The year 2019 was a momentous one in the life of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
It started with chief conductor and artistic director David Robertson leading Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra in the opening gala of his farewell season.
And it ended in a blaze of publicity with the celebrated international conductor Simone Young appointed Robertson’s successor.
SSO chief executive Emma Dunch and Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron.
The appointment was a coup for the SSO’s new chief executive, Australian-born Emma Dunch, who had led a global search for a new conductor, wooing Young over that entire year and even flying to Germany.
Young was particularly drawn to the prospect of leading the orchestra in the Sydney Opera House’s acoustically enhanced Concert Hall, which was to undergo major refurbishment over two years.
But behind-the-scenes negotiations around the SSO’s exit from the Concert Hall, the orchestra’s home since the Opera House opened in 1973, had been tense.
Dunch and the Opera House’s chief executive Louise Herron, two of the most powerful women in Sydney’s arts and cultural scene, had locked horns over the terms of SSO’s departure and its return in 2022.
The SSO’s quest for compensation and new contract terms prompted two wide-ranging reviews of the company, the findings of which until recently had remained a secret.
The Australian Financial Review last week revealed the reports’ findings that Dunch was seriously offside with SSO’s influential partners including the Sydney Opera House and the government’s arts agency, Create NSW.
The AFR quoted company lawyer Gabrielle Trainor as saying that the new chief executive was seen by some key players in the negotiations to have “behaved in a manner which has not promoted understanding, collaboration and mutual respect”. The consequent erosion of trust and goodwill posed serious and ongoing risks for the SSO.
Dunch declined to speak to The Sydney Morning Herald. While her commitment to the SSO is unquestioned, what is clear is that from the beginning of her tenure she ruffled feathers.
The Australian-trained singer had spent the previous 20 years in New York carving out a career in arts management and fund-raising before she joined the SSO in January 2018.
Musicians and staff, more accustomed to the consensus and deferential management style of its previous head Rory Jeffes, were taken aback by her American chutzpah.
Dunch instituted a top-down approach to internal and external communications, alienating some senior staff. Abrasive, direct and tough are words commonly used to describe her management style.
SSO’s chief executive Emma Dunch outside Sydney Town Hall in 2019.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Her negotiations skills were put immediately to the test with the Concert Hall refurbishment – the final piece in a decade-long, $275 million renewal of the Opera House in time for the building’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2022.
The orchestra was to move out and spend much of 2020 and 2021 at Sydney Town Hall. Though it boasted exceptional performance acoustics, the Town Hall had 900 fewer seats than the Concert Hall. Accordingly, the need to vacate the Concert Hall posed what the board noted in its financial statement of that year as “significant financial, operational and audience challenges”.
Dunch and the board issued a blunter warning to the NSW government’s arts agency, Create NSW and the Australia Council of the Arts: they warned the SSO would face insolvency.
Whereas millions of dollars had been paid out by Create NSW, to subsidise the temporary accommodation for arts companies decanted from the Walsh Bay precinct while it was being transformed, the SSO had no legal claim on the Opera House. The Opera House had structured the lease to end with the start of construction and offered no grounds for compensation.
Simone Young leads a smaller Sydney Symphony Orchestra at Town Hall.Credit:Nic Walker
“Here was the biggest transformational change in the SSO’s history, and she had been left a lemon,” noted one close observer of the negotiations, who was not authorised to speak. “All these issues should have been addressed from the very beginning.”
The state government committed to giving the SSO $10 million in two tranches to cover its projected box office losses and moving expenses.
But Dunch’s assertive prosecution of the SSO’s compensation case is said to have upset members of the arts bureaucracy and the office of the Minister for Arts, Don Harwin. Minister Harwin declined to comment for this article.
The relationship with Herron also “had its moments,” says one SSO insider, who was not authorised to speak. “You’ve got two strong women running the organisations, and they’ve certainly been at loggerheads representing their organisations’ best interests.”
A render of the completed renovation of the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. Credit:Sydney Opera House
The first $5 million was paid to the SSO and in 2019, the state government and Australia Council brought in Trainor to review SSO’s governance. She made 19 recommendations, according to the company’s latest annual report, fully implemented during 2020.
Human resources policies and codes of conduct were revised at the SSO and the organisation clarified procedures for dealing with allegations of misconduct and workplace harassment.
Three months ago, the board appointed the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to assess if those policies had improved the organisation’s culture.
Broderick surveyed 150 staff last month and is due to report the findings by Christmas.
A second review was conducted into the SSO’s business model. As a consequence, the SSO agreed to deliver its concert season in 32 weeks, not 35 weeks, freeing up the Concert Hall stage for other Opera House scheduled performances.
Dunch was subsequently criticised by the former boss of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Timothy Walker, for failing to build consensus and demonstrating a “lack of awareness” in dealing with the SSO’s major partners, the funding bodies, and the Sydney Opera House.
Nevertheless, Dunch has determinedly pursued the government to pay out the remaining $5 million that was set aside for the SSO’s dislocation.
Create NSW has refused, pointing to the SSO’s $7.8 million surplus in 2020 – its biggest since before the global financial crisis – banked before the latest lockdowns.
Refurbishment of the Concert Hall is running months late, delaying SSO’s triumphant return to the stage until next July and adding to its costs and losses.
The SSO has since applied for crisis support from the federal government’s COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund also accessed by Opera Australia, Belvoir St Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company among others.
Asked to assess its financial vulnerability during the next 12 months, the SSO’s finance director concluded that by November 2022 the company would not have sufficient reserves to cover all costs and employee liabilities.
Opera House’s Louise Herron confirmed to this masthead the contract for SSO’s return to the Opera House had been signed off in early October.
“We’re delighted to have renewed our resident company contract with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “This sets out the terms of our tremendously important long-term partnership, but as you would understand, the terms themselves are commercial in confidence.”
Some inside the SSO believe the leaks against Dunch are less about the financial position of the orchestra and more about personal vendettas.
Any attempt to unseat the chief executive comes at the expense of the reputation of the orchestra, one of the most highly respected arts institutions in the country. “What’s the benefit of doing it right now?,” worried one leading player.
The SSO board met informally last Friday in the aftermath of the media leaks. Dunch has won back some of her detractors by managing the orchestra through pandemic setbacks while keeping jobs.
“There have been many expressions of gratitude of how she managed the company through COVID-19,” said the musician who fears coming job losses. Back-of-house savings alone will be insufficient to plug next year’s deficit.
Throughout these latest revelations, Dunch has remained silent. The SSO confirmed she had been on personal leave this week. Her contract is up at the end of 2023.
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.
Most Viewed in Culture
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article