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Socially distanced strings: USyd’s silenced musicians

On the financial restraints limiting the scale and enjoyment of classical music.

For the musicians at the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra (SUSO), it has been a particularly rocky year. With the campus closure in March, they were forced to cancel two planned concerts and discontinue rehearsals as there were no spaces to practice.

“It’s been a really sad time,” says Felicity Macourt, principal violist at SUSO. “A lot of us have been playing in ensembles since we were five years old. To have been silenced over the past six months has been devastating.” 

But recently, things have begun to turn around for the student orchestra. Last month, SUSO was able to put together Socially Distanced Strings, a concert which showcased string players performing chamber music in front of a more intimate audience.

“While I miss playing with a full orchestra in a concert hall, it still felt so amazing to be back,” Macourt says.

Even though SUSO has managed to stay afloat this year, student orchestras and classical musicians in general face enormous challenges with funding and support.

Aside from ticket sales, SUSO’s funding comes primarily from the University of Sydney Union (USU). Due to the pandemic, they weren’t even allowed to apply for funding since the USU was not supporting in-person events.

“I can understand what happened this year, but even in a normal year, it’s already really hard for us to scrape by,” says Belinda Zhang, SUSO President and flutist. 

Many people don’t realise that running an orchestra is expensive. There are significant costs involved with venue hire and payment of fair wages to conductors. Currently, the fee for SUSO’s home venue, the University’s Great Hall, is $6,490 a day.

In addition, they have to pay a hefty rental fee if they want to perform copyrighted pieces  — which essentially includes all compositions from the 20th century onwards. 

While SUSO’s concert this year was made possible due to the society being given free access to spaces in St Andrews College, limited funding has meant that they often run with narrow margins and have to charge fairly high prices for ticket sales. This of course tends to shut out some audiences.

“At the very least, the University or USU should subsidise us for the use of our home venue. It’s absurd that we’re students paying money to use our own university facilities,” Zhang says.

SUSO’s funding shortages are reflective of wide austerity measures and lack of support for classical music more broadly. 

In August, Opera Australia — Australia’s largest performing arts company — sacked around a quarter of its orchestra in order to recover from financial difficulties precipitated by COVID-19. 

Their corporate structure has meant that instead of reducing Director salaries or management positions, they are cutting musicians who not only have very specific and valuable skills, but are the lifeblood of what they do.

Paul Davies, director of MEAA Musicians, told the Sydney Morning Herald that this was part of a broader move to casualise the arts, which destroys artistics standards with no significant reduction in labour costs.

Further, while the Coalition government announced a $250 million package in June to support the arts and entertainment industry, this follows years of cuts that have resulted in countless redundancies. Additionally, government cuts to tertiary education are likely to impact the amount of funding received by student orchestras such as SUSO.

“It’s indicative of a sign that people aren’t valuing classical music for what it should be,” Macourt says. “But classical music constitutes so much to Australian culture. It is a really important way of bringing together communities, as well as understanding what our identity is as a nation.” 

She points to how modern Australian classical music has at times been a space to recognise Indigenous artists, with pieces like Concerto for Didgeridoo finding ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledge.

It’s important that we are fighting back against austerity measures in the arts as well as the casualisation of the industry. 

Zhang says that robust performing arts programs within schools and universities are especially important in allowing low-SES students to break into areas like classical music.

And on an individual level, we should attend more concerts, particularly by amateur and student musicians. When we hire a musician to play a gig, we need to ensure that they are being paid at least minimum wage, recognising the sheer amount of work that goes into a performance. 

These acts will go a long way to support an industry where stable employment is hard to find.

While the future of SUSO remains uncertain, one thing for sure is that their community is stronger and more alive than ever. “This year has been hard,” Macourt says. “But we will come back roaring with really big pieces.” 

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