Australian Content in 2019

The mince pies are in Coles, the jacarandas are in bloom and the cricket is on (pay) TV. It’s time to cast a weary eye over the Australian content on the MPA organisations in 2019.

Earlier this year I articulated my reasons for this annual exercise in self-torture and I’m not going to repeat myself. So give it a read, it’s quite good. I will however reiterate the usual disclaimers before someone sends me a grumpy email:

  • This is a manual exercise where I count what’s in the online brochure so there are probably things which have been accidentally counted twice and if it’s not in the brochure, it’s not counted (SSO’s brochure in particular was a nightmare)
  • Because of marketing and programming decisions, this often means things like galas and outreach programs don’t make it into the count because there isn’t any detail in the brochure
  • Unfortunately, this also usually includes the orchestras which have new music style festivals as these are nearly always presented with minimal detail in the brochure which makes their numbers look worse
  • However, I did notice that this year for some reason a number of orchestras have detailed their Last Night of the Proms style events, which has probably made some figures look more dramatic than in previous years (but the overall effect is the same)
  • Among the MPAs, the I have excluded the Brandenburgers as counting their program for Australian work would be pointless; I also have my ongoing confusion about how to handle Musica Viva as detailed before. For the sake of completeness, they are sitting at around 7% Australian work for 2019, which is just above the average.

Before we dive into the count (now with graph!!), as a side observation can someone get me the number of Ola Gjeilo’s publisher? Because this Norwegian, who I confess I hadn’t heard of until about two hours ago, has got more Australian premieres than any individual Australian composer (EVEN Brett and Elena, you guys) so, frankly, I want his publisher on my team.

Among the orchestras, the average percentage of Australian work is 6% which is steady from this year. The opera companies, as usual, are all over the shop. Technically, they have more than doubled their 2018 percentage but the sample is so small that this is meaningless. However, I will say, that 2019 is a Good Year for Australian Opera in the MPAs, which seems to operate in a feast or famine mode for Australian work.

The numbers in brief, with the occasional snide observation

Queensland Symphony Orchestra: 11% Australian work, a massive jump from the usual position in the cellars (a measly 1% in 2018). I’m so used to QSO lurking at the bottom of the ladder that this position for them up the top is making me a bit woozy. Uh… keep it up?

Australian Chamber Orchestra: 8% Australian work, up from 5% in 2018 and arresting their general slide. There is something particularly exciting about their non-Australian program though which I will get to anon…

Now we come to a tie on 6% with the two big dogs- Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. However, this is not good news. Sydney is a small drop from 8%, while Melbourne is a tumble from 12.5%. These two are also in my naughty corner for other reasons. SSO has- breathtakingly- not a single visible Australian commission in their 2019 program. Not one! And, to rub salt in the wound, the total number of advertised Australian works is the exact same number as Harry Potter movie-with-the-orchestra-for-some-reason ($) presentations. To the MSO, it’s generally not a great look for one of the few (only?) mainstage commissions to go to the Chief Conductor’s son. And, while we’re on the subject of the Davis family, it’s also not a good look to seemingly have more works advertised by the Davis family than women composers? (there is a vague mention of an unspecified work which would technically make it a tie- BUT STILL).

As befits the number, we then head south to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. They are at 5%, a small drop from 2018. This makes me a bit glum because usually TSO go gangbusters in my count which suits my purposes as they are also the orchestra with whom I have the closest relationship (hi guys, sad face, I don’t like it when we argue).

Now we have the bottom feeders of Australian content, our friends at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Both orchestras sit on a lamentable 2%. This is a soul destroying collapse from almost 9% for Adelaide, but on the plus side WASO has managed to improve on their 1.7%…so, uh baby steps?

Opera is of course it’s usual messy bitch who loves drama. It is a total pain to count as although the numbers are lower, what to do with all the random galas and special events and in the parks and under the seas?

Opera Queensland and West Australian Opera are staying the course and not doing any Australian work, but thank god we have people who can somehow keep Carmen afloat in these troubled times. OQ are doing a new opera workshop, which is intriguing, but the real test will be what comes out of it. Victorian Opera, the newcomer to the rarefied air of the MPA dress circle, is doing 1 Australian work for children, which for them is actually a bit low? Opera Australia are doing a new MAINSTAGE Australian work, which is an exciting development and somewhat balances out the fact, that for reasons a mystery to all but Lyndon Terracini, they are doing TWO different versions of West Side Story in 2019. That leaves us with the State Opera of South Australia. They are doing something quite bizarre, so bizarre that when I heard it I briefly wondered if I was having another pulmonary embolism. They are doing three Australian works, drawn from the archives, which technically makes 33% of their program Australian. This is unusual and weird and amazing and I think I need to catch my breath again.

Hey ladies

There are others, such as Rosalind Appleby, Cat Hope, Jane Howard and Lisa Cheney, who do this more comprehensively than me. But since I include it as a matter of course, the details on women composers are as follows:

Across the orchestras, among the 644 advertised works, 15 are by women (2%). This is QUITE BAD. Of these 15, 7 are by Australian women. The ACO is performing 7 works by women (of whom 1 is Australian) which by my rough calculation is the majority of their advertised contemporary work. QSO are next, with 3 works by women of which 2 are Australian.

I am consistently reminded of Alex Ross’ brutal takedown of the original program (they had to change it lol lol lol) from the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 2018-2019 season: “If an orchestra is confining itself to music of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the lineup is going to be as white and male as an alt-right torchlight parade”.

Trends

This is now the fourth time I’ve done this exercise, so I now have a bit of data to play with. What is remarkable for it’s lack of change- since the 2016 count, the average across the surveyed orchestras for advertised Australian content hovers around 6%, as illustrated below. However what is noticeable is the extremes, not just in each year but even with the same orchestra. What is the reason for this? Funding cycles? I would suspect that a change of music director or artistic staff may have something to do with it. With the exception of ACO and QSO (and again, wow) the trend for 2019 is pointing downwards which is pretty grim but, as the last few years have suggested, is also not in itself indicative of a permanent drop.

I originally did start to chart the opera companies but the small samples involved make it a wildly misleading exercise- for example in 2016 WAO did an Australian work which meant that technically 33% of their work was Australian and so forth. It does, as previously noted, seem to come in feast or famine in that we either get a great big whack of it at once or nothing at all.

Coda

I’ve made most of my passionate plea for the role of large format Australian music in the previous count. So I’m not going to make it again. However I wouldn’t be the first person to wonder if, indeed, there is actually a future for Australian opera or orchestral music at all.  Is this a problem? Should we just cut our losses and instead energise the small-medium sector (with some of that sweet MPA cash hopefully)? Do the next generation of composers (and audiences, and conductors, and performers) actually care? What are their aspirations? Because even though 6% is steady and there is no real evidence of a total decline, 6% is still 6%. It’s not great.