Professional orchestras

Full-Time Orchestras

In each of the six major state capital cities there is a full-time concert orchestra, established by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In the 1990s, these orchestras were given their operational independence from the ABC; each one gained its own Board of Directors, and the ABC while retaining legal ownership, would no longer take responsibility for an orchestra’s debts. The final phase of divestment from the ABC took place in 2005-06, following which the orchestras became totally independent and locally owned and controlled (changes described under funding issues). The former ABC orchestras are listed below, showing:

  1. name and acronym,
  2. core establishment of full-time players (from player lists on each orchestra’s website in the annual reports for 2013, which may understate their nominal core due to current vacancies and the like), and
  3. principal venue or venues (most orchestras also conduct extensive provincial programs).

These orchestras usually provide some service to the larger regional centres in their respective states. Increasingly, they tour internationally and there is developing emphasis on touring to Asia, especially China, Japan and Korea.

There are two full-time pit orchestras, created to support the performances of the national opera and ballet companies, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet. They are the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO), 58, based at the Sydney Opera House, and Orchestra Victoria (OV) Melbourne, 61, Victorian Arts Centre. The AOBO is owned and operated by Opera Australia. It is almost totally occupied in Sydney, playing for the opera and ballet companies. Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO), 58, based at the Sydney Opera House, and Orchestra Victoria (OV) Melbourne, 61, Victorian Arts Centre.

OV is newly a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian Ballet, which is based in Melbourne. The performances of the national opera and ballet companies in Melbourne are insufficient to fully occupy this orchestra and so it has developed a concert program, importantly including tours to regional centres in Victoria. As a full time orchestra without a natural full time schedule, it has had to face various difficulties including financial difficulties and it may be that there are further changes to be made.

The only other full-time professional orchestra is the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), based in Sydney. It has 15 full time and four part time members. It, along with all the other orchestras, is supplemented with casual players when the repertoire requires it. This orchestra was established in 1975 by its musician members rather than by a government authority. In its early years it had very little subsidy and so depended very much on box office. It could not depend on securing sufficient box office for full-time operation in its home city and so developed a robust touring program which soon included regular overseas tours. This has continued and is part of its identity. It has a national subscription series, and extensive regular tours overseas.

Artistic Policies

Most professional orchestras have a “Director of Artistic Planning” and this person – in association with the Chief Conductor and the management – has much to do with deciding the program. The backbone of most programs is the standard repertoire. There is increasing experimentation with one form or another of popular music, presumably (but not necessarily) motivated by the need to build audiences and box office.

Contemporary classical repertoire has a place in the programs of most orchestras although, since such programs usually attract only small audiences and therefore lose money, there is plenty of caution around. The former ABC orchestras appear to be less committed since they achieved independence and probably also there has been diminishing pressure from the funding authorities to program Australian compositions. It is not uncommon to find a contemporary work in the listing of works for a concert program but for it to be omitted from the promotional text – presumably reflecting a view from the marketing department. This is understandable: it may deter ticket sales. At the same time, if such works are to be programmed, would it not be better if they were supported by an active strategy to win over audiences? 1. There is a small amount of commissioning, usually from among a relatively small number of favoured composers. Recordings of Australian works are not abundant although over a number of years, the TSO has issued a series of CDs of works of Australian composers – a valuable contribution from the smallest symphony orchestra.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, which has to sustain itself on a smaller repertoire than that available to full orchestras, makes a rather unusual contribution to repertoire in the form of orchestral arrangements of chamber works, especially string quartets, by its leader Richard Tognetti. Its record recently in commissioning or performing new works is not strong.

Part Time Professional Orchestras

These orchestras tend to depend upon the initiative of their founders, who are also their principal conductors. Where this is the case, that person is named. While the players are not full time, the managements may be. The situation is very fluid. Some orchestras have a substantial history, others survive for only a few years.

