Let our NZSO keep making high-quality music

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 07:24 30/07/2012

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: I was very busy last weekend, witnessing murder, lust, infidelity, revenge, and a bit of incest for good measure.

No, I wasn't attending the National Party conference in Auckland, but a concert performance of The Valkyrie (Die Walkure) by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Wellington.

The Valkyrie is a five- and-a-half-hour opera by Richard Wagner. Attending such an event requires stamina - it's like watching an entire five-day cricket test rather than a quick hit-out in a Twenty20 game.

And what an amazing event it was. Ashburton-born tenor Simon O'Neill has performed in some of the greatest opera houses in the world, so it was a delight to see him in his home country. Kiwi- Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu added bulk to the front row with an outstanding performance, while the two flashy imported sopranos were incredible.

But the undoubted highlight was the famous Ride of the Valkyries. Yes, it's the music to the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. There's a very good reason it's so popular - it's outstanding music.

For the Ride, eight brilliantly talented local female singers, dubbed the Valkiwis, made their way to the front of the stage like a well-drilled division of Panzer tanks. Then they unloaded their massive arsenal of musical ammunition. With the Valkiwis in full flight, backed by a full- strength NZSO with Wagner tubas and other instruments brought in from the reserves bench, those in the packed Michael Fowler Centre knew they were witnessing a concert that would be talked about for years to come. A rare standing ovation followed.

Then just a day or two later, with the unmusical timing that has become a hallmark of our Government of late, a report from Valhalla, also known as the Culture and Heritage Ministry, suggested axing the NZSO. Apparently, attendances for our country's orchestras are declining. Perhaps, suggested the report, rather than having our national orchestra based in one city, players could be evenly spread out to the regions? Brilliant. While we're at it, let's disband the All Blacks so our Super Rugby teams can always play at full strength.

Arts Minister Chris Finlayson, with Wotan-like determination, assured us that the NZSO was not under threat. That was a smart move, as disbanding the band would disappoint many government supporters, as well as outraging the arts community. Going to the men's toilets at the interval of the expensive Valkyrie performance was like attending a meeting of the Business Roundtable. Spending government money on houses for poor people is dreadful state intervention, but subsidising wealthy people to see their beloved Wagner is okay.

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But therein lies the problem for arts organisations during a recession. People wrongly dub classical music an elitist art form. Yes, tickets cost a bit, but that doesn't mean it's elitist per se. I don't think the thousands of people who hire classical CDs from our library's superb selection each year are all snobs and millionaires.

I'm sure that any student of any low-decile school in the country would enjoy The Ride of the Valkyries as much as I did, were they given the chance to attend for free or at low cost. Classical musicians often tell me that some of the most enthusiastic audiences they have played to have been children experiencing a string quartet or opera for the first time.

When the NZSO was established by a Labour government after World War II, ticket prices were meant to be kept low so ordinary people could attend. And the orchestra was meant to tour frequently to provincial towns as well as cities. But increasing costs and declining funding have seen ticket prices increase and touring decrease. No wonder free-market barbarians are starting to form at the gate.

The challenge for arts administrators is to try to develop new audiences while retaining older ones. That doesn't necessarily mean more pop concerts full of TV themes or try- hard gigs with rock bands. Perhaps focusing more on the "core business" of producing superb high-quality art, as the NZSO did last Sunday, is the way to get more people attending cultural events.

- The Dominion Post

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