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Features/Music

A decade of making their own rules

27 May 2021

Perth Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and Ara Jansen takes a look at how this fearless ensemble have changed the landscape of classical music in Western Australia.

When you look at them on paper, Bourby Webster’s skills don’t appear to have a common thread tying them together. But since founding Perth Symphony Orchestra 10 years ago each seemingly random job or experience has contributed a vital strand to the success of the ensemble.

Those threads include working for an accounting and engineering firm, being a champion rowing cox, doing an MBA and playing viola professionally.

Bourby Webster is the founder and CEO of Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied

Webster arrived in Perth from the UK in 2002 and after surveying the arts landscape decided that if she wanted to play the viola regularly, she was going to have to create her own orchestra. What started as a bedroom operation and a crash course in MYOB a decade ago now has a board, employs between eight and 15 staff and 15 crew depending on the season, runs a series of creative outreach programs and works with some 260 musicians.

“Most people don’t really know if an orchestra is good or great,” says Webster. “But they understand when they get goosebumps – and you have to have great players to do that. We work ridiculously hard at that.”

A corporate model

What’s interesting about PSO is Webster’s unorthodox approach to running an arts organisation. You’re more likely to see her talking at a business lunch than attending an arts conference. After years in the corporate world, she chose to use that model to run the orchestra. Full orchestra events are augmented by smaller performing groups for hire plus a collection of workshops and masterclasses.

Sunny and enthusiastic, which is both contagious and effortlessly inspiring, Webster sees PSO as a business-to-business arts organisation. While working for a UK accounting firm (another random thread) she helped a local council ensure a community centre was used consistently day and night in order to qualify for funding. Webster decided PSO needed to be run the same way – making the most of every resource and not coming out of performances in the red as a function of playing classical music. While her plans and activities have changed along the way, her big dream remains to have 10 full symphony shows a year across our suburbs.

They’ve also taken on ambitious projects like presenting and co-producing Chess the musical on stage next month featuring Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Rob Mills and Paulini. Then there’s the up-coming screening of Amadeus, the award-winning Milos Foreman movie, which will be live-scored by PSO. 

“We want to make incredible art and make it accessible,” says Webster, who then goes on to explain a new ensemble collaboration between PSO and Chinese musicians over dim sum at Fremantle’s Canton Bay.

“We wanted to get out of the concert hall and into the community and we’ve been really successful in getting to remote locations. We’ve seen massive opportunities to reach different parts of the community in different ways, so we’ve developed different musical experiences for different markets.”

Perth Symphony Orchestra’s debut concert “By the Bay” at the University of Western Australia, November 2011. Photo supplied

That has led to live concerts featuring PSO and music by iconic artists such Prince, Eurythmics, David Bowie, The Doors and Nirvana.

“I don’t know that I ever thought it would become a fulltime job, but I also knew I didn’t want another job,” says Webster. PSO did their first concert in 2011 and within a year, Webster had no time for anything else. 

A word from the musicians

An oboist and pianist, Stephanie Nicholls has been with PSO since the beginning. She’s also a casual with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, a founder of Wind Quintet Plus and has played in rock bands.

For her one of the joys of performing with PSO is the classical repertoire, which isn’t always standard.

“When you consider the breadth of work PSO has presented and been associated with, it’s quite extraordinary,” says Nicholls. “Those different elements make it attractive to a wider audience. One of my favourite performances with PSO was working with Indigenous musicians and dancers in a concert in Fremantle. We were encouraged to get out of our comfort zones and improvise with them. It was pure, blissful music-making. I’d never had that kind of experience before.

“I think of myself as a bit of a rock chick, so I’ve really enjoyed PSO’s re-imaginings of Nirvana and Prince, plus local talent arranged the scores to bring the music to life in a different way.”

Oboist Stephanie Nicholls (second from left) loves the breadth of opportunities PSO offers her as a musician. Photo supplied

Ultimately, Nicholls says she loves the way PSO challenges what is expected of an orchestra.

