NZSO's future is at risk

Despite standing ovations in Europe, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra faces a possible shake-up after one of the most difficult times in its 64-year history.

Documents reveal that the NZSO has been in talks with government agencies about its future and its relationship with the four regional orchestras.

It has been told there will be no increase in government funding, while Vector Wellington Orchestra and Southern Sinfonia already fear their funding will be cut.

Details were revealed in Culture and Heritage Ministry documents provided to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act. The documents do not suggest that the NZSO – which gets $13.4 million from taxpayers – be wound up, but indicate the Government is considering changes.

At the behest of Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson, the NZSO has been having "informal policy discussions" with Creative NZ, which funds regional orchestras, on how they can co-operate. In a letter to the NZSO and Creative NZ, Mr Finlayson said co-operation was important because of "economic constraints" and the impact of "changing demographics" in audiences.

In September, ministry officials were told that they may have to advise "on a possibly reconfigured orchestra sector".

Last year the NZSO said any cut in musician numbers or salary cuts would mean it would lose its most talented players. Chief executive Peter Walls said the orchestra had struggled in the recession and expected to make a loss next year. "I will always look back on 2010 as one of the most difficult years in the history of the orchestra."

After the NZSO posted a loss in 2004, funding was increased by $1.6 million. The orchestra wants to raise box office earnings, but has not increased ticket prices.

Mr Walls said it had been considering "what if" scenarios, including its role if Vector Wellington's funding is cut.

Former NZSO chief executive Ian Fraser said big changes were being hinted at that could mean regional orchestras lost out.

Making the NZSO take on some of the functions of Vector Wellington would be a disaster. "It's possibly a way of buggering up two orchestras that are Wellington-based."

Dominion Post classical music reviewer John Button said the orchestra was playing better now than at any time in its history. Any change that would curtail its ability to perform or tour would be silly, he said. "It's part of the national PR image of the country."

Former marketing manager for Auckland Philharmonia, Tony Waring, said the NZSO should focus on Wellington, tour less and replace Vector Wellington. It could co-operate with a "more even-funded" Philharmonia and Christchurch Symphony.

"Make them Wellington's orchestra and they won't need all the millions they need for touring. A great conductor could come over and work with each of the three."

But Mr Walls said the NZSO had to continue as a national orchestra.


- $13.4m government funding
- $2.5m other funding and income
- $511,000 surplus in 2009/10 financial year, includes one-off fringe benefit tax refund
- 82,442 people watched NZSO perform in last financial year. Target was between 75,000 and 125,000
- $145 most expensive single ticket to see Dame Kiri concert in 2011
- 128 concerts performed in past financial year
- 100 symphonic concerts in 2011
- 90 musicians
- 24 centres NZSO performed in past financial year
- $20 cheapest ticket price in 2011 concert packages

The Dominion Post