Editorial: The Government is slowly starving the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

OPINION: The Government has deliberately starved the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. There has been no increase in its grant since 2008, when it was set at about $13.4m. The result has been a savage cut in real terms.  

Now the politicians will have to make a choice between paying more or getting less. Without an increase in the grant, the orchestra is likely to have to cut services – the orchestra is mandated by law to tour extensively and bring classical music to the people – or perhaps quality. 

It's not clear why the Government has squeezed the NZSO quite so hard. It's never stated its reasons openly. Perhaps it feared trouble from redneck voters over funding a "luxury" cultural item during a downturn. Some might claim that subsidies for symphony orchestras throw taxpayers' money at the middle class.

In practice, however, there has never really been a major backlash against funding for the NZSO. Dire Straits fan David Lange grumbled 30 years ago that he shouldn't have to help fund an orchestra he didn't listen to. But he did nothing about it. 

And the orchestra itself has gained the respect of New Zealanders, and the affection of a substantial minority, because of its very high quality. The NZSO has an international reputation.

The country would be a much poorer place without it, but the Government risks sabotaging the institution by unthinking parsimony. A government funding document points to trouble recruiting senior players. Oddly, the NZSO's chief executive, Christopher Blake, seemed to pour cold water on this argument. 

Perhaps he just didn't want to embarrass the Government in public, but this was a bad mistake. The basic rule when asking for more public money is: get your story straight.

Orchestras face certain brutal truths, as the NZSO points out. The labour and production requirements for performing a Brahms symphony are the same as they always were. Hiring the symphony out is not as easy as politicians might suppose. The NZSO performed on the soundtrack of The Hobbit, but Hollywood is a fickle customer, and the orchestra can't bank on steady  future work in films.

The orchestra doesn't live high on the hog. It hasn't had a pay rise since its 1.5 per cent increase in 2012. Only 10 of its 118 staff earn more than $100,000. These extraordinarily ntsGhighly-nteskilled musicians are not rich. A comparison with the salaries of TVNZ would be instructive.

And, as the official review of orchestral funding noted in 2013, cost-cutting can nullify the long-term investment in the orchestra of successive governments. The review noted that cutting the orchestra to 80 players would save 10 per cent, but the orchestra would be too small to offer the expected repertoire.

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In the end, the core question is this: why damage the NZSO or undermine its democratic mandate for the want of a few million dollars a year? The suspicion is that this is an averagely philistine Cabinet with little interest in the national orchestra. So the outlook for the NZSO is bleak

 - Stuff


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