THE artistic contribution made by the late Richard Gill, who died in Sydney on Sunday October 28 aged 76, was a primary factor in saving the Canberra Symphony Orchestra from almost certain demise in the early 2000s.
At the end of 2000, after a year of performance expansion not matched by financial return, the CSO found itself in severe debt and in a precarious financial state. I was appointed CEO in February, 2001, with my primary responsibility being to arrest the debt.
Amongst many strategies employed was to seek to engage a chief conductor and artistic director. A similar role had not been utilised since Leonard Dommett occupied the position from 1982-93. Since then the orchestra had chosen to engage conductors on a “one-off appearance” basis. This resulted in visits by many world-renowned conductors including Isaiah Jackson, Nicholas Braithwaite, Richard Bonynge and James Sedares, but it did not permit continuity in orchestra development. Visiting conductors were also an expensive commodity.
From the moment I approached Richard Gill, he was boundless in his energy and enthusiasm as he set about to provide clear, ongoing leadership with a focus directed towards the artistic program. Conscious of the financial woes he immediately offered to donate his services to conduct a fundraising concert. That concert, his first CSO appearance, was presented in September, 2001. The players followed his lead in performing for no fee and more than $30,000 was raised, an amount that the ACT government agreed to match.
In 2002 Richard produced his first subscription series – “Classic Vienna” – concerts based around the most-loved works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The Beethoven concert attracted the largest audience seen by the CSO for many years and, with the smaller-sized orchestras required for those concerts, the series was a double-edged bonus in context of the financial woes.
Shrewd programming from Richard in 2003 saw “A Year of Firsts”, a series based on the first symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius and Mahler. Again, success followed and Richard further proved his worth by providing invaluable assistance in developing the “musical services” aspect of the CSO business. The end result saw a complete turnaround for the orchestra with an operating surplus for the year and CSO, thanks to his judicious but crowd-pleasing and entertaining programs, was back on its feet.
Under his artistic leadership the CSO was, from that point, once again able to expand its business opportunities and orchestral offerings and, when Richard handed over the reins to Nicholas Milton, the orchestra was in a particularly sound and stable artistic position.
The advantage of artistic director permanency was evident with concert reviews of the time consistently commenting on the continually advancing standard of individual and ensemble orchestral playing.
Richard’s legacy was permanent and indelible. His gregarious personality, passionate public-speaking ability and amazing people skills endeared him to his ever-growing audience, his players, the orchestra board and management, sponsors and the ACT government. There is no doubt that the healthy artistic environment inherited by Nicholas aided significantly in the ongoing advancements that he has since been able to make.
Just a week or so ago I was able to attend a launch/preview of a new ABC TV series, “Don’t Stop the Music”, a wonderfully moving series based around a national campaign to get musical instruments into schools.
Music education was Richard’s overriding passion. He would have been so proud of the stories of advances in music education and opportunity which are told so beautifully in the films. The series commences on November 11 and it is awfully sad that he will miss seeing one of his lifelong labours coming to fantastic fruition.
Richard James Gill, AO, November 4, 1941-October 28, 2018.