  • ACO Collective is the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s 17-piece string ensemble which delivers the ACO’s regional touring and education programs Australia-wide. ACO Collective (formerly AcO2) combines musicians of the ACO with talented young professional musicians at the outset of their careers; all participated in the ACO’s year-long Emerging Artists’ Program. In 2016, internationally acclaimed Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto takes up the inaugural position as Artistic Director. ACO Collective will open the ACO’s 2016 National Subscription season with an 11-concert tour of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Newcastle, and undertake tours of regional Western Australia and regional New South Wales.
  • Adelaide Art Orchestra was formed in 2001 by Timothy Sexton and Carolyn Lam. It was set up 1) to provide a high quality performing outlet for Adelaide’s freelance professional musicians, and 2) to provide a single orchestral focus to better capture work opportunities. It has performed with visiting Russian ballet companies, film scores, contemporary music festivals, opera, concert work, national broadcasts and corporate engagements. It is in residence for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, performs the Christmas Proms at the Festival Centre, accompanies famous visiting artists. It is entirely self-supporting; administration is mostly voluntary but players are paid. It is formed for purpose from a list of 60 players.
  • Arcko Symphonic Ensemble. Melbourne-based orchestra that lists 21 players on its website. Its primary commitment is to give second or subsequent performances of Australian works. Founded in 2008 and conducted by percussionist Timothy Phillips.
  • Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO). Baroque orchestra with full-time management. The website lists 60 players but the number for any specific program would usually be lower. ABO is based at the City Recital Hall, Sydney. The subscription season in Sydney included 65 concerts in 2014. Founded and led by Paul Dyer.
  • Australian World Orchestra. Brought together every year for performances in Sydney and Melbourne. The members are among Australia’s best and are drawn from orchestras in Australia and internationally. Founded by Alexander Briger. Conducted in 2015 by Sir Simon Rattle with a tour to India conducted by Zubin Mehta.
  • Camerata of St John’s, Brisbane. Core membership of 17 string players. Performs in Brisbane and tours to the regions. Founded by Elizabeth Morgan, led by Brendan Joyce.
  • Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has been the orchestra of the nation’s capital since 1950. In 2015 the CSO will present a subscription series of 7 concerts including 4 Llewellyn programs (each performed twice); an annual Prom concert in the gardens of Government House; an opera gala concert and a light orchestral matinee concert. All indoor concerts are performed in Llewellyn Hall, at the Australian National University. The CSO also presents a series of interactive education concerts for children as well as small ensemble concerts for children with disabilities, people with hearing difficulties, aged care facilities and people with Parkinsons.
  • Melbourne Chamber Orchestra (MCO) was founded and is led by violinist William Hennessy. In 2015 it will give six metro concerts including one by its Australian Octet. It mounts regional tours and has an education program with reduced price tickets, master classes and other.
  • The Metropolitan Orchestra, Sydney. Founded and directed by Sarah-Grace Williams. In 2015, 14 self-presented events including a main series of five concerts. Supported arena concert by John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John and played on a special passenger ship tour. Mostly popular classical repertoire.
  • orchestra seventeen88 is a new orchestra presenting repertoire spanning from the late Rococo to the Romantic era in HIP style (Historically Informed Performance). It will include orchestral as well as large scale chamber and vocal music. It will invite the world’s foremost HIP music directors and conductors as guests. It will have an equal commitment to education. Artistic Director is Richard Gill OAM and his co-founders are violinist Rachael Beesley, clarinetist Nicole van Bruggen and conductor Benjamin Bayl. Its website lists 64 players but forces deployed will vary with the repertoire for each program. It plans to present concerts nationally. For 2015, concerts are in Queensland and NSW.
  • Orchestra of the Antipodes, Sydney, is an occasional baroque orchestra which accompanies the annual performance season of Pinchgut Opera, a professional company. It also appears on recordings issued by the ABC Classics label and was founded by conductor Antony Walker. No website.
  • Royal Melbourne Philharmonic is mainly a choir but also has a professional orchestra which in 2014 presented five programs. It was founded in the 1930s.
  • Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra is formed to perform with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the largest choral organisation in Sydney.
  • Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Choir. The orchestra was established as a community orchestra in partnership with the Northside Choral Society in Chatswood, a suburb in the near north of Sydney. It is managed and supported by the Willoughby City Council, an arrangement unique in Australia. It presents a concert series of seven programs, 13 performances in its home concert hall, the splendid new venue at The Concourse, Chatswood. Chief Conductor is Nicholas Milton.

