Leila Kelleher  

Spotlight on Australian Symphony Orchestras: the past, the present, the future

Leila Kelleher
March 28, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

American orchestral musicians usually have some bits of information and notions about orchestra life in Europe, but what's going on in Australia? Leila Kelleher gives us a glimpse at the past, present and future with her spotlight on Australian orchestras. So that you don't have to look it up, the Australian Dollar is currently trading at about .81 vs. the US Dollar, and "loading" is a term describing a bonus payment such as doubling on a second instrument.

- Ramon Ricker


Australia is a country with roughly the same landmass as the continental United States, but only has a population of just over 20 million. There are six states (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, and Queensland) and two territories (Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory), although the bulk of the population lives on the eastern edge of the country. In each state, the largest city (in Australia, this is always the capital) is more than twice the size of the second largest, a phenomenon which is known as the primate city. This means that larger regional centers do not have populations large enough to support major arts organizations and rely on 'the big smoke' to provide them. Australia is also very liberal politically and has long traditions of social security and public education. The arts are largely publicly funded both through the Australia Council for the Arts and directly from the state and federal governments. There is virtually no tradition of philanthropy and arts organizations do not typically have any endowment whatsoever. The season runs with the calendar year, due to the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere.

There are currently six symphony and two pit orchestras in Australia as listed below:
Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO)
Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO)
The Queensland Orchestra (TQO)
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO)
Orchestra Victoria (OV)

The Past

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the national (federally funded) radio, online and television broadcaster. In the 1930s and 1940s, the ABC collaborated with the state governments and the then amateur orchestra societies to form full-time professional symphony orchestras. Their purpose was to perform concerts and radio broadcasts. As a result of the ABC's involvement, all musicians were treated as government employees with excellent superannuation (retirement) packages (health care in Australia is free, so health insurance is never offered as a benefit). However, in the 1990s it was decided that the orchestras should be more distinct, with government funding administered directly to each orchestra. At this time Symphony Australia was formed to continue to provide professional services to the orchestras, albeit at a cost.

Symphony Australia continues to provide vital services to the orchestras such as the National Music Library (NML). Although each orchestra maintains a small private collection, much of the music they use is borrowed from the NML. Although the larger orchestras in Sydney and Melbourne would be able to fund larger orchestral libraries, this pooling of resources reduces the need for the regional orchestras to maintain their own collection.

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