After a 2020 season that we were able to present in its entirety, Orchestra Wellington had high hopes that our 2021 Virtuoso season would also be able to be presented to our community. Sadly, thanks to an outbreak of Delta and Omicron, the New Zealand government wisely put restrictions on audience numbers in enclosed spaces. 

I was pleased that were able to get half of our Virtuoso season performed to the largest audiences in our history, and that we were able to both present the individual concert, “Virtuoso Composer” , which was the premiere of John Psathas’s “Call of the Wild” with Adam Page as the soloist in this extraordinary saxophone concerto, and also the individual concert,  “Virtuoso Violin”, an examination of the fist generation of romantic virtuosos that set the scene for the modern concert experience as we now understand it, and was also the key to unlocking the entire season.

Like many arts organisations around the world, Orchestra Wellington was keen to continue paying our musicians, and decided to find alternative playing opportunities that not only justified the payments, but also kept the orchestra in fine form during the lockdown.

In November, before I departed for a series of concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, San Fransisco Ballet, and the Vallejo Symphony Orchestra, we decided to schedule a number of composer readings and recordings in the Michael Fowler Centre. I have long wanted Orchestra Wellington to contribute in this way to the discourse of contemporary art music in New Zealand, and both the quality of the works and the standard of orchestral execution were really impressive.

We were also able to keep our multi-year recording project based on the music of John Psathas alive and well. We were meant to perform and subsequently record “Djinn” – a marimba concerto commissioned by Orchestra Wellington for the Portuguese virtuoso Pedro Carneiro in 2009. 

This is a story in itself, as we were meant to be performing and recording “The All-Seeing Sky” with the Swiss mallet virtuosos Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach at that time, but were forced into a substitute work because we could not bring them in to New Zealand. Likewise, for Djinn, we had initially approached the Australian percussion virtuoso Claire Edwardes, but she was also unable to get into the country! Luckily, Orchestra Wellington has as a member a Japanese-NZ virtuoso, Yoshiko Tsuruta, who stepped in at very short notice and recorded (all from memory) the work in spectacular style!

After the orchestra’s summer break, audience number restrictions lifted slightly to 200 people, and we decided (as our opening concerts for the 2022 “Circle of Friends” season were scheduled to begin in May) to present a series of shorter concerts in order to keep the orchestra playing together. 

We immediately thought of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Ukraine, and decided to perform benefit concerts in support of Ukraine in the Michael Fowler Centre, with limited audience size. All the performances were free of charge, although the expectation was that members of the audience would donate to Red Cross. Putting together a short programme that included the New Zealand premiere of Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn (composed 2001), and Ukranian-born Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto with Amalia Hall as soloist made for a moving concert that raised tens of thousands of dollars.

Shortly after these moving performances, the audience limitations were lifted for the performing arts – just in the nick of time for our new season “Circle of Friends”!

Throughout the world, I  have been impressed by the resiliency of arts organisations as they have coped with the effects of the pandemic. But more than this, I have been moved by the support that has been shown by audiences for the art form, and the palpable thirst that they have shown for live performance.