The Guardian 23 March, 2005

Orchestras report = cultural vandalism

Bob Briton

Federal government spokespersons were falling over themselves last week to damp down the disquiet caused by the report of its own inquiry into the funding of Australia's orchestras. A leak of its findings brought on the early release of the Orchestra Review conducted by former QANTAS CEO James Strong, but no amount of "spin" could soften the impact of its recommendations.


Among its bean-counting brainwaves are proposals to reduce the size of The Queensland Orchestra (TQO) to 74 full-time equivalent positions, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) to 56 members and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) to just 38. And, of course, it wouldn't be a Howard government report without a lot of emphasis on "productivity" and "flexibility" which suggest industrial relations changes down the track.

The changes would downgrade TQO from a quadruple wind orchestra to a triple, the ASO from a triple to a double and the TSO to no more than an extended chamber orchestra. These changes would severely restrict the repertoires of the orchestras. It will limit the TSO to 18th century music, for example, and limit the attraction to audiences, as well.

The Strong Report does recommend "augmentation" funds to be made available to the orchestras to take on musicians on a casual basis for their larger performances, but commentators doubt that this will play out in practice. The smaller Australian capitals simply do not have the numbers of part-time jobs available to sustain a large enough pool of musicians and to keep their skills at a sufficiently high level. The orchestras are the backbone of classical music practice in these cities. Musicians would simply have to move elsewhere. There is no discussion in the report about whether the augmentation funds would include these casual musicians' air fares.

There would be other effects. In Adelaide, the proposal to reduce the ASO from 75 to 56 members would take it back to the size it was in the cash-strapped years of the early 1950s. It would not be big enough to play for the Australian Ballet when it visits Adelaide, putting future performances in SA in doubt. It is hard to imagine how the orchestra would continue with its world-renowned performance of The Ring, which commits the whole orchestra to three months' work every four years.

The Strong Report does recognise "risks" in what it proposes but suggests that orchestra managements take an entrepreneurial approach to dealing with them. The ASO (it argues) must have a lot of time on its hands given that it does not have a resident ballet company and it is only required to accompany the State Opera's season for about six weeks out of the year. It could use all that free time to look for ways to bring in extra income!

The fact is that the ASO already commits to over 100 performances a year. It already performs with artists like ex-members of the Little River Band, James Morrison, Salvatore Accardo and Andrea Boccelli in order to lift the orchestra's income and compensate for ever declining subsidies. It already chases corporate sponsorship and has some backing from resource giant Santos.

Since the Tribe Report was released in 1985, the average government subsidy to the former ABC orchestras has dropped from 76 per cent to just 61 per cent. Box office takings have grown by 63 per cent. Ticket prices have been forced up, making ASO performances less accessible to low income earners.

Strong urges more of the same! At the same time, the orchestras would be expected to meet their current obligations to the community like their performances to school children.

It is noteworthy that, while saying some orchestras spend too much on admin, the report does not suggest cuts to orchestra administration. The ASO, for example, had already been forced to take the axe to its admin staff in 2003. This time the flesh is to be taken off the musicians. As well as reducing numbers, Strong recommends that current entitlements be pruned back. New employees would not be able to access the more generous commonwealth superannuation scheme. Severance pay would be reduced and Loss of Proficiency payout slashed from 77 weeks in most cases to just 48 weeks.

The one third loading for playing in the more demanding small groupings in current EBAs would disappear. On the subject of pay, you might remember James Strong from his days at QANTAS. His total remuneration package for financial year 1999/2000 was $2,099,857 an increase of 9.6 per cent from the previous year. His weekly pay packet contained $40,381.86, more than the annual salary of a first year QANTAS full-time telephone sales consultant at the time.

He is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Woolworths Limited, Chairman of Insurance Australia Group Limited, Chairman of Ripcurl, Chairman of the Australia Business Arts Foundation and the Sydney Theatre Company. Interestingly enough, he was on the board of Opera Australia when artists in the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO) were voted a 26 percent pay increase. There is to be an inquiry into the funding of the big pit orchestras next year but, in the meantime, he has recommended a $1.5 million cash injection for the AOBO.

The Strong report leaves open questions like the complete divestment by the ABC of its stake in the orchestras it examined and the future of Symphony Australia. Its emphasis on "financial viability" by 2010 is not at all reassuring. Federal Arts Minister Rod Kemp has said that he would be approaching his state counterparts to get them to fill the funding gaps in orchestras' budgets. At no time, however, did he distance himself from the "no commonwealth funding increase" stipulation given to Strong for his inquiry $10 billion budget surplus or no $10 billion surplus.

In the meantime, the Symphony Orchestra Players Association has been fighting back. In Adelaide, there is a website www.savetheaso.com devoted to the campaign to defend the orchestra.

Last week, members of the orchestra played in the main shopping thoroughfare of Rundle Mall to draw attention to the threatened cultural vandalism. They played Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik but, unfortunately due to cutbacks, the tuba was forced to play the bass part and only three quarters of the notes were actually played seeing that the viola player was missing!

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