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Feeding the Changing Audience Appetite

Gale Mahood. Photo: Supplied.
COVID hasn't been kind to anyone - but one of Auckland's cultural cornerstones explains how it motivated them to steer away from safe waters and challenge themselves in 2022.

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Gale Mahood is Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s director of artistic planning. It’s a fancy title for a fancy job, but put simply she’s the person who selects the music the orchestra will play and the international soloists who come here to play it. 

Mahood, an American who’d been working in Germany, landed in New Zealand early last year, eager to begin her new job. She might have timed it better. Two days after arriving, the government closed the borders. A week after that, we were in lockdown.

“If we hadn’t been trying to get here in time for the APO’s Beethoven symphony cycle that had been planned for the Auckland Arts Festival [and which was subsequently cancelled], we wouldn’t have made it,” Mahood says. “Who knows if we would even be here by now?”

That weirdest of times afforded Mahood plenty of thinking time to prepare her first season in charge. 

She’s delivered a year of surprises, with a whole swathe of rare, neglected and ink-wet new works. There are plenty of favourites too, of course, but music fans will search in vain for a Beethoven concerto or a Mahler symphony. 

“I don't see this season as being particularly adventurous,” Mahood says. 

Surprise #1: orchestral adventures

The 2022 season may not be adventurous to Mahood, perhaps, but it will be to most of the APO’s audience and a fair number of its musicians. 

There are more than 30 works on 2022’s programme the APO has never played and a further baker’s dozen that haven’t been performed in the last decade. 

“There will be some titles or composers who won't be household names, but in terms of the music itself, there is nothing that would cause people's ears to bleed,” Mahood says, pointing to music like Tailleferre’s Concertino for Harp and Orchestra by way of example. 

“I just felt it was a way of broadening what we're offering the audience without necessarily giving them a shock to their system.”

Mahood reminds us – if we needed reminding – that all of this is taking place in the context of a pandemic. 

“The Tailleferre is light and frothy and fun and cheerful; that's what our souls really need right now.”

APO Musical Director Giordano Bellincampi in ful flight. Photo: Supplied.

COVID played a further part in Mahood’s bold programming choices, but not in the way you might expect. 

It was through pandemic-enforced repertoire replacements in 2020 that Mahood realised the APO audience might embrace unfamiliar music. She uses her last-minute July 2020 selection of Dvořák’s tuneful but rarely-performed sixth symphony as an example. 

“It’s such a fun piece and I just love it, but it hardly ever comes up in programmes because it gets neglected in favour of the easy sells, symphonies 7, 8, 9. For this concert, though, the tickets were already sold. I think in a way that began [the audience’s] awakening, their sense of adventure. It was only those experiences in 2020 and how the audience coped [with unfamiliar music] that allowed us to do a little bit more dabbling in 2021.”

Surprise #2: the gamble on international artists

Clara-Jumi Kang. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Another surprise is the return of international conductors and soloists. The APO’s 2021 season was notable for its acceptance that visiting musicians were unlikely to be admitted into the country; most soloist slots were filled by Kiwis. In 2022, there are few such allowances.

“One thing we have learnt this year is that there is no such thing as a safe programme or a safe artist,” says Mahood.

“Most of the concerts we lost to lockdowns in 2021 involved local artists. In some cases, we rescheduled local artists multiple times and still lost the concerts. There simply aren’t any guarantees.”

Even so, there are some 2022 concerts that simply can’t go ahead without relaxed borders and the international musicians they would enable. Among them is a concert that particularly excites Mahood, Tall Tales, on 5 May, which has a conductor and two soloists all from overseas. 

That’s the least of it. One of the evening’s works, John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 for orchestra and violin, is only played by one violinist, the work’s dedicatee, Leila Josefowicz.

“I approached [Josefowicz] and asked, Would you come and play it with us?” Mahood recalls. “Unfortunately, because she has a very young family, and doesn't like to spend long periods of time away from them, she declined.” 

Mahood was left looking not just for a top-level violinist with a feel for contemporary music, she had to convince them to learn a new and demanding work. At the suggestion of conductor Gilbert Varga, Mahood contacted Clara-Jumi Kang.

“Thank goodness she accepted. She's such an incredible artist and she's adding this repertoire just for us, which is pretty amazing.”

And still that wasn’t the most difficult thing about the concert. 

Cimbalom virtuoso Jenő Lisztes. Photo: Supplied.

Both Scheherazade.2 and the night’s opening work, the suite from Kodály’s opera Háry János, require a Hungarian percussion instrument called a cimbalom. Turns out there’s no cimbalom in New Zealand. It’s not surprising, therefore, that no one at the APO knows how to play one - requiring the orchestra to import not only the instrument, but cimbalom virtuoso Jenő Lisztes too. 

“Yeah, we could have made it easier on ourselves,” admits Mahood.

Surprise #3: Auckland still has an orchestra

Arguably the most surprising thing about the season is that the APO is presenting it at all. 

It’s been a tough time for everyone but performing arts organisations have felt it more than most. The APO is well-heeled by local standards – through money from central and local government, various arts funders, sponsorships and donations – but it relies on ticket sales to fill the funding gaps. 

In 2018, the APO earned $2.79m from live performances; in 2019 it was $2.6m. Last year, performance income was just over $1.1m.

“Creative New Zealand has been fantastic getting funds out to those in need when they’ve needed it, and there is a real sense of common purpose in that that has definitely been amplified during the pandemic,” says APO chief executive Barbara Glaser. 

She also notes that the APO has taken a wide view of government support. “The whole sector needs to come through this, not just us.”

Barbara Glaser. Photo: Supplied.

Support has also come from what Glaser calls “the incredible generosity” of those who bought tickets. “We’ve had a lot of the money from cancelled concerts donated or held on account for future concerts. And many of our donors have also stepped up to help us. It’s been really gratifying and very humbling to see how much the APO really matters to our communities.”

Mahood is similarly appreciative of concert-goers, and in return she’d like to give them her own gift.

“My dream is to have our audience develop an insatiable appetite for discovering music that they don't already know. That doesn't mean new music; it doesn't have to be fresh ink,” she explains.

“I want them to have that wonderful experience of enjoying concerts where there's something on the programme they don't know, and that's the one that they want to buy tickets to.”

 

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