Casual Orchestras

By “casual orchestras”, we mean professional orchestras put together temporarily to perform in a particular project. Mention is made of casual orchestras because at least in the largest cities, they do appear and can be of quite high standard. They are evidence of a pool of good players outside the employment of the full time orchestras.

  • Australian World Orchestra. While this orchestra is a “casual orchestra”, it is unique and of exceptional quality. The Australian World Orchestra was founded in 2011 by conductor Alexander Briger. It brings together Australian orchestral musicians from around the world and from Australia, probably the majority of them section leaders in leading orchestras, for concerts in Sydney and Melbourne. It comprises over 100 musicians from around 50 countries. The inaugural season was conducted by Simone Young, Brett Dean and Alexander Briger. The 2013 season was conducted by Zubin Mehta. In 2015, there will be two seasons, one in Australia conducted by Simon Rattle, and one in India (Mumbai, Sennai and New Delhi) at the invitation of and conducted by Zubin Mehta. Its quality can be experienced on a recording of the Rite of Spring and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 made in 2013 with Zubin Mehta conducting.
  • Sydney Lyric Orchestra. An orchestra formed to do work on contract; for instance a 70-member orchestra was formed to accompany the Paris Opera Ballet on tour. Let by Adrian Keating, violinist.

“Pro-Am” Orchestras

The Darwin Symphony Orchestra (DSO) is based in the remote capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin. It has a small professional core and about 65 amateur musician members. It stages a concert series in Darwin and tours to remote locations including Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Uluru. There are amateur orchestras that retain professional conductors and possibly some orchestras which, like the Darwin, employ a professional core – for instance, leaders of the string sections.

Perth Symphony Orchestra, based in Perth, WA, was launched in 2011. The Perth Chamber Orchestra was added in 2013. It has performed in the pit for seasons of opera and musicals, backed well known classical and contemporary artists in vineyard concerts and presents programs for school children and young players.

Orchestras that Specialise in New Music

The financial risk of performing new music, and sometimes its difficulty, deters many orchestras from more than a token inclusion in their programs. There is special value, then, in orchestras whose purpose is to bring new music before the public. At present, the list is short but we may hope that it will grow.

Orchestras are included here whether or not their members are paid. It might be noted that to be able to perform much of this repertoire requires players of professional standard whether or not they are remunerated.

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble. Melbourne-based orchestra that lists 21 players on its website. Its primary commitment is to give second or subsequent performances of Australian works. Founded in 2008 and conducted by percussionist Timothy Phillips.

Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta. An 18-member ensemble, It was founded in 2014 by its Artistic Director, composer Michael Bakrnčev. Its “aim is to perform and re-perform new works by Australian composers and arrangements of traditional works from within the orchestral canon”. It plans three concerts in 2015.

Community Orchestras

The Music in Communities Network of what is now Music Australia conducted a survey of community orchestras. It can be read here. Quote: “The survey itself was not able to determine how many orchestras we have in Australia. This is a question ripe for further research, perhaps by canvassing local government cultural officers, for example. Our estimate is that there are between 130-170 community-based orchestras in Australia, but there could be well over 200.”

“In 2010, Anne Cahill estimated that there were 78 community orchestras and 33 community-based youth orchestras in Australia. The Music Council is aware of approximately 79 community orchestras and 53 youth orchestras, although in some cases (particularly youth orchestras) we know that several ensembles operate under a single organisation but have not calculated these additional ensembles as separate orchestras. We began this research with a list of 179 orchestras but in the process approximately 40 of these could not be found online. We cannot be sure how many of the 40 not found have closed and how many are simply not found online; another piece of research suggests that 25% of community music groups have no website, which suggests that some orchestras not found online may still exist. 2

Many community orchestras have websites. The quotations below give a sense of the types of activity and approach adopted by a couple of the more developed orchestras.

