Sometimes you find unexpected things in the suburbs – like a full symphony orchestra. Travelling through Chatswood a few weeks ago I heard about the Willoughby Symphony and decided to investigate.
It happened that my visit coincided with final rehearsals for a weekend of performances at the newish Concourse Concert Hall in the centre of Chatswood, so I went along to a couple of rehearsals – the final one in the actual Concert Hall the afternoon of the first performance.
Nearly fifty years old, the Symphony comprises a varied mix of old hands and young tyros. It has been said that it is the second best orchestra in Sydney (after the SSO, of course) and it’s often used as a staging post for people on their way from the Conservatorium to the professional orchestras, or for those retiring from professional performance but who still want to play at a high level.
Two examples of this are Sarah Howard (violin, pictured above at rehearsal earlier in the week) and John Cran (bassoon, pictured below).
Sarah is currently studying a Masters double degree at the Vienna Konservatorium, and sees her work with the WSO as a valuable experience which will help in her long-term ambition to further work with acclaimed professional orchestras and chamber groups around the world.
John Cran, 85, retired from the SSO in 1997 after 40 years as principal bassoon, and has had a long career as a teacher of young musicians. He’s obviously fondly regarded in the Symphony, and the conductor, Nick Milton, made a special point of dragging him from the back of the stage for some special portraits on the day I was there.
The WSO is unusual in that it has a very high level of support from the local council, including the funding of a full-time position of Orchestra Co-ordinator. Annette Brown, who gained the position after spending 10 years organising community musical activities, is a bundle of energy who handles all the logistics of running the orchestra, including finding music, personnel and organising rehearsals.
Willoughby Council does much more than hand out a few cash donations. The annual budget of the WSO and the choir is around $150,000. Because of the large-scale support the WSO was formally brought within the council structure in 1999, and is now regarded as a community service in much the same way as parks or child-care centres. The annual audience for the WSO and choir is around 10,000 people.
I've been around orchestras a fair bit as a parent of a young violinist, and years of Sunday afternoon concerts by amateur ensembles have generated automatic expectations of out of tune strings and wandering rhythms.
So I was pleasantly surprised when Nick Milton took the podium, brought down his baton and the orchestra went “bang”. A long-time professional conductor, Nick (pictured above) has built on the tradition of his predecessors and the symphony responds immediately to his instruction.
Nick was appointed in 2001, but like other conductors his life seems to be spent jetting from gig to gig. To list just a few, he served as General Music Director of the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra (2004-2010) and Chief Conductor of the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra (2000-2004). Since 2007 he has also been Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. He also works with orchestras in Europe and Asia and in 2013 he was Assistant Conductor to Mariss Jansons on an extensive European and United States tour with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
After the final rehearsal I persuaded some of the Symphony to stay behind for some formal portraits. Graham Nichols (French horn) has been with the WSO since 1988 and used to play full-time with the NSW Police Band, but now freelances in Australia and overseas.
David Saffir (on the right) used to help me out by allowing his kids to help deliver a magazine I produced in Newtown in the 1990s. More importantly, he’s currently head of strings at Barker College. The confident looking fellow next to him is Justin Leong, who is currently studying for a Masters in Sound & Acoustics after completing a Bachelor of Music at Sydney Conservatorium. Originally from Western Australian he says the WSO helped him find a musical identity in Sydney.
And last, there is Isabella Brown and Daniel Dean. Isabella ditched the violin in primary school for the double bass as “it made a much better sound quickly” and is currently doing a Bachelor of Performance with Alex Henery, Principal Bass Player with the SSO.
Daniel is currently Concert Operations Support Officer at the Sydney Conservatorium and finished a Bachelor of Performance in 2012, and plans to join the Australian Youth Orchestra for a European tour in August.
The existence of the Willoughby Symphony is obviously a valuable contribution to Sydney's musical culture and the development of professional musicians. It's also cool that something of this quality is available in the suburbs. Check out their upcoming performances here.
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