Orchestral manoeuvres

Posted 11 Aug 2012 by MediaStuff Popular
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The upheaval created by the quakes has tested the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, but the new ways it has been forced to adapt have brought some surprising silver linings. JOHN McCRONE reports.

On a dank Friday evening on an industrial estate deep in South Hornby, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO) gets ready to rip into the big finish of a Grieg concerto.

The CSO's young chief conductor, Sydney-based Tom Woods, tugs his fingers backwards through a woolly forelock - so useful for bouncing percussively in beat with the music - and calls for a "brave" sound.

The orchestra delivers. The music builds to a thunder. Then ends in a puzzling silence. It takes a tick to realise what is absent is an audience's answering applause.

It is final rehearsal night in the CSO's make-do earthquake home, this cavernous warehouse unit which until recently was being used as a computer parts distribution centre.

Hopefully, the missing claps will be supplied at the actual performance at Burnside High School's Aurora Centre, the equally make-do concert hall the CSO is employing when it is not resorting to the sports barn of the CBS Canterbury Arena or an aircraft hangar out at Wigram Air Force Museum.

Last week was an important one for the CSO. It was among the key Christchurch cultural institutions whose fate became a little clearer with the Government's Central Christchurch Development Unit (CCDU) Blueprint announcements.

The CCDU put forward its vision for a new integrated performing arts precinct running north from Cathedral Square up to the Avon River. The proposal includes a replacement Town Hall, shrunk from an auditorium of 2500 seats to a more manageable 1500, as well as space for the Court Theatre.

However, the plan depends on what Christchurch City Council has to say about the fate of the Town Hall.

The land in Victoria Square was badly damaged - liquefaction fills the Town Hall's basement. Ngai Tahu also wants the area for its Te Puna Ahurea cultural centre. So far as the costs go, estimates are the difference is only a few million either way to keep or bowl the Town Hall.

Council officials say it will take three or four more months to know the answer. After that will be a long wait for something to be built. The CSO looks to be facing temporary make-do for at least another five years.

One of the ironies of the Canterbury earthquakes for the CSO was that it was finally about to get a proper home of its own.

The Town Hall, opened in 1972, was always the place it performed. However, for years the orchestra has been bouncing around town, finding offices and practice rooms where it could.

But in late 2010, it was negotiating a deal to take over the Salvation Army Citadel building on the edge of Victoria Square.Just before the quakes, its management team and music library were lodged in the Arts Centre complex, and its musicians rehearsed at the University of Canterbury's College of Education.

Christchurch City Council had agreed to cough up $2 million of the $5.25m needed for a long-term lease. The Southern Opera and Christchurch Choir were going to come in as partners.

It was ideal, says the CSO's artistic director, Gretchen La Roche. The CSO's offices and rehearsal rooms would be together under one roof. The orchestra would be right next door to the Town Hall. The Citadel even had a 350-seat auditorium, which could be used for smaller recitals or educational visits.

'It was going to be a place open to the public. Many of activities that had been dotted around the community could be housed in a central location. People would actually know where we are. The orchestra would have a physical presence in the town. And with other organisations sharing, it would've been very dynamic with lots of live music.'

If not for the quakes, says La Roche, the CSO would have been moving into the Citadel right about now instead of finding itself camped out in an industrial unit in Christchurch's back of the beyond.

Yet rather than being pessimistic about the prospects, there is talk of how a reset button has been pushed for Christchurch's music scene. Out of adversity will come something new and improved.

Luke Di Somma, conductor of the Christchurch Youth Orchestra, says Christchurch has a proud tradition for music. The very fact it had a full-scale orchestra in a city its size was a statement of civic ambition.

Another statement was having the 2500-seat Town Hall. Much too grand, said many when it was built. And in truth it was often difficult to fill, Di Somma agrees. The CCDU's 1500-seat replacement is seen as a good compromise. But he says it shows how Christchurch has always had a determination to punch above its weight.

