The Post

Don’t starve the national orchestra


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 skilled 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, costcuttin­g 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.

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.

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