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by Peter Walls

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.

Nineteenth-century orchestras

Philharmonic societies

Philharmonic societies were established in Wellington in 1848, Nelson in 1852, New Plymouth in 1856 and Invercargill in 1864. These societies presented mixed programmes that included orchestral performances.

Musical miscellany

The flavour of early philharmonic society concerts is captured in a Taranaki Herald review of 1886: ‘as is now usual, a large audience was collected ... The programme opened with a selection from “Iolanthe,” given by the orchestra with creditable execution, and was followed by the chorus, “Bright Lady, Sweet Mistress.” ... After the interval the entertainment was continued with the orchestral item, “Solitude,” followed by Miss Sole’s song, “Thy voice is near,” which was made much of. The rest of the evening was taken up with the dramatic cantata, “Hero and Leander”...’1

Similar concert-giving organisations arose elsewhere. The Hawkes Bay Herald of 17 October 1868 carried (as its sole entry under ‘Amusements’) a notice saying that rehearsals of the Napier Philharmonic Society were held every Wednesday and Thursday. Late in 1871 the New Zealand Herald announced that the recently formed Whangarei Philharmonic Society would ‘combine vocal and instrumental music, the practice of glees, and the opening of an elementary class for instruction in the theory and practice of vocal music. Concerts will also be occasionally given for social and charitable purposes.’ A year later, the Herald reported from Coromandel (then in the throes of a gold rush) that the Philharmonic soirée had been a great success.

Such societies presented Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Gilbert and Sullivan and miscellany programmes of the kind that were also fashionable in the Un2ited States at the time.


Orchestral societies drew on the best talent available. The Christchurch Star in 1872 described the newly-formed Christchurch Orchestral Society as ‘comprising our leading instrumental amateurs’ and announced that they would be performing ‘with some professional assistance’.3 In 1881, when this orchestra toured to Dunedin, the Otago Daily Times confirmed that it comprised ‘an unusually large number of instrumentalists of considerable repute.’4


Theatres – an essential part of the infrastructure of New Zealand towns from the early 1840s on – included orchestra pits, a space in front of the stage to accommodate musicians. These professional venues provided a stimulus for the formation of orchestras (often comprising just a handful of oddly assorted instruments). Auckland’s Fitzroy Theatre opened in February 1844 with a variety programme that included the then-popular overture to Boieldieu’s Caliph of Bagdad. Achille Fleury led a nine-member orchestra at the Princess Theatre, one of two that opened in Dunedin in 1862. (Fleury was later to appear in court for stealing a pair of trousers and a jumper from the St Patrick’s Brass Band.)

    • Taranaki Herald, 8 May 1886, p. 2. Back
    • New Zealand Herald, 2 November 1871, p. 3. Back
    • Star, 12 March 1872, p. 2. Back
    • Otago Daily Times, 8 November 1881, p. 2. Back

The first professional orchestras

Christchurch Exhibition orchestra

The professional orchestra formed for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch from November 1906 to April 1907 expanded public expectations. Alfred Hill, who (after heated debate) had been engaged as conductor, responded to the government’s initial suggestion that 30 musicians would be employed by arguing that ‘to do even common justice to the best music a full orchestra is necessary’, and insisted on a minimum of 56 performers.1 He ended up with 44. When the exhibition closed, the orchestra toured the country. In New Plymouth arrangements were made to delay the regular sailing to Onehunga until after the orchestra’s concert so that the musicians could perform in Auckland the following night. The Star described its concerts as ‘quite a revelation for Auckland amateurs’.2

Parochial pride

The amateur Auckland Orchestral Society was well received at the 1906–7 Christchurch exhibition. The Auckland Star noted that it was ‘markedly ahead of all other New Zealand orchestral combinations’, claiming that ‘it was freely asserted during their Christchurch visit that had such a capable body of instrumentalists been permanently available for the Exhibition, the highly-salaried professional orchestra would have been unnecessary.’ This view was not shared by those who heard the Exhibition orchestra.

Film and radio orchestras

New Zealand was to wait another 40 years for the establishment of a full-time professional symphony orchestra. In the meantime, the advent of silent movies and then radio broadcasting provided the impetus for the formation of smaller ensembles. The 10-member 2YA Orchestra (two violins, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums and piano) was founded in Wellington in 1928. Regional rivalry ensured the formation of a 3YA orchestra in Christchurch and a 1YA Orchestra for Auckland within a few months. The 4YA Orchestra (Dunedin) was soon to follow. These ensembles presented variety programmes for radio. They also performed in public, often accompanying local choral societies.