Yet Christchurch's music community had also developed a reputation for being rather staid and siloed. "It was 'I'll do my thing, you do your thing',' he says.

The earthquakes have shaken that up, forcing everyone out of their comfort zones, Di Somma says.

"Now by sheer circumstance, people are having to work together a lot more. So there's a real sense of a new beginning. This is like Christchurch music 2.0. It will create a new wave of music and arts in Christchurch because people are having to reconsider how they were doing everything.'

The immediate fear after the quakes was whether the CSO would even survive. Music, still more than the other arts, depends on venues to perform and earn. Christchurch's professional musicians might simply have taken flight.

For the CSO's principal horn, David Cox, the low point came in June last year.

The continuing aftershocks had closed all the performance spaces and the orchestra had been out of action for a whole four months. It was scratching around for anything it might do to help the city's morale.

'We were going to play Peter and the Wolf in some school halls in the parts of town that had been hardest hit, like Sumner and New Brighton.

We turned up at 9 one morning to rehearse for the first one and the school didn't even have its hall. We had to borrow the local scout den. And it was absolutely freezing. We just couldn't warm the instruments up.'

Cox, who has played with some of the Britain's biggest orchestras in the most lavish concert halls, had to wonder what the future held.

'When we did start back again, it took a while before it felt like we were playing as a proper orchestra.'

But surprisingly the CSO has not lost any of its 60 or so players. It has stayed together and after some further post-quake expeditions to Timaru, Ashburton and - of a different order altogether - a trip to Japan as an international guest of Asia Orchestra Week, it is back up to an almost normal number of performances.

'We're doing about 90 per cent of our programme - everything but the opera and ballet is going again.'

And while the performance spaces are a compromise, some have proved a surprise.

'Wigram Museum was one out of the bag,' says Cox. 'We were thinking we're going to be playing in a hangar. It'll be cold and uncomfortable. There'll be no acoustics with the tin roof.

'But we got in there and it sounded just great. We had a full house the first night. You sit on stage and behind the audience you see these huge planes. It turned out really well.'

One reason why members may have stayed is the CSO is made up of part-timers. In the parlance, it is an 'evening rehearsal orchestra', meeting up four nights a week to prepare for a Saturday concert.

'If you're a principal player, the pay probably equates to a half-time job. For the regular players, it's more like a third,' says Cox.

So the majority have another occupation. Most work as music teachers or university tutors, although there are orchestra members who are water scientists, couriers and midwives. Cox himself has horn students but mostly supplements his income as a maths tutor.

Cox says this means the players had other lives in Christchurch and so were always less likely to just up and go. Besides which, getting a job elsewhere would hardly be easy.

It is no secret that orchestras all over the world are contracting, while the level of talent - particularly out of Asia - keeps increasing, he says. 'The competition for work is enormous.'

But Cox says despite being part- time, the CSO has managed to attract strong people because it offers an unusual mix of small- town variety coupled to big-town ambition.

In a city of Christchurch's size, a working orchestra has to be ready to turn its hand to everything. The CSO not only plays backing for the opera and ballet when they are in town, but can turn out to support pop stars such as Bic Runga or jazz performers like trumpeter James Morrison.

This variety is something players enjoy, says Cox. It contrasts, for example, with the London Sinfonietta, for which he freelanced, where the repertoire was highly specialised - strictly classical and nothing pre-1920.

At the same time, says Cox, Christchurch has persevered with a full-scale orchestra. 'We've always tried to be bigger than we are. Let's not just have a chamber orchestra. Let's have a proper symphony orchestra.'

He says this has been healthy for Christchurch because it has meant the city has always had professional players to cover for specialty instruments such as the harp, tuba and timpani. There is a local expertise for the university and schools to call upon.

It has also meant the CSO actually plays more of the great classics than might be the case elsewhere, says Cox.

'We do the big orchestral works that are really fun and satisfying to play. Other orchestras might say it's a bit expensive because we've got to find six percussionists, two harps, five clarinettists, or whatever. But we get to play them quite regularly.'

