Douglas Lilburn Centenary

2015 marks the centenary of New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn’s birth. As the acknowledged grandfather of New Zealand classical composition you would think that there would be an abundance of music programming celebrating Lilburn, and New Zealand art music in general. However, there seems to be a distinct lack of celebration, with the majority of concert programming that I have seen so far making the barest nod- usually in the form of performing Overture: Aotearoa if it’s an orchestral concert- at including Lilburn in their programming. All the major orchestras- and many of the minor- appear to be including this overture in their programming as the ‘celebration’ of Lilburn. But, why just this piece? Certainly it is the best known of Lilburn’s orchestral works, but it is certainly not the only one, so why not one or more of his other orchestral works (there are more than a few!)? It is however, the safe bet: New Zealand’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, something that every local concert-goer knows, and for the novice, something that’s easy to get into. Additionally, none of the orchestral concerts have more than one Lilburn work on the programme, and for the most part these so-called celebratory concerts aren’t even all-local programming. In fact frequently the Lilburn work is the only local work on the programme, and these are the concerts that are specifically billed as celebrations of his birth.

Chamber concert programming seems to be doing a bit more in terms of celebrating Lilburn, partly due to the fact that the chamber concerts span a wide configuration- from solo piano to quartets of various instrumentation for the most part. Again, however, there are few all New Zealand concerts and fewer all Lilburn programmes: by my count of a random selection of chamber music organisations who have their programme available on the internet there are precisely two concerts that are all Lilburn. However, I will give credit where it is due and state that I am impressed by Chamber Music New Zealand and other chamber music organisations (such as the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson) and their efforts to incorporate much more Lilburn (including some of his electro-acoustic work) and New Zealand art music into their programming this year than they normally do.

I am hoping that there are other organisations that have simply not announced their 2015 programming yet, or have not made it available, because this is rather appalling. If Lilburn is as influential on New Zealand music as all our local music historians and commentators claim (and given the write-ups in the various orchestral brochures I’ve looked at, the publicists of said orchestras agree), how is it that there has been such a paltry attempt at truly celebrating Lilburn’s birth through music programming? Why are our most visible orchestras not programming more New Zealand music, or even more Lilburn works? Why are they taking the ultimate in safe bet’s by only programming things that audiences are familiar with and for the most part inserting it into a ‘safe bet’ programme (for example the Auckland Philharmonia’s ‘celebration’ is Lilburn, Aotearoa; Elgar, Enigma Variations, and Bartok, Violin concerto no. 2)? I understand the need to get people into the hall and onto seats, but that sort of safe bet programming is actually going to deter me from going because it’s all things that I have heard so many times before in concert. I really enjoy Lilburn’s works, but I’d like to hear something other that Overture: Aotearoa in concert! In fact I think of all of Lilburn’s orchestral works I have only heard Drysdale Overture and Symphony no. 2 in performance, and I have only heard them once.

So, I challenge music organisations in New Zealand to challenge themselves just a little, to think outside the box, and not just go for the safe bet. While it will garner you enough people on seats to break even (or maybe make a profit), you’re also losing a proportion of the audience by not being as adventurous as you could be. Lilburn was profoundly influential not only on composition in New Zealand, but also a number of other aspects of the art music scene, including the promotion and support of orchestras, and it seems slightly insulting to me that our orchestra’s are not making the most of this opportunity to make audiences more aware of his body of work.


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