1940 Centennial Orchestra

The radio orchestras provided 34 players for the New Zealand Centennial Music Festival Orchestra. This festival took place between May and the end of June 1940 with concerts in Dunedin, Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington. Local players reinforced the professional core – in Auckland the orchestra was 90-strong. The conductor was English pianist Anderson Tyrer. The Centennial Orchestra whetted appetites for a permanent, symphonic-size professional orchestra.

Combining professional forces

Other events, too, helped build momentum. The Auckland Star reported in 1945 that ‘[a] clear indication of the musical strength ready to be welded into a permanent symphony orchestra worthy of the Dominion, was given in the Town Hall on Saturday night, when an instrumental combination of over 50 players, drawn from the N.B.S. [National Broadcasting Service] String Orchestra, the 1YA Studio Orchestra, and the 1ZB Orchestra, presented an orchestral concert under the direction of Mr. Gil Dech, guest conductor. With the exception of bassoons, for which two ’cellos were substituted, most of the instruments used by a symphony orchestra were employed in the presentations.’4

    • Otago Daily Times, 31 July 1906, p. 6. Back
    • Auckland Star, 9 May 1907, p. 4. Back
    • Auckland Star, 28 February 1907, p. 4. Back
    • Auckland Star, 5 November 1945, p. 2. Back

The National Orchestra

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.

Smaller orchestras

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.

NZSO recordings

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.

International tours

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.

    • Quoted in Joy Tonks, The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: the first forty years. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 1. Back

Regional orchestras

In the years following the Second World War, professional regional orchestras emerged.

Auckland Symphonia

Auckland’s professional orchestra grew out of the Auckland String Players, founded by Owen Jensen in 1940. Peter Godfrey took over as principal conductor and, in 1964, helped found the Symphonia of Auckland. The Auckland Star rejoiced that ‘within a very short time the city will have an orchestra of good standard as a permanent feature of its life.’1 In 1969, Juan Matteucci, the former NZSO principal conductor, became music director. The Symphonia was dogged by financial troubles, with the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council repeatedly calling on Auckland local authorities to assume more responsibility. The situation was exacerbated by Matteucci’s imprudent programming. Despite last-minute attempts to save it, the Symphonia went into voluntary liquidation in July 1980.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Some Symphonia musicians, aptly known as ‘the Phoenix group’, created a new, cooperatively managed ensemble. In 1980 the Auckland Regional Orchestra (from 1985 the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra or APO) began operating with 33 players. By the end of the century, the number of tenured musicians had doubled and there was pressure from funders to modify the cooperative management model. A thorough restructure of the governance and management provisions took place in 2005.

In the 2000s the APO has regularly featured large-scale repertoire, including Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Verdi’s Nabucco, and performed Britten’s War Requiem in the 2013 Auckland Festival. It has been acclaimed for its enterprise in programming, its commitment to the music of New Zealand composers and the quality of its performances. The Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Act 2008 saw local authorities assume more responsibility for supporting the orchestra, and this continued under the new Auckland Council.

Symphonic solidarity

Shortly after the February 2011 earthquake, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra shared the stage with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at Burnside High School in a concert designed to signal a determination to continue performing in their city despite the loss of venues. Later that year it accepted an invitation to Japan, which was still coming to terms with the devastation caused by the Fukushima earthquake.

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra

In 1958 the John Ritchie String Orchestra was founded in Christchurch. From 1962 it performed as the Christchurch Civic Orchestra and from 1974 as the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

In 1974 the CSO’s governing trust dismissed Vanco Cavdarski as their principal conductor. In the ensuing heated debate, some of the trustees (including Christchurch’s mayor, Neville Pickering) set up a rival trust, and their new Canterbury Orchestra secured Arts Council support while an unfunded CSO continued to attract impressive houses under the conductorship of Peter Zwartz. The dispute ended in 1979 with the CSO once again recognised as the city’s professional orchestra.

Since that time, this orchestra has steadily consolidated its position as the largest professional orchestra in the South Island. In the mid-1990s the decision was made to raise the orchestra's artistic standard by tenuring players, including Ukrainian, Russian, English and New Zealand musicians.

