Scoop Review of Books

Orchestra Wars

Classical Sparks: the story of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra by Tom Rogers and Simon Tipping
Dunmore Press, 2008. 269 pp. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN

classicalsparks001.jpgClassical Sparks celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO). This is a warts-and-all account, including a difficult and dramatic adolescence. Some periods of the orchestra’s history were so marred with discord that its survival has been doubt several times. It is a Christchurch tradition to passionately fight civic battles in public, and this story is as much about issues of money and power as it is about music. Regional orchestras in Auckland and Wellington developed at about the same time, but without the same difficulties.

Authors Tom Rogers and Simon Tipping have a long association with the orchestra. Tom Rogers was a founder member and lead cellist for many years as well as being able to fill in on the horn. Simon Tipping played the double bass, and has written books on other musical organisations. Together they have researched and written an authoritative history, with insight into the issues and personalities involved.

Starting as the John Ritchie String Orchestra in 1958, there were only eleven players (including Tom Rogers) in its first concert. They got a small payment from whatever funds were available. John Ritchie was the driving force behind the orchestra for its first nine years, and has continued to compose popular works that are part of the CSO repertoire.

The orchestra developed steadily through the 1960s and 70s, with notable conductors Juan Matteucci, Dobbs Franks and Vanco Cavdarski. As the workload increased it was becoming clear that it could not continue as a wholly part-time organisation. 1974 was a key year – the Commonwealth Games were held in Christchurch, the orchestra changed its name to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and the future looked bright as both the QE2 Arts Council and local bodies were starting to talk about providing funding for a small core of dedicated players. Then, suddenly it seemed as if an evil fairy had put a curse on the orchestra that was to persist for more than a decade.

As with so many organisations, there was a battle for control. The funding organisations wanted what they saw as a more professional management structure, which was resisted by musicians and their supporters. The arguments escalated until there were two rival orchestras: the CSO, surviving on a shoestring, and the Canterbury Orchestra, supported by the Arts Council and local bodies. Being close to the action it must have been tempting for the authors to take sides, but they give an objective and well-documented account that explains the background to the controversy.

Between 1976-1978 each orchestra gave its own concerts, and the Christchurch musical community was sharply divided. Audiences plummeted, and it was a matter of time until one or both collapsed. In the end the Canterbury Orchestra wound up. Having survived, the CSO hoped that it would be given funding support, but this was to take many years.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of gradual rebuilding. Audiences grew and the standard of the orchestra improved. But there was never enough money, and the orchestra lurched from one financial crisis to another. In 1995 there was more controversy with a decision to engage a group of Ukrainian musicians. In today’s terms it was a sort of reverse outsourcing, and a chance to gain high quality players who wanted to settle in New Zealand. There was resentment from local musicians as well as several years of bad publicity for the CSO. Finally the Minister of Immigration made it clear that he would be reluctant to grant further work permits.

The final sections of Classical Sparks are upbeat, with chapter headings ‘A great leap forward’, ‘New musical heights’ and ‘Into the future’. Amazingly the CSO had lacked a musical director for many years. The appointment of Marc Taddei in 2001 brought a fresh approach to concert planning and community outreach as well as a confident spokesman for the orchestra. At last things seemed to be coming right for the CSO. Although finance has always been a problem, there is continuing support from local authorities and Creative New Zealand, and a solid base of local sponsorship has been built up. By 2007 the CSO had a core of 37 tenured players – a full chamber orchestra, almost exactly the vision that John Ritchie had 50 years ago.

Classical Sparks ends on a very positive note, but I feel the need for a word of caution as New Zealand seems to be on the edge of tougher economic times. Chapter 6 documents the fall-off in audiences and funding after the 1987 sharemarket crash, and the same thing may happen again. But this book shows that the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra is an experienced survivor.


Simon Nathan is a Wellington writer and reviewer. He’s the editor of the forthcoming The Amazing World of James Hector.


  1. David Chaulk, 17. February 2009, 14:44

    Things were ‘coming right’ until short-sighted management and a core of even more short-sighted players (NOT the Ukranians, I might add) lost the best musical director they’ll ever have.

  2. Steve Meikle, 17. February 2009, 20:54

    One inaccuracy, from an former member. The CHCH
    Orchestra was known as the Christchurch CIVIC Orchestra for a long time. I cant remember when it became the CHCH Symphony Orchestra but there was never a time in my memory (I took up bass in 1972, first played for them as a casual on Sept 14 1974 – my 16th the birthday and joined them in March 1977) when I knew it as the Ritchie String ORchestra.