Thinking in Terms of Community: The TSO

Thinking in Terms of Community: The TSO

Often there are two cultures that exist side by side inside a symphony orchestra. There is a player culture that is borne from the many years of training, ethos and experience that each of its musicians brings. Then there is a management and marketing culture that is concerned with steering the orchestra to where opportunities for audience and brand development are seen to exist writes Music Australia's Graham Strahle.

Without both, no orchestra can reasonably hope to survive in an increasingly difficult time for arts organisations. But greater strength comes when the two cultures merge – when the whole organisation thinks, plans and moves collectively. This means musicians also being involved in relationship building, because so often it is the case that they know their audience and local community at least as well as anyone else.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra serves as a good case study of how operating as a collective whole can make an arts organisation nimble and flexible.

In the first instance, it comes from the way this orchestra frequently performs in different player combinations in multiple locations. So in addition to a usual range of orchestral offerings, which include aMaster series,matinee concerts,family andchildren’s shows, and regular appearances inLaunceston, it hostsseven chamber ensembles that put on their own concerts around Tasmania. They include Nuove Musiche Ensemble (an early music group), Huon Quartet, Kettering Piano Quartet, Epsom Brass and Virtuosi Tasmania – itself encompassing a variable mix of small to large ensembles.

TSO musicians can choose to play in these groups as they like (some non-TSO musicians are involved too). And the same goes for various one-off concerts that the orchestra presents from time to time, for instance at theMOFO and Dark MOFO festivals. Just now Heyward is planning a youth-oriented concert in Macquarie Point’s refurbished red shed in August (an admired venue much used in Dark MOFO). Says Heyward: “In this we are hoping we will catch that elusive 25 to 35 age bracket. At this stage we are finding which musicians want to play in it and asking for volunteers first, because we want to include those who think it’s a really good idea. And we want to match them up with audiences who also think it’s a good idea too.”

TSO’s concert with songstress Kate Miller-Heidke at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre in January was a similar kind of concert. The push is definitely on to capture younger audiences. At Dark MOFO (whosebiggest audience cohort is the 25-34 age group), the orchestra has played with Anthony and the Johnsons – “that audience full of urban hipsters,” notes Heyward. “We did another Dark Mofo concert on the winter solstice with works by Pärt, Vasks and Brett Dean. Dean’s Carlo [for strings, sampler and tape] was a long, hard and serious piece of his. So you can program quite serious music.”

The orchestra’s chorus particularly likes experimenting too. Its ‘Bach in the Dark’ concert at MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in 2014 saw the singers at one point performing inside a lift that opened and closed in virtual darkness. “They’ll do anything weird, wacky and wonderful. That performance even had some people in tears,” says Heyward.

He is under no illusion about how edgier concerts such as these might bring in a whole new generation of younger concertgoers: “I don’t think kids on the whole want to subscribe, so running a youth series is not all the solution. But we can try to get people to understand that there is something special about hearing music live instead of on the radio, smart phone or computer speakers.”

And the youth segment is only part of the TSO’s overall campaign. Its various family, outdoor and festival concerts all take a role in expanding its listenership, he says. “So we will get some people to Symphony under the Stars, others to Dark MOFO, and others to Skyfields [at Mount Roland, NW Tasmania] with Missy Higgins. When we do Gilbert and Sullivan, or James Bond themes, we get still others. I think orchestras should try to get a wide cross-section that between them add up to the whole community.”

Again, because of the Tasmania’s smaller population base, the TSO has to think less in terms of catering for particular market segments and more in terms of the entire community. Programming acumen is the key here, where the music has to be varied and the appeal broad. “We might pop in a bit of film music like Raiders of the Lost Ark alongside Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony, for instance,” says Heyward.

“Neither is there any evidence that audiences who attend more popular concerts end up booking tickets to hear Mozart or Mahler. I don’t see it happening, and I don’t think it matters. If we can get a broad range of people, then we are happy. It’s not a problem so long as they know it is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. We encompass them all.”

In many ways, because of its pluralist activity, the TSO has come to fulfil a more central role in its State’s civic life than any of its mainland counterparts. It stands as a good example of how, on a small scale, an orchestra can operate as a fully-fledged ‘community of musicians’ that serves a much wider range of functions than the traditional symphony orchestra. (The ‘community of musicians’ idea,originally formulated in the 1990s by Ernest Fleischmann of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was advanced in the 1999 Nugent Report as a means of increasing the efficiency and flexibility of several of Australia’s orchestras; and it was furthest explored by the ASO when Fleischmann served as consultant to that orchestra around 2000.)

Tasmania’s smaller population is the main reason, says Heyward. “Everything is going to hang on us. Musicians will be playingAlso Sprach Zarathustra, then find themselves in a string quartet, and then teaching the violin. I don’t think they necessarily want to do that, but that’s how it happens here.”

Thinking in terms of community, both internally and in its wider place in society, has become key to the TSO’s identity. Many other orchestras could take a leaf out of its book in their quest to build audiences of the future.

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