The current situation

The concern is that the major orchestras and opera companies program very few Australian works. There are various reasons for concern and they will be given below. To begin, Tables 1 and 2 show statistics on the programming of works for 2014, for major orchestras and opera companies, respectively.

The total number of works to be performed is shown, followed by by the number of performances. 3 works each performed 4 times = 12 performances.

The same is shown for works by Australian composers. The number is very small, as is the number of composers represented. With the exception of one work by Grainger, all works here are by living composers.

Numbers of “contemporary” works by foreign composers are shown, and the numbers of performances given. The works have been composed in 1950 or later, to provide a rough counterpart to the period from which the Australian works are drawn. Some are from the late romantic tradition e.g. a few by Shostakovich. Glass, Adams, Pärt are well represented.

The companies either mostly are not commissioning works or not mentioning their commissioning activity. It is possible that there is a little more commissioning happening than is shown in the chart.

The TSO is the only company that appears to have a deliberate policy for releasing recordings of Australian works; it has 20 discs in such a series. It is said that the recording program is intended to compensate for the limited opportunities for live performance in Tasmania. MSO has issued 5 discs of Australian works. Such activity in the other companies appears to be negligible. We set out to show the recording activity in 2013 but generally, we could discover only the lists of all recordings available.

The presentation of Australian works by orchestras is minimal. Among the opera companies the situation is dire; there is only one that will present an Australian work in 2014, the Victorian Opera. It may be that it has commissioned this work. The situation is a little better for foreign contemporary works, with both OQ and SOSA presenting productions — and in fact, 3 of SOSA’s 5 works are contemporary: all by Philip Glass, to be presented in repertory. Opera Australia does nothing at all.

Among the orchestras, it is the Adelaide Symphony that is performing the largest number of Australian works, by far, though most of these are found in a contemporary music festival at the beginning of the year.

It might be noted that in the programs of these 8 orchestras and 5 opera companies, only one presents a mainstage performance of a work by a deceased Australian composer. It seems that we value our heritage even less than our present.

The percentage of Australian works among the whole number in an orchestra’s program is lowest for QSO. For the others it is generally around 3%. For ASO, it is 13% with the additional works found in that contemporary music festival. Performances of Australian works as a percentage of performances of all works range from 2% to 9%.

Contemporary foreign works are well represented in the programs of some orchestras — e.g. MSO, 24%; ACO, 19%; ASO, 16%; but TSO, 4%. Performances of this category of works as a proportion of performances of all works: eg MSO 37%; ACO 21%; but TSO 4%.
For State Opera of SA, contemporary foreign works are 60% of the whole (i.e. 3 out of 5), and 53% of performances. It also has a commissioning program. See below.

It is acknowledged that the statistical information in the chart is descriptive in only the broadest terms. It does not tell us the relative durations of the Australian or contemporary works nor whether with regard to audience response they are safe or risk-taking. We have not shown the names of composers. We do not know the particular issues around presentation of contemporary works to the audiences of any of these companies.

Here is some more detail about the programs of each of the companies.


ASO. 13 of the contemporary works are performed at the Techtonics event, a sort of two day festival. There does not appear to be a recording program. Though it is not especially relevant to the issue of Australian content on the main stage, it might be noted that ASO has an extensive education program, targeted at schools, families, tertiary students, adults. It includes performances, workshops, open rehearsals, traineeships and a Live Music Pass for Elder Conservatorium performance students — $40 for entry to many concerts throughout the year. The presence of Australian or contemporary works in the education program is not known. Although such performances are in a way of second-rung status, they go to a possibly more open-minded audience and one which represents the future viability of the orchestras.

ABO. ABO presents 6 programs in Sydney and all except one are also presented in Melbourne. The works are listed in the brochure for 4 of these programs and those are shown on the chart; the works for the other two are not listed. Since this is a Baroque orchestra, we would not expect to find work by an Australian composer but there is one, by Kats-Chernin. ABO has released 16 CDs but they appear not to include Australian works. The website shows no education program.

ACO. The figures in the table do not include works from the Timeline program because program information is lacking. (There are 12 performances of that program.) The programs for two foreign tours are not included; they appear to include no Australian works. The program for the Vasse Felix festival performances 2014 is not available; in order to give a sense of the total activity, the 2013 program is used instead, on an assumption that the makeup for the 2014 event will be similar. Performances by ACO2, an orchestra of emerging artists which has responsibility for regional touring and education, have been included. ACO has an extensive education program for career-bound students, primary schools, school teachers, a very innovative online immersive experience called ACO Virtual, a composition competition and more. The website lists 6 recordings. One, the DVD Reef, includes composition by Australian Iain Grandage but no detailed information is offered.

MSO. The figures do not include pops, film, jazz concerts because the number and origin of works are not provided. They also do not include 6 chamber ensemble concerts because orchestral resources are not used; however, it might be noted that only in one of these are there Australian or contemporary works even though the problem of attracting the large orchestral audience is absent. There is a poor showing of Australian works but quite a good showing of contemporary foreign works. However, most performances in those categories tail off after the middle of the year. Is this strategic or accidental? Among all the companies, MSO has the only performance of a work by Grainger or any of the earlier Australian composers.

