Celebrating seventy years of symphony

Happy birthday to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

On the morning of 24 August 2016, to the sound of a karanga, 23 NZSO players, crew and staff arrived at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori O te Waiū O Ngāti Porou, in Ruatoria – a township of 750 people near the East Cape.

They were greeted with a whole-school haka and a formal welcome; they shared kai and were shown a traditional kite made by the students; they performed to the school, parents and local community members, including some patients from the local hospital – none of whom had ever seen a live orchestra. As the players walked back to their bus, they were chased by half a dozen small boys who saw them off with an impromptu but enthusiastic haka of their own.

It is not an experience any other national orchestra in the world could claim.

It had been a long journey, in both kilometres and years. The NZSO is New Zealand’s oldest national professional performing arts organisation, and Monday 6 March 2017 is the 70th anniversary of its first public concert. It is celebrating with a free concert in Wellington – and among the audience will be a few who still remember that first appearance seven decades ago.

The National Orchestra gave its first performance at the Town Hall in Wellington on 6 March 1947. The programme, shown here, included a variety of mostly 19th-century works. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: Eph-B-MUSIC-NO-1947-01-title

The National Orchestra gave its first performance at the Town Hall in Wellington on 6 March 1947. The programme, shown here, included a variety of mostly 19th-century works. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: Eph-B-MUSIC-NO-1947-01-title

Our national orchestra was established in the wake of the Second World War, at a time when people and politicians were finally free to turn their attention to future-building. The new optimism was reflected at the orchestra’s launch on 24 October 1946 when Governor-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, V.C., was introduced as ‘launching a peace offensive in the interests of music’.

It was a humble beginning. The original band consisted of talented but often self-taught musicians, many of whom had never heard a symphony orchestra. They were led by Vincent Aspey, a miner’s son from Huntly who had fortuitously persuaded his mother to buy him a violin he saw in a second-hand shop when he was nine years old.

Seventy years later, the NZSO is an orchestra of international standing. It has played with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, David Oistrakh, Renée Fleming and Sting, and been conducted by Igor Stravinsky. It has recorded extensively for Naxos and EMI and in 2016 was nominated for a Grammy alongside top international orchestras.

The NZSO has performed in the Albert Hall, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw and the ‘Egg’ in Beijing. Its European tour of 2010 earned it standing ovations and rave reviews – The Neue Luzerner Zeitung called it a ‘sensation’.

Most importantly, through seven decades the NZSO has tirelessly toured up and down the country, bringing world-class music to our local concert-halls.

Not that it hasn’t had its critics, like one ‘disgusted mother of thirteen’ who wrote to her local paper in 1954 calling the orchestra an ‘expensive luxury’ (quoted in Joy Tonks’ The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: The first forty years). Former Prime Minister David Lange claimed not to see the point of helping fund an orchestra when he preferred Dire Straits.

It’s a question that will surface from time to time, especially in a world where you can carry the Berlin Philharmonic around in your pocket. Depending on where your values lie, there are many answers that come to mind.

One of the most compelling was articulated by an audience member when the NZSO performed Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in Christchurch a few months after the February earthquake. In an email to the NZSO in August 2011, the audience member commented:

Just wanted to let you know that I have come home from the Leningrad performance in Christchurch absolutely uplifted, it was a glorious experience, standing ovation… I felt like I turned the corner and could put some of the difficult last months behind me.

The immediacy and communal vibe of a concert have the power to affect people in a way nothing else can. As the digital age advances, promoters all over the world are finding that consumers want experiences more than products. A live NZSO concert is to a recording what a rock concert is to iTunes – it cannot be replaced.

For us here in New Zealand it’s a long trip to hear a world-class orchestra overseas. The NZSO enables people to have this experience who otherwise could not – as demonstrated by its long but memorable journey to Ruatoria, and dozens of dedicated concerts for small communities, hospitals, schools or rest-homes each year.

The NZSO seeks to provide something for everyone in New Zealand’s diverse communities. 2017 has begun with a tour with New Zealand’s Modern Māori Quartet, and will finish with the annual ritual of The Messiah, an integral part of people’s pre-Christmas celebrations. In between, the NZSO will perform community concerts in Porirua, Palmerston North, Manukau and Takapuna; a Spring Pops tour of seven cities called ‘Pianomania’, with Freddy Kempf; and Lands of Hope and Glory, a (mostly) British programme to coincide with the Lions rugby tour – in addition to its more serious concerts of classic and contemporary repertoire.

Eve de Castro-Robinson was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) to compose The glittering hosts of heaven. It celebrates Matariki, the Māori New Year, and was premiered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on 14 June 2013.

Eve de Castro-Robinson was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) to compose The glittering hosts of heaven. It celebrates Matariki, the Māori New Year, and was premiered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on 14 June 2013.

The unique way in which the NZSO can serve was demonstrated 10 days after the September 2010 earthquake, when it made its scheduled concert free for residents, hoping the gesture would lift their spirits. Like the Wellington Town Hall in 1947, the Christchurch Town Hall was full to capacity.

In that historic first concert, the audiences knew something very special had been created. Their optimism has been proved well-founded over seven decades. At a time when nationalistic rhetoric is gaining momentum internationally, New Zealand’s musical ‘peace offensive’ may be more important than ever – speaking the common language of music and reminding us what humanity is capable of at its best.

The NZSO and everyone who has been touched by it – whether a senior citizen in Auckland or a school student from Ruatoria – have every reason to celebrate what NZSO Chief Executive Chris Blake has termed a ‘national treasure’.

We wish you all at the NZSO a very happy 70th birthday!

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