Meredith Clisby August 20, 2012
The Canberra Symphony Orchestra entertains thousands of people each year. Photo: Supplied
When Barbara Gilby first debuted for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at the age of 14 she would never have predicted she would one day lead the very group that first inspired her to a career in music.
Since being the first violin graduate of the Canberra School of Music in 1975 Gilby has plied her trade in the US and Europe, and was the concertmaster for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for 15 years.
At the turn of the century she returned to Canberra to take up a teaching position at the School and once again helped fill concert halls with music as part of the city’s orchestra.
She has held the role of concertmaster with the Canberra Symphony since 2009.
Gilby said there was a “nice, full circle feel” to rejoining the orchestra and returning to teach at the School of Music where she studied violin in the ‘70s.
“Having the experience of playing in the symphony with mostly adults at a relatively young age meant that from that point on I was quite hooked on the idea of playing ensembles,” she said.
“And as I then studied further and practiced and so on I became aware that as a musician you can be an allrounder.”
She says things have certainly changed since she first played in what was then a community music group.
While the CSO has evolved into the largest professional arts organisation in the ACT, is it still not a full-time job for the performers, and the musicians join other ensembles, teach, or pursue alternate careers.
Gilby says the players are not contractually employed by the organisation, but for the actual rehearsals and performances, so if someone doesn’t want to play in a particular concert they are not compelled to.
She says this creates a real sense of occasion when the musicians join together for a rehearsal or concert – “the people who are there really want to be there”.
“What makes the Canberra Symphony special is there are a lot of people who play in it who not only derive a huge amount of pleasure from playing in it and entertaining audiences, but passionately believe that Canberra needs a high level cultural asset,” Gilby said.
And she says the orchestra has transformed in the past few years to secure its artistic reputation in Australia.
“You kind of ask yourself at what point can we really say we have a really high level of musical achievement – I think now is it,” Gilby said.
“I think in 2012 you can say the best performances by the Canberra Symphony are very good and, dare I say it, would be well received in any of the other capital cities of Australia.”
This is in no small part due to the work of renowned musician and conductor Nicholas Milton who joined the orchestra in 2007 as its chief conductor and artistic director.
The CSO has seen a marked increase in box office returns since this time.
Milton says the Canberra Symphony is riding a wave of success that has evolved through the word-of-mouth from enthusiastic audiences who attend the concerts, and is not the result of a big advertising budget.
“Music has a quite miraculous power, and all of us at the CSO have witnessed the wonder of emotionally charged performances which have impacted our audiences,” he said.
Milton says the passion for the product is what sets the orchestra apart from the “comfortably funded” network orchestras in other capital cities.
“Those orchestras receive upwards of $8 million per year in government funding … on the other hand if we don’t make each concert a blockbuster hit our very existence and sustainability is threatened,” he said.
“We have no choice but to be successful, and therefore we are doing just that.”
Milton says despite the box-office success, the exciting part is that the CSO has only just begun to tap into the incredible potential of what the orchestra could be.
The CSO is gearing up for a big 2013 as the musicians take part in the celebrations for Canberra’s centenary.
And while Gilby says the CSO will play a major role in the musical aspect of the birthday, in some ways it will be business as usual for the players.
“The CSO I guarantee will be a big part of it and in a way … we can’t say we’re going to put a really special effort into next year because we put a really special effort into everything we do,” she said.
The majestic Llewellyn Hall has been the heartbeat of the Canberra classical music scene for decades. Across the years orchestral melodies have filled the building, dancers have tapped along the stage and country singers have wooed swaying concert-goers.
It regularly hosts the performances of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Youth Orchestra, and other national and international touring acts. And the students and staff of the Australian National University School of Music regularly perform on the hallowed stage.
The hall is named after Ernest Llewellyn, who was the director of the newly-formed Canberra School of Music in 1965.
Llewellyn was the former concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and became the conductor of the Canberra Symphony.
The hall was named in his honour when he retired in 1980.
The building was severely damaged in 2007 after a severe storm dumped large hailstones over the
ANU and city centre.
However the hall was restored to full glory and since then has continued to provide musical inspiration to Canberrans and visitors alike.