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Story: Orchestras

Orchestral performances were held in New Zealand from the 1840s, with the first full professional orchestra formed in 1906 for the New Zealand International Exhibition. A national orchestra was established in 1946, and grew to be locally and internationally successful. Other professional orchestras flourished in the main centres.

Story by Peter Walls
Main image: The Southern Sinfonia

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Early orchestras

From the late 1840s philharmonic societies were set up around New Zealand. They presented mixed programmes including orchestral performances. Theatres were built with orchestra pits (a space in front of the stage for musicians), which encouraged the formation of orchestras.

First professional orchestras

In 1906 a professional orchestra was set up for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch. Two decades later, radio orchestras were established in the main centres. They played for radio stations and in public. In 1940 they provided players for a Centennial Orchestra, which raised public hopes for a permanent full-size orchestra.

The National Orchestra

A National Orchestra, based in Wellingon, was founded in 1946, with players from radio orchestras around the country. The National Orchestra had several changes of name, finally becoming known as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) in 1988.

From the start the orchestra toured New Zealand, at first by train, but increasingly, from the late 1950s, by air. The NZSO has also toured internationally, performing in Asia and Europe.

Regional orchestras

After the Second World War, professional regional orchestras were set up.

  • The Auckland Symphonia was formed in 1964, but closed in 1980 after financial problems. Some of the musicians went on to form the Auckland Philharmonia.
  • The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra grew out of the John Ritchie String Orchestra, formed in 1958.
  • The Southern Sinfonia emerged from the local 4YA radio orchestra in 1958.
  • Orchestra Wellington, originally the Wellington Regional Orchestra, was set up in the 1970s.

The future of orchestras

A 1973 report suggested that there should be a national orchestra and quality regional orchestras. In 2011–12 there was a review of the professional orchestra sector, which affirmed the importance of the NZSO as the national orchestra, and gave the Auckland Philharmonia the status of Metropolitan Orchestra.

In 2014 specialist orchestral groups included NZ Barok, which played early instruments, and Stroma, which focused on contemporary music. In South Auckland the Sistema Aotearoa programme taught orchestral music-making to students from low-decile schools.

How to cite this page:

Peter Walls, 'Orchestras', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/orchestras (accessed 24 July 2017)

Story by Peter Walls, published 22 Oct 2014