The freshly re-carpeted floors, brand new acoustic panelling, and music stands neatly aligned across the stage are certainly a dramatic change to the décor of the recently refurbished Monkey Bar, and new home of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra. No longer will thumping bass and drunken laughter be heard echoing through the red brick walls. Instead, the rehearsing of Brahms, Dvorak, Prokofiev and more from the exciting program the DSO have lined up for the year, including the work of some iconic Dunedin musicians. I was fortunate enough to meet with the DSO’s Marketing and Publicity Officer, Pieter Du Plessis, and General Manager, Philippa Harris, to discuss the plans for the orchestra this year, the program, and the role of the orchestra in Dunedin.
Perhaps one of the first thoughts I had when looking at the program series for 2017 was how a little city, at the very bottom of the world, manages to attract performers from Russia, China, Australia, Britain, and various other corners of the earth. Being involved in the music department myself, it seems that everyone who wants to be anyone desires to perform overseas—London, New York, Berlin, Vienna —the music capitals of the globe! Nevertheless, little old Dunedin has attracted huge names, like Tasmanian-based conductor Daniel Kossov, who was born in Russia, emigrated to Israel, and graduated from the Curtis Institute and London’s Guildhall School; and Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts, a 2017 Michael Hill International Violin Competition jury member, who is internationally renowned for his virtuosic playing and sensitive interpretations. Philippa Harris is very good at her job, and through her networking connections with orchestras around the world, consistently manages to attract high-level musicians to Dunedin.
However, not only is the DSO Logistics Team responsible for the talent drawn to Dunedin, but Dunedin as a city is also widely known for producing world famous musicians through the University of Otago, and, therefore, is an attractive musical destination. Harris and Du Plessis made it clear that a special relationship exists between the DSO and the University of Otago Music Department. Perhaps the only orchestra in New Zealand that accepts such a large number of tertiary students into the orchestra, the DSO provides an important learning environment for aspiring musicians. Harris says that such an environment is influential in building the professional skills of young performers. “Many of the students who play in the DSO are outstanding solo musicians, but need the experience of being in an orchestra to work on their skills at playing as part of a professional ensemble,” Harris said, “similarly, some students meld into their role in the orchestra seamlessly, but benefit hugely from the one-on-one technical instruction they receive through the University Music Department.” It is clear that there is a strong sense of teamwork between the DSO and the University not only to create a high level orchestra, but also to build confident and widely experienced Music graduates. Concert Master and Otago University Senior Violin Lecturer, Tessa Peterson, provides an excellent example of the bridge between the orchestra and the university. Many of her students are members of the orchestra, benefiting from her one-on-one instruction at the University, while also observing her in action leading the orchestra. Such a close relationship between the local orchestra and the University of Otago is a factor that draws many orchestral musicians to study in Dunedin, highlighting the importance of maintaining a strong and diverse Music Department —a cause that Harris is particularly passionate about.
The DSO are certainly passionate about the eclectic music scene of the city and this year, following on from the success of 2015, are producing the second instalment of ‘Tally Ho!’, a program featuring the music of the popular ‘Dunedin Sound’ genre. The concert is arranged by University of Otago Senior Lecturer, and member of the acclaimed rock band ‘The Verlaines’, Graeme Downes, who showcases his talents as not only a contemporary musician, but as an accomplished orchestrator. The concert, to be performed in November, will feature some of the original Dunedin Sound artists, as well as various rising local stars. But not only is the DSO passionate about supporting local musicians, they are also unafraid of branching out to explore new genres of music that they haven’t touched before. 2017 is a momentous year in the Contemporary Classical music scene, with the 70th birthday of John Adams, and the 80th birthdays of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Professional orchestras around the world are celebrating by performing various works of the three figureheads of the ‘minimalist’ music movement and the DSO is no exception, performing Adams’s Chairman Dances, which were composed alongside his iconic opera Nixon in China. If the orchestra have played a work of Adams’s before, it’s not within the memory of Du Plessis or Harris, and the opportunity to have such a work performed in Dunedin will certainly be a treat.
When considering the music to be performed each year, Harris tries to cater to a broad audience. With a program that features works from Bach to present day composers like John Psathas, the repertoire is certainly diverse. So give it a shot, go along to a concert! More information about the concerts and how to book tickets can be found on the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s website, dso.org.nz. Student subscriptions are $12, which, as Du Plessis points out, is about the same price as a decent jug of beer. And, just in case you’re wondering, they have beer available at intermission.