Southern Sinfonia

Dunedin’s professional regional orchestra grew from the ashes of the local 4YA radio orchestra in 1958. The Concert Orchestra was formed with English immigrant musicologist Peter Platt as its principal conductor. In 1966 it was reinvented as the Dunedin Civic Orchestra. Finally, in 2000, after a period as the Dunedin Sinfonia, it became the Southern Sinfonia. In the 2010s the orchestra presented an annual five-concert subscription series, undertook education work and accompanied opera, ballet and choral concerts. In 2013 it became the third New Zealand orchestra to perform at the Asia Orchestra week in Japan.

Alex Lindsay String Orchestra

Wellington gained a professional chamber orchestra in 1948. Expatriate violinist Alex Lindsay, who had returned to New Zealand from England to play alongside Vincent Aspey in the National Orchestra, left that orchestra after a year and – inspired by the visit of the Boyd Neal Orchestra in 1947 – formed the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra. In 1963 Lindsay went to Australia and then Europe for four years, but his orchestra continued until 1973 when, at its founder’s insistence, it was wound up.

Orchestra Wellington

Following this, the Wellington Regional Orchestra was set up with the support of the Arts Council, absorbing many of the players from the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra. Renamed Wellington Sinfonia, then Vector Wellington Orchestra, and later Orchestra Wellington, in 2014 this part-time professional orchestra presented a subscription series and accompanied performances of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the NBR New Zealand Opera.

    • Auckland Star, 16 December 1965, p. 6. Back

The future of orchestras

The Hopkins review

In 1973 former New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) principal conductor John Hopkins completed a report for the New Zealand Arts Council on regional professional orchestras. Among other things, he wanted a group of 32 full-time players in Auckland performing as the ‘Auckland Little Symphony Orchestra’ and another group of 12 full-time players based in Christchurch, which was to function as the core of both the Christchurch and Dunedin orchestras.

Control issues

The 1973 Hopkins report suggested that his proposed ‘Auckland Little Symphony Orchestra’ should be administered by the national orchestra. With diplomatic understatement, the Arts Council commented that it seemed inadvisable for ‘the control of the professional core of the Symphonia of Auckland [to] be placed under the NZBC Symphony Orchestra.’ 1

Few of Hopkins’s recommendations were implemented. The report has, nevertheless, been seen as providing a platform for the development of the professional orchestras in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin by suggesting an infrastructure that included both a national orchestra and quality regional orchestras.

Later reviews

Also in 1973 the QEII Arts Council (the government arts funding body, later Creative New Zealand) affirmed that ‘[t]he NZBC Symphony Orchestra is New Zealand’s outstanding artistic asset, whose future and standards must be secured by the government.’2 The government commissioned reviews of the NZSO in 1996 (by former secretary of the Treasury Graham Scott), in 2004 (by former Sydney Symphony chief executive Mary Vallentine and Roger Taylor) and in 2009 (as part of a series of ‘value for money’ reviews of Crown entities). However, the professional orchestra sector as a whole was not evaluated until 2011–12.

The 2011–12 review confirmed the NZSO’s position as national orchestra, but elevated the Auckland Philharmonia (APO) to a new status as Metropolitan Orchestra. On the face of it, the orchestras in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington were unaffected by the review, except for a weakening of the assumption that Creative New Zealand would continue to provide guaranteed baseline funding for all of them. While the NZSO, the APO, Orchestra Wellington, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Southern Sinfonia formed the core of New Zealand’s professional orchestral infrastructure, the 2013 report also acknowledged the emergence of other professional ensembles such as Opus Orchestra (which claimed a position as the regional orchestra for the fast-growing areas of Waikato and Bay of Plenty).

Specialist and community orchestras

In 2014 a few specialist ensembles such as NZ Barok (a period-instrument ensemble based in Auckland) and Stroma (a contemporary music ensemble located in Wellington) existed. There was also a rich sub-strata of community orchestras (some, like the Manukau Symphony Orchestra, performing ambitious programmes) and youth orchestras.

The Sistema Aotearoa programme in South Auckland, modelled on the Venezuelan musical education programme, El Sistema, held out a vision of a New Zealand orchestral scene that would be musically rich and socially inclusive.

    • Report on orchestral development in New Zealand, prepared by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand. Wellington: Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, 1973, p. 12. Back
    • Report on orchestral development in New Zealand, p. 1. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Peter Walls, 'Orchestras', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Walls, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014