionately. The musicians seemed to understand the significance of the project immediately—you could have heard a pin drop.

I found the recordings themselves a joy. There is often not a lot to enjoy about being “behind the scenes” however this was the opposite, as we came into contact with some dedicated and special people. It was a pleasure to spend time having a coffee with each of the composers and hear what the project meant to them. All enjoyed seeing one another, in many cases it had been years since their paths had crossed. Many commented on how liberating the experience had been compositionally, a chance to forget what the public and music industry would expect, and rather dedicate themselves to the Hush brief and the young patients. Of course my overriding interest was artistic, and musically the results were fascinating.

We ended up with every variation possible—pastoral, upbeat, meditative; differences in orchestration, style and colour. But overall, thankfully they all worked, and each had the unmistakable individual voice of their creator.

I have found on numerous occasions that if you do projects for the right reasons, then good things happen. ABC Classic FM, who had been supportive throughout the project, playedThe Magic Island regularly, perhaps more than any other TSO recording. The short tracks proved ideal for the Morning and Drive segments and this album has already been responsible for introducing a wide audience to Australian composers. It also fulfilled a broader ‘A and R’ purpose, with orchestras from around Australia expressing interest in performance materials, and the TSO has played a number of these works in different concert settings already. This repertoire function is a stated aim of the TSO’s Australian Music Program, as was the ambition of presenting a concert consisting solely of new commissioned Australian pieces—which was achieved in the resultant live concert and broadcast fromThe Magic Island in late 2013.

On a personal level for myself and TSO staff and musicians, we were very honoured to dedicate the album to the memory of the beloved son of the TSO Managing Director, Nicholas Heyward, who sadly passed away during the recording. The Hush Foundation has an ability to bring people together, something that music can also do better than anything. Who could have thought this project would prove so special and important to so many people, from that one conversation all those years ago.

This article was originally published in the December edition ofSenza Sord, which is published several times a year by the Symphony Orchestra Musicians Association, a section of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. For more information, go towww.meaa.org/about-us/

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