“It pushes you but the core always remains the orchestra. As there aren’t always the breadth of symphony opportunities that other cities have, I’m grateful for their creative thinking.”

When cellist Sacha McCulloch returned to Perth from the UK, joining PSO allowed her to hit the ground running and start playing almost immediately. With a passion for chamber music, while working overseas, she also fell into playing pop music.

“I love being able to do a huge variety of things – whether it’s touring the Gascoyne, performing with Indigenous musicians or doing a big Beethoven symphony,” says McCulloch. “While my first passion is the traditional work, the other stuff is such fun and I love the variety.”

Breaking down barriers

McCulloch is also in one of the smaller PSO groups called Inneka, a virtuoso electric string quartet playing mash-ups which sound like a cross between Hans Zimmer and Ministry of Sound. 

Sacha McCulloch plays electric cello (second from right) in Inneka. Photo supplied

Channeling Webster’s time as an early member of the classical crossover quartet Bond, these smaller groups not only allow members to play other work they’re passionate about but make classical music more accessible and affordable to a wider variety of WA audiences.

PSO’s other initiatives include Women on the Podium (a program for aspiring female conductors), workshops for school-aged children and developing young talent, masterclasses customised programs and PSO on the Streets which encourages people on the street to enjoy and get involved in classical music. The group has won many plaudits for their championing of women conductors and female arts leadership mentoring.

Everyone agrees that audiences have been consistently surprised at the range and flexibility of this symphony orchestra. Choosing to play in venues other than a concert hall have also added to their appeal and won over many people previously unfamiliar with the classical repertoire.

“People are intrigued when they hear an Aussie classic like “Great Southern Land” performed,” says Nicholls. “We’re getting people to re-think what’s possible with the music they know and love.

“If we can break down barriers between musical style and make everybody feel that music is music, that’s also part of encouraging a more diverse social fabric.”

Webster invited her bank manager to PSO’s recent “Nothing Compares – the music of Prince” concert. Not particularly interested in classical music, the manager figured she would stay a little while and then politely slip away. Instead, she later told Webster it was the best concert she’d ever seen.

“I feel like we’re the link between high art and high entertainment and an accessible way into it,” she says. “If you change people’s perceptions, it makes them feel powerful and brave around other types of art too.”

Changing the landscape of classical music

Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has inspired and been part of the growth of a plethora of new classical groups. On a night at the height of summer this year, Webster says there were seven orchestras performing across our city.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then PSO’s ideas are being complimented all over town as various music and arts groups have blueprinted their ideas for creative shows in unexpected venues, with unusual pairings and diverse repertoire.

“How do you know if you’ve made an impact? So many people seem to copy us – and that’s not only locally, but around Australia. I believe they’re looking at what we do and growing on our ideas. If you do a development workshop and someone else does one, that says you are doing it really well.

“After our Prince concert, someone paid us the greatest compliment by saying that we had changed the cultural landscape of WA.

PSO musicians perform in a suburban shopping centre as part of the On the Streets program. Photo supplied

If PSO has a personality, it’s fortississimo – to play as loudly as possible, to the edge of breaking something. It’s indicated in a score by fff – which for PSO stands for fun, fresh and fearless, an attitude Webster says they take to all their musical decisions.

Ultimately, Nicholls says music is about connecting with people. “Just look at the world now. The only way we are going to get through this is if we band together and build a really good human experience. If music can be that social glue, then that can only be a good thing.”

McCulloch says: “We’re building the audience for the next generation of classical and non-classical music lovers. We don’t need to convert everyone to classical music, but we can show rock fans how fantastic Nirvana sounds with an orchestra behind it.”

 “Chess the Musical” is at Perth Concert Hall from June 3 – 5. PSO are also performing the live score for the musical West Side Story at Crown Theatre from June 29 – July 17.

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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