Harmonia Australis Heralds A New Orchestral Model

The veils have just come off Australia’s newest orchestra in a series of successful all-Mozart concerts in Perth, Fremantle and Bunbury. Harmonia Australis is its name and it is the creation of violinist Jennifer Banks, its founder and concertmaster. Principally serving as a platform for younger players looking to develop their careers, it is based on interesting ideas that set it well apart from the usual larger symphony orchestras or community orchestras.

With initially 33 players, Harmonia Australis includes winds and brass as well as string players to keep its repertoire as wide as possible, but because it is a chamber orchestra in size it has the flexibility to perform in smaller venues that serve suburban and regional communities where live orchestral concerts may otherwise not be possible. The locations for its debut concerts in August were St Joseph’s in the Perth suburb of Subiaco, Fremantle’s St Patrick’s Basilica, and Bunbury’s St Boniface Cathedral; and the plan is to continue playing in small-to-medium sized venues such as these around Perth and wider WA.

“While recognising WASO’s touring program, we want to do a lot of regional work that combines educational experience for the players and collaboration with community,” Banks says, citing Albany as a particular location where the orchestra wants to build up connections.

Another distinctive aspect about Harmonia Australis is that it is both an orchestra and chorale. Twenty singers took part in its inaugural concerts, which included Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s ‘Halleluiah’ Chorus. Next, in November, they give a concert performance of Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, and two weeks before Christmas they perform Handel’s Messiah. See the orchestra’s site for details, additional events and profiles of the players – one is Jocelyn Cullingford, who came in as associate concertmaster when Nami Ogishima, another original founder, had to step out.

But perhaps the biggest difference about Harmonia Australis is the way that it operates. It is collegial in all its decisions.

“The main ethos is that we are run by members for members,” says Banks. “We’ve had players so far come up with ideas, saying they would love to do a string concert or a brass concert, or saying they’d love to play this or that. Then ideas go to a committee to see if it’s viable.”

“On top of that is nurturing the next generation of players, breaking down the barrier between audience and orchestra by choosing venues that make audiences feel they are more involved, and regional work that bring educational experiences and collaboration with community together.”

Being player-led makes Harmonia Australis particularly flexible. It does away with fixed positions such as one typically finds in a symphony orchestra, and that includes the conductor position. Ian Westrip, whose background is in singing, conducted the three Mozart concerts just gone, but Banks points out that future concerts will see not only different conductors come in but the players themselves will change positions. This is to extend everybody’s experiences and facilitate mentoring relationships, she says.

“Positions quite often are rotated. So a musician who is learning can be sitting next to a musician with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Our orchestra is about learning. We’ve got some brilliant young musicians who otherwise don’t get the opportunity to play professionally or develop their ideas.”

“The concertmaster position and other positions will change for each concert as well. The first and second violins will swap around for instance. What I learned when playing in the second violins in WAYO is how pivotal they are – that they are not just playing the pretty tunes. The way to run an orchestra doesn’t have to stay the way it has for hundreds of years.”

Harmonia Australis operates on a seasonal basis, convening for rehearsals for specific sets of performances. But while it does not function continuously, it is nonetheless professional. “We aim to sit just below WASO both in standard and in the way it runs,” says Banks.

So Harmonia Australis fills a niche very much of its own within an orchestral sector in WA that – along with WASO, Perth Symphony Orchestra (founded 2011), and Fremantle Chamber Orchestra (2005) and amateur orchestras such as the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (1977) – is now healthily served. It is still early days for this new entity, though. Rehearsals so far have taken place at Stage Door School of Performing Arts in Subiaco, courtesy of Westrip, who is that school’s owner and director, and they have even used the homes of the players for extra rehearsals. Banks confidently thinks a more permanent home for the orchestra will come in time.

It is exciting times for this young orchestra, and their forward-thinking ideas just might catch on elsewhere.

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