From budding violin player to executive director, Ben Burgess has had a long association with the West Australian Youth Orchestra. Burgess chatted to Rosalind Appleby about a new commission and other innovations that are providing WAYO’s 400 young musicians with opportunities to reach for the stars.
Seesaw: You’ve dedicated 14 years of your working life to this organisation. What is the appeal of working with the Western Australian Youth Orchestra?
Ben Burgess: The main appeal is giving young people fantastic performance opportunities and seeing young people grow and improve through all our groups, over many years. We also have many individuals and organisations that support what we do which is always encouraging. Because it is a small team at WAYO you can really see the results of your hard work be it in concerts, sponsorship or funding.
S: WAYO has been around since 1974. Has the role of the organisation changed much over the years to attract new generations of audiences and musicians?
BB: WAYO’s core values have never changed but we have been able to introduce new programs such as the International Conductor Season and collaborations that add a new element to being in a youth orchestra program. We also invest time and resources in creating and promoting programs and concert that interest the concert-going public as well as our members.
S: Recently I’ve noticed a new focus on Australian composers, particularly women, with the commissioning of Melody Eotvos and the performance of a piece by Dulcie Holland this year. What has prompted this?
BB: WAYO’s last four commissions have been from Australian female composers which we have premiered on main stage concerts plus a work we toured internationally, and all our groups regularly perform Australian music. Recently and justifiably there has been some focus on bringing gender equality into programming but it’s something WAYO and the small-to-medium sector have been doing for many years, but possibly not everyone has realised.
S: On July 13 WAYO’s flagship ensemble will perform Eotvos’ Solar Wolvz. Can you give us any clues as to what the piece is about?
Solar Wolvz is based on a very peculiar chain of ideas, all related to meteors, comets and any unpredictable objects in space. Inspired by the ghostly Spider Crater in the Kimberley region, the icy Oort Cloud that surrounds our solar system, and Ouamama (the only known interstellar object that has passed through our solar system), Solar Wolvz is a musical journey through time and space filled with brilliant orchestral colour.
S: The concert will be conducted by Benjamin Northey, Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and Associate Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Why is it important to secure high profile conductors like Benjamin Northey to work with the orchestra?
BB: Many years ago, the idea of getting an international conductor straight off the professional circuit to spend a week with WAYO was a pipe dream. Now we have had 13 years of having conductors from all over the world come to Perth for a week. This program has meant the orchestra spend an intense week like a professional orchestra does instead of rehearsing once a week over a few months. It provides WAYO members with a glimpse of the professional world but in a supportive and exciting environment. One of the really nice things of the program is the enthusiasm the conductors themselves show in embracing the orchestra and working together for a week.
S: I still remember the thrilling feeling the first time I played in an orchestra. Did you participate in WAYO when you were studying oboe? What was it like? Was it a good stepping stone to a career in music?
BB: I was lucky enough to do WAYO both as a young violinist and later as an oboe player and spent upwards of 10 years as a member. It was a terrific experience musically and socially and it was a big and vital help when I later performed professionally in orchestras around Australia, and even later when I transitioned to arts management.
S: What is your favourite orchestral work?
BB: Anything by Richard Strauss, so likely Don Juan.
S: Under your directorship WAYO has experienced significant growth in audience and sponsorship partnerships, as well as international tours. What is your secret to success?
BB: WAYO has a lot of great people and organisations that believe in what we do and contribute in all sorts of ways. We honour the long tradition and history of what WAYO has done, but also look to continually improve it and be ambitious with new things that a youth orchestra typically isn’t known for. For example our collaborations with Orchestra of the Makers (Singapore), the Perth Festival and delivering special events for our major sponsors.
S: Where is the organisation heading next?
BB: In addition to our standard big concert seasons and our world famous Babies Proms, we are looking at more unique events and collaborations within the Western Australian community and an international tour in a few years.
Pictured top: the West Australian Youth Orchestra performing with conductor Peter Moore. Photo: Andrew J Clarke Photography.