Examples of community orchestras (as described by themselves)

  • Heidelberg Orchestras Inc. is a non-profit organisation founded in 1978 to provide children, youth and adults with a forum to develop orchestral skills and performance experience. It consists of three ensembles – the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, Robertson Youth Orchestra and Junior Strings of Banyule. The principal ensemble, the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, is widely recognised as one of Melbourne’s most acclaimed non-professional orchestras enabling it to attract elite musicians who enjoy performing music ranging from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Each year the orchestra presents a series of four concerts with a repertoire ranging from the most demanding symphonies featuring highly acclaimed guest artists to much loved theatre and orchestral classics.
  • Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra. Today the KPO draws on a pool of over one hundred players – professional players, music teachers, capable amateurs and advanced students from throughout the Sydney metropolitan area… The orchestra presents an annual series of symphony concerts, and has also contributed to community life through performances for Local Government, local charities… For more than a decade, the KPO has taken a leading role in presenting Australian or contemporary orchestral repertoire side by side more traditional orchestral works. Three works have been commissioned by the orchestra… Over the years conductor development has been incorporated into its program through conductor workshops or conductor-in-training positions. Educational projects are a vital component of its annual calendar – the Kids’ Proms concerts are now a very popular annual event. Another project that has evolved over the last 22 years is the annual Secondary Schools Concerto Competition.

The engagement of community orchestras with repertoire issues is captured in the survey already cited.

Youth Orchestras

Youth orchestras we define here as community-based rather than school-based. In Australian youth orchestras, youth ends around age 25.

There is a national youth orchestra, the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO), whose members are selected through national auditions. This orchestra manages the National Music Camp held each Australian summer since 1948. It meets, rehearses and performs at that time, and may meet for a week or two at other times during the year. It frequently tours internationally, sometimes to prestigious events such as the London Proms. Each of the major capital cities has a youth orchestra association that manages one or more orchestras. These orchestras meet year-round. The best orchestras in each of these associations are of very high standard. The associations in a number of cases also offer chamber music programs. Apart from the AYO they are:

Since publication of the first version of this paper, some organisations have gone out of existence. We record these changes so that it is clear that entries have not been accidentally omitted.

The SBS Youth Orchestra (SBSYO) was founded in 1988 and was one of only two youth orchestras in the world sponsored by a broadcasting company. It was terminated in 2013.

Youth Orchestras Australia was an association of the major state-based youth orchestras listed above, administered by the Australian Youth Orchestra in Sydney. It no longer exists so at this time there is no association for youth or community orchestras.

There are many other community-based youth orchestras. Unfortunately, there is no longer a list of these orchestras since the demise of the national association for amateur and community orchestras, Orchestras Australia.

School Orchestras

Firstly, some core information about instrumental instruction in schools. In the government schools, attended by 70% of students, instrumental instruction provided with government funding (and not paid for by parents in after-hours programs) is sparse. A Music Trust survey laboriously extracted data from the government systems and found that the percentage of students receiving instrumental instruction varied from 0.9% in NSW to 11% in Queensland, with most states in the range 2.3 to 5.5%. Queensland is the only state with specialist music teachers available in most (87%) primary schools. The others states in which the figure is known are far lower. The reason for the low percentage of students receiving instrumental instruction is cost (and of course, lack of official motivation). If children cannot play instruments, they cannot form orchestras. That is the backdrop against which this entire matter must be considered.

There has been a diversification of school music education. The curriculum in many schools has shifted towards music that the students already like. Classical music tends to be found more in those schools where students come from middle and upper class families for whom classical music is familiar.