There is a developmental program for four young composers, resulting in performances at the end of the year and in the Metropolis Festival in 2015. MSO offers schools concerts, teaching kits, play-along events, an ensemble of 25 children plus 4 MSO musicians, creative workshops, an el sistema program in Meadows Primary School, an array of programs for young performers, composers and conductors. There are demonstration concerts to give audiences greater understanding of the music. There are resource packages written by the composers of three commissioned works. The MSO website does not show a list of recordings. The ABC shop shows a catalogue of 19 discs of which 5 are devoted to Australian composers.

OV. Orchestra Victoria in mainly a pit orchestra but it has a small concert program and an education program. Its program prerogatives would lie only in the latter. The concert program is named Mostly Mozart; enough said. There is no entry on the chart because the program is very small and appears to be marginal to the activity of the orchestra.

QSO. The figures are for the regular orchestral concerts. There is a chamber ensemble series of five concerts, 15 works, of which 5 are contemporary (post-1950) works by non-Australian composers. QSO commissioned two works, one by an Australian composer. 9 CDs are listed, of which one is of Australian works, now some years old. The brochure shows no touring schedule except for one educational tour to Gladstone. There is an education program for schools at all levels and also for community. There is one performer competition for a secondary school instrumentalist. These activities are not as numerous or developed as for some other orchestras.

SSO. The figures do not include concerts of jazz, pop, music for games, film music because the number and origin of works is not provided. Figures also do not include a recital series of the visiting piano soloists which presented 17 works, of which none were Australian or foreign contemporary works. So far as we can see, no works were commissioned. The Australian works were by Brett Dean (2x), Vine, Paul Stanhope and Westlake/Lior. The site advertises 19 CDs of which only one presents the work of an Australian composer — the Westlake/Lior partnership.

There is an extensive education and community program. Schools concerts are offered in various locations and there are accompanying resource materials, teacher kits and teacher workshops; in the future they will include online presentations. The Sydney Symphony Sinfonia, a high level training orchestra, presents some of the education program performances. It is part of the offering for career-bound young people, which also includes full-time orchestral fellowships. A Sinfonia tour to three western centres includes works by Hindson and Grainger in the program.

TSO. The figures in the table cover almost all activities. They do not include the ANAM Concerto Competition two Symphony under the Stars concerts for which no programs are given, and a sing-along Messiah. TSO has put out 20 discs in the Australian Composers Series. This commendable commitment to Australian works does not extend to the live performance program. TSO has an extensive education program, reaching students of all ages. There is schools touring, open rehearsals, a performer competition, a composition competition, and $35 annual pass for students.

WASO. The figures do not include a number of performances for which programmed works are not named – e.g. Wesfarmers Community Concert, Symphony in the City, Pixar, a film music concert, a pops concert, a kids’ concert, a participatory concert. WASO supports WA Opera and WA Ballet in the pit. There appear to be three additional programs performed for secondary students. One of these includes the premiere performance of a work by Australian composer James Ledger, somewhat out of sight in this education setting. There is an array of education and community offerings, composition and performing projects for emerging artists, master classes, an assistant conductorship. There are premieres of two works by composers with an association with Perth – Carl Vine and James Ledger. Possibly these were WASO commissions but the program does not make this claim.

Opera Companies

OA. 14 of 16 works are operas, 199 of 384 performances; the other two works and 185 performances are of musicals. Also a small company gives 3 opera performances in Canberra. There are no less than 171 performances of The King and I — presumably a profit-making venture. The program includes no contemporary or Australian operas. Community choirs are organised in Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast. 11 concerts (vs. stage productions) are not included above. ABC Shops lists 46 OA recordings; none are of Australian works.

OQ. Includes creation of a “new” work, Abandon, using music of Handel, and a touring primary school production with music based on Donizetti (# performances not included above). The contemporary foreign work is by Glass. OperaQ Studio supports innovation and was responsible for the creation of Abandon. The ‘Open State’ project will mount participatory workshops for schools, communities and the corporate world. ‘Project Puccini’ will be a community access production, yet to be described.

SOSA. The three contemporary non-Australian works are by Glass: Akhtanen, Einstein on the Beach, and Sathagraha. The Glass works will be performed in repertory. It has been announced that SOSA has commissioned three works and is giving them extended and thorough workshopping before they reach the main stage over the next three years. It is the only one of these opera companies to announce such a program. There is at this time no information on the website.

VO. Includes 8 performances of a Sondheim musical, 8 performances of a new Australian work by Grandage/Croggan (commissioned by VO? – it doesn’t say) based on a Tim Winton novel, Master’s student performance of Hansel and Gretel, and a concert performance of Norma. There is an extensive education program, a youth chorus, and a youth opera group.

WASO. There are no contemporary works. The main programs is comprised of 15 staged performances of three mainstream repertoire operas and a free park performance of Tosca, streamed to 9 regional centres. Otello is a co-production with the other state opera companies, Opera New Zealand and the Cape Town Opera. The program includes three large choral concerts with the opera chours. There is an education program with incursions and excursions and tours to Albany and Kalgoorlie.


Richard Letts. The Music Trust, 5.1.2014. Entered on Knowledge Base 28 February 2014.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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