Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who needs a conductor?

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has recently had a very public falling-out with its now-departed Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Oleg Caetani. As a result it seems that some members of the orchestra - or at least Robin Usher writing in The Age today - are wondering if they need a Chief Conductor at all. Robin Usher is right to point out that going sans artistic director would be a step outside the norm amongst orchestras around the world, but his list of great orchestra/conductor partnerships overlooks the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that knows a thing or two about orchestral playing and does not have a Chief Conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe are two other fine ensembles that prove you can more than get by without a Chief.

Still, I think Usher is right. The MSO should have a chief conductor. The difference between the MSO and most of the other Australian orchestras is the way artistic directors and chief conductors are appointed. Most of Europe's great orchestras are thoroughly democratic institutions and individual players have greater control over the destiny of the orchestra than do their colleagues in Australia. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, has the legal status of an incorporated private association. The Managing Director is a member of the orchestra who leave his or her desk to attend rehearsals. The Chief Conductors of the great orchestras are hired and fired by democratic processes involving all members of the orchestra. This boosts the sense of belonging, collegiality and "ownership" amongst players.

It is curious that despite Australia's fabled egalitarian beginnings, in general organisations such as universities, orchestras and major corporations are becoming less collegial and democratic. There is certainly lots of the ubiquitous "consultation" going on but many people are now cynical about how genuine this, especially as opportunities for democratic decision making are quietly being whittled away. The MSO needs a chief conductor. One chosen democratically.

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