Because of this ambition, the CSO has attracted a steady stream of overseas talent. Cox says about 15 years ago, some 10 players from the Ukrainian National Orchestra followed one after another to fill jobs here. 'It's probably why we play Tchaikovsky really well. As an orchestra, we really get Russian music.'

These are not typical times, says Graeme Wallis, president of the Christchurch Civic Music Council, the umbrella organisation representing the city's music community.

The story for everyone has been about being adaptable, making plans for survival, looking for ways to help each other out, getting mentally prepared for a long haul.

Wallis agrees with Di Somma that also out of the current adversity comes the opportunity for renewal.

Music does seem to matter a lot to Christchurch people, he says. Perhaps this is partly the legacy of having two cathedrals.

'It was an Anglican settlement. And you had a Catholic cathedral, too. So church music was always very strong.' There is a historic support for organs, choirs and classical instruments, says Wallis.

Wallis thinks the geography of Christchurch - its 'unicellular' nature, where everyone feels they can get into the heart of town in about 15 minutes for a concert or show - has also been important.

Auckland and Wellington are more cut up by their hills, he says. Christchurch has been able to concentrate its efforts in its centre which is why it has a number of institutions, such as the Court Theatre and Christchurch Art Gallery, that like the CSO are of a higher standard than might otherwise have been the case.

Wallis says you just had to be at the Town Hall for a Last Night of the Proms, or the annual primary and intermediate schools choir concert. In the packed auditorium, suddenly you did feel part of a much larger city. Christchurch swelled in these celebrations of its existence.

Wallis says Christchurch music has three anchor organisations. The CSO plays the leading role. There is of course the University of Canterbury music department.

And then Christchurch is unusual in having its central city Christchurch School of Music (CSM), a Saturday morning tradition for parents converging from all over town with their children for group tuition.

All are struggling because of the earthquakes. The issue for the Christchurch School of Music (CSM) is that its base, the Music Centre of Christchurch on the corner of Barbadoes Street, was another casualty of last February.

The Music Centre - a charitable trust hosting a variety of music lessons and events - hopes to be back in the city as part of the new performing arts precinct, whether that is around the old Town Hall or the CCDU's Cathedral Square alternative.

But Wallis says the CSM needs about 40 rooms to host its Saturday classes and so may end up renting school classrooms elsewhere.

Canterbury University has different problems, says Wallis. Its enrolments were falling even before the quakes - students were heading to Wellington or Auckland because of the better opportunities. There were also criticisms that it lacked a permanent department head to give it focus.

Since the earthquakes, the music department has been reviewed by Auckland University's director of music, Professor Robert Constable, who has agreed to stay on to make some changes.

Yet Wallis says what strikes him most is the way all three organisations have been shaken out of their familiar routine. They are realising their survival depends on greater co-operation, in finding ways to help each other during the rebuild.

'People are definitely looking to work together and I haven't felt that for a long time,' says Wallis.

The CSO's La Roche says there are all sorts of small but significant things happening. For example, the CSO recently 'lent' its conductor, Tom Woods, to do some teaching sessions with Canterbury University's student orchestra. After the CSM lost its music library in the quakes, the CSO was able to supply scores to the Youth Orchestra.

The CSO itself is also getting used to change, says La Roche.

In June, the orchestra provided the backing for a rock performance by The Adults, the new band of Shihad's Jon Toogood. In July, it was Disney tunes with the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (Nasda) choir. This month, it is doing 'country meets the classics' with the Topp Twins.

La Roche says being forced out of the familiar surroundings of the Town Hall, the CSO has had to learn how to work with amplification systems and lighting rigs at venues like the CBS Arena.

There is a long way to go, says La Roche. Making do with a warehouse headquarters out in South Hornby is going to grow wearying after a few years.

But that is the story for many organisations in Christchurch: learning to make the best of tough times, while looking forward to the day of triumphant return.


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