In 1937 the head of the National Broadcasting Service (NBS), James Shelley, first mooted the establishment of a National Broadcasting Service Orchestra. A more detailed proposal of 1945 suggested a permanent full-time ensemble of 25 players in Wellington – smaller permanent groups in the other main centres were then to combine with the NBS String Orchestra to form a 65-member symphony orchestra.
A declaration of peace
At the first rehearsal of the National Orchestra, in 1946, James Shelley colourfully described the venture to Prime Minister Peter Fraser as a ‘peace offensive’.1
This idea came to fruition in October 1946 with the formation of the National Orchestra. Various radio orchestras provided a core of players who, at the end of several weeks’ rehearsal, returned to their home cities, reassembling in Wellington a month before the inaugural concert in Wellington on 6 March 1947. However, it was soon realised that it was unrealistic to expect musicians to maintain a household and a second professional existence in another city, and membership of the National Orchestra came to require residence in Wellington.
Controversially, Anderson Tyrer was appointed principal conductor. J. C. Beaglehole (not a Tyrer admirer) caused a scandal by publishing a negative review of the first concert in the Listener. Tyrer was succeeded by Michael Bowles (1950–53), then by New Zealand-born Warwick Braithwaite (1953–54), James Robertson (1954–57) and John Hopkins (1957–63). Hopkins was just 29 years old when he left his position as associate conductor for the British BBC Northern Orchestra to take up the role. The Hopkins years were a coming of age for the orchestra, and it began championing music by New Zealand composers.
Name and governance changes
The National Orchestra became the NZBC Symphony Orchestra in 1963 and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) in 1988. From then, it began operating as an independent Crown-owned company. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Act 2004 established the orchestra as an autonomous Crown entity.
The National Orchestra was the parent of some smaller ensembles. The Concert Orchestra, intended to support opera and ballet, was disbanded in 1964 after only two years. In late 1961 John Hopkins established an orchestral training scheme, which became a small string orchestra, the Schola Musica, directed by Ashley Heenan. The Schola, which toured Australia and gave live broadcasts of baroque repertoire, was disestablished in 1989. In 1959 Hopkins also established the National Youth Orchestra, which in the 2000s continued to prepare young musicians for the profession.
The New Zealand Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1987 with Donald Armstrong (associate concertmaster of the NZSO) as music director. The Chamber Orchestra was administered by the NZSO from 1999 until it went into recess in 2004. It made numerous well-received tours and recordings.
New Zealand tours
From its inception, the National Orchestra toured New Zealand to present high-quality symphonic music. In the early days, players travelled by train and spent many nights in provincial hotels. The development of air travel made shorter, more manageable tours possible. In the 2010s in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, works are performed by all 90 players. A number of concerts are also presented in Hamilton and Napier. Tours to centres with smaller venues use a reduced orchestra, often with one group of players touring the South Island while another performs in small-to-mid-sized North Island towns.
The NZSO has built up a strong international profile, with an extensive discography – mostly on the Naxos label (with well over 1 million NZSO CDs distributed worldwide), but also on EMI, Koch International and New Zealand labels Kiwi Records, Atoll and Rattle.
The NZSO undertook an eight-concert tour of Australia in 1974, was orchestra-in-residence at the Hong Kong Festival in 1980 and performed at the World Expo in Seville in 1992. In 2003 the orchestra performed in Osaka in Japan. In 2005 it toured to the United Kingdom (performing at the BBC Proms and the Aldeburgh Festival), Amsterdam (playing at the Concertgebouw) and Aichi, Japan (playing at the World Expo). It gave two concerts in the Olympic Cultural Festival in Beijing in 2008. In 2010, after a concert at the Shanghai World Expo, the orchestra undertook a concert tour of Europe. There were standing ovations – including at the Musikverein in Vienna – and enthusiastic reviews. For example, the Badische Zeitung newspaper in Freiburg, Germany, wrote that the orchestra need not fear comparison with the best in the world.