23 May 2019

Canberra a capital stage for nation's young artists, says symphony orchestra's new CEO

| Ian Bushnell
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New CEO of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Rachel Thomas will continue flying the flag for Australian music. Photos: CSO.

More than a decade after joining the Canberra Symphony Orchestra organisation, Rachel Thomas will now be calling the tune as its new Chief Executive Officer, and wants young Australian musicians to know that the capital is a place they can shine in the spotlight.

Calling herself a ‘lapsed cellist’, Ms Thomas is passionate about music and the CSO’s role in the Canberra community.

Her appointment comes at a time when the CSO has had to respond to significant challenges on the recruitment and funding front, with the ANU School of Music not providing as many home-grown musicians as it once did and the orchestra continuing to be on the edges of the main arts game when it comes to Federal money.

High on her to-do list is consolidating initiatives to attract young emerging musicians to Canberra, particularly through the successful Kingsland Resident Artists program launched last year which has begun the search for its 2020 participants.

The School of Music, despite its altered focus, remains an important partner for the orchestra and Ms Thomas will be working closely with its new head Associate Professor Kim Cunio to provide the right environment for young musicians.

“I’m looking forward to working really closely with the School of Music in terms of what we can start putting in place now,” she said.

“Some will see results in a short term, but some of the things we’ll be working on are more long term-projects, providing pathways and making Canberra an attractive place for promising musicians to look into and decide to live in Canberra.”

Ms Thomas said the CSO had a symbiotic relationship with other music institutions in the ACT and was embedded in the community, calling this a unique ecosystem in which young musicians could grow.

“Having a vibrant city that is seen to be supporting these young musicians, and providing a place for them to be is really important, and that starts with the educational institutions, supporting them through excellent teachers, and that learning environment,” she said.

Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Nicholas Milton: passionate about Australian music and musicians.

That meant performing opportunities through groups and ensembles, with CSO members taking on a mentoring role.

“The CSO is a very unique organisation,” Ms Thomas said. “One thing that always amazes me is that the musicians on our stage live and work away from the orchestra, so the orchestra is just one of many things that they do within the community. That in itself breeds a very unique atmosphere to work in when the orchestra does come together.”

Ms Thomas said the CSO would continue to grow its outreach programs such as its Music in My School program which involved 4000 students last year as a pilot and was on course to double that figure this year.

But this program is supported by a corporate (Ginninderry) and private donors and while the CSO would love to do more, its limited funding meant it had to keep its focus on maintaining the quality of its music.

It remains grateful for the corporate support from Shell for the Proms event at Government House and Singapore Airlines for the popular Australian Series concept at the National Portrait Gallery.

The CSO’s well-documented funding issues stem partly from receiving a fraction of the Federal funding available to other state orchestras such as the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Ms Thomas will be arguing for better treatment, particularly with the Major Performing Arts review under way.

“The CSO doesn’t sit within the MPA framework. We’re hoping the review will give us the ability to restate our case, and put forward the unique things that we do,” Ms Thomas said.

A big part of that case will be the CSO’s cultivated point of difference that is integral to its strategic vision – the focus on Australian music.

Ms Thomas said this focus was second to none in the country and owed much to Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Dr Nicholas Milton’s passion for Australian music and putting the nation’s talent on the Canberra stage.

She said the CSO’s focus on Australian music was second to none in the country, through the Australian Series, ensemble performances and the orchestra’s main concerts at Llewellyn Hall.

In 2018 the CSO organisation staged performances of 31 Australian works, including eight new commissions.

“We believe we are the nation’s capital, we’re the logical stewards and keepers of that music,” she said.

CSO chair Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston said Ms Thomas was appointed after an extensive recruitment process. “She has had a long career with the orchestra and has demonstrated strength and capacity in leadership roles,” he said.

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