Symphony orchestras thus tend to be found in schools catering for affluent communities or sections of society. These schools may belong to any of the three major school sectors in Australia: Government, Independent or Catholic but especially in the independent schools. There are no data known to us that show the actual number or incidence of school orchestras.

The difficulty in forming orchestras in schools, as we understand it, stems especially from the lack of string players. Popular musical culture does not bring the orchestral string family to the attention of children. Unless children discover them through family, school or some other relatively rare circumstance, they are unlikely to have an ambition to play string instruments.

Even if by some means the child has the opportunity to learn a string instrument, the reward of making nice sounds in tune is a long time coming when compared with most other instruments. Someone has to pay for lessons and while these might possibly begin as group lessons, before too long, if progress is to be made, it is probably necessary to have private lessons. So there is also a financial obstacle. In theory, free instruction could be provided in school but in practice, this is rare. There is a stirring of interest in el Sistema programs and a few have begun in the Melbourne area. Long term feasibility and popularity has yet to be discovered.

Generally speaking, successful string players began instruction at a very young age. While there is nothing to prevent a later beginning, it is a handicap to success. See links under Education of Orchestral Players below.

It might be noted that a shortage of beginners on some instruments is developing. In England and Australia there are ‘Endangered Instruments’ programs. It is not the instruments themselves that are endangered so much as the supply of players. The bassoon we might expect — but the trombone?! This is a further impediment to both school and youth orchestras.

Education of Orchestral Players

Pre-tertiary: As described under school orchestras, some state school systems provide or subsidise instrumental training for a small percentage of school children. Otherwise, instrumental instruction comes from private teachers, paid for by the student or parents. These teachers may be self-employed or work from music schools such as the regional conservatoria in NSW. The role of the youth orchestras should also be noted; they instruct as well as perform.

Career-bound training is available from tertiary music institutions, almost all of them public. Traditionally, the conservatoria and university music departments were principally concerned with western classical music. That has changed, with increasing differentiation and some schools based on curricula in various forms of popular music.

Some Music Trust surveys have investigated the basics of the early music education of our orchestral musicians. Generally they have begun formal instruction in their early years and have attended schools that are reputed to have good music education programs. Given the lack of such schools at primary level, we can infer that their talents were recognised early and special steps taken to ensure that they received a good music education.1

All of the orchestras have educational programs to introduce school children to the orchestra. They may also include workshops for classroom teachers, equipping the teachers to offer classroom music instruction at a basic level.

All of the concert orchestras and the ACO have high level pre-professional courses for instrumentalists and in some cases form these instrumentalists into small orchestras or ensembles. A program of long standing, the Symphony Australia/TSO Composers School (formerly the Australian Composers Orchestral School), is funded by Symphony Services International and run in association with the TSO. Half a dozen composers spend a week with the orchestra, workshopping scores written especially for the occasion, and culminating in a public performance of the works. This has been a most valuable opportunity.


Associations and Organisations

Symphony Services International is a service organisation primarily for the professional orchestras. Symphony Orchestra Musicians’ Association (SOMA) is the industrial union for the musicians. It is a section of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union that covers actors, journalists and theatrical workers in Australia. SOMA represents most of Australia’s orchestras now, and functions as a network of delegates from each orchestra who communicate with each other.

Recording and Broadcasting

Related Record Companies

The main outlet for recordings by Australian orchestras is the ABC Classics label, a part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Sydney Symphony has set up its own label. Other Australian labels on which they may appear include Melba Recordings, Move Records and Tall Poppies.

Related Broadcasters

Australian orchestras are broadcast principally on the ABC national classical music radio network, ABC Classic FM, and the community owned counterparts such as Fine Music fm Sydney, 3MBS Melbourne and 4MBS Brisbane. There is now almost no television broadcasting of the orchestras.


Richard Letts. Original article September 2006. Major update entered 8 November 2014, revised 24 April 2015 (new section 2 added). The lists of orchestras are revised on a continuing basis, as soon as they are identified.


  1. See:

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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