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DSO: Valedictory Concert

After five years at the helm of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Matthew Wood finished up as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor at the end of 2017. He returns for a valedictory concert this February with a concert celebrating his musical highlights from the last half-decade. Wood spoke to Liz Trevaskis for Off The Leash. 

You’ve worked with leading orchestras around the world, including the London Philharmonic, and conducted for Australia’s leading orchestras in Melbourne, Tasmania and Queensland. What brought you to the role in Darwin? Did you have certain expectations about what this experience would be like? 

I had been living and working in the UK and Europe for many years and was very keen to return home to Australia at some stage. So when the position became available to return to Australia to work for the DSO I jumped at it. I had absolutely no expectations – as I had never been to the Territory before – however after coming and meeting the orchestra and familiarising myself with the landscape, I quickly became aware that this is a place of tremendous opportunity. The orchestra was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary; as such, many Territorians had already experienced a DSO concert. 

I think my main ambition was to improve the quality of playing and to broaden the scope of performances in order to reach as diverse an audience as possible, becoming an arts organisation that was truly representative of the broad cultural landscape of the Northern Territory. I think we have achieved this through a mix of diverse programming. When I arrived the DSO Opera Gala attracted about 500 people – we now perform regularly to about 3,500 at this event. Similarly, we regularly now attract over 6,000 for our large outdoor ConocoPhillips concert at the Gardens Amphitheatre and our indoor audiences are increasing all the time. I am very proud of this development and believe the orchestra is in a very good place when it comes to being connected to the community it serves.  

For a small city, we are blessed to have such talented musicians playing world-class orchestral music for us. What have been the highlights for you working with  the DSO? 

The DSO has certainly demonstrated the ‘can do’ attitude of the Territory and there are definitely ‘unique’ experiences that will be impossible to replicate anywhere else. Probably the biggest of these experiences was the tour to Uluru where the orchestra became the first in the world to perform in front of this iconic Australian landmark. Another was performing on a work-ing barge in the middle of Darwin Harbour. 

More recently we toured to North-East Arnhem Land where we performed Bizet’s Pearlfishers at Gulkula – a profoundly sacred place for the Yolngu people and the place where the Garma Festival is held each year. Here we collaborated with local musicians, translated the synopsis into Yolgnu and ran a four-day collaborative education program designed to break down cultural boundaries and develop a two-way dialogue of learning and appreciation.  

What an extraordinary thing to do! I never thought I would be performing French Romantic opera on one of the most culturally significant Indigenous sites in the country, but this is what I love about making music here in the Territory! I have very much enjoyed exploring the possibilities of what a symphony orchestra can do and not be hindered by ‘traditions’. The DSO is making its history now and it is has been a privilege to be part of it.  

What’s surprised you most during your time with the DSO?

Probably, the most pleasing surprise has been the loyal nature of the audience. Whether the orchestra is performing music from rock legends at the Amphitheatre, opera at the Waterfront, jazz in the Convention Centre or standard symphonic repertoire, our DSO audience has been fabulous and generally very happy to try something different. 

Amongst all these highlights, is there a standout concert experience from the last five years?

I will never forget the sight of one of Australia’s leading sopranos, Emma Matthews, entering the stage at Uluru. We were performing Verdi’s 'Triumphal March' from Aida as the sun was setting over the majestic rock – when in the distance Emma approached the stage in full ball-gown on the back of a local camel. Completely wonderful! 

What will you miss the most about the DSO?

I have been very privileged to spend the last five years making music with many musicians that volunteer their time. Their passionate dedication to the orchestra and to bringing symphonic music to the people of the Northern Territory is what I will miss the most – alongside the many friends I have made here and the unique concert experiences.

It sounds like it’s been an amazing time in Darwin. What’s next for you?

I will be heading back to London at the end of February where I will be working at the Royal Ballet Covent Garden. I then head to Stockholm where I will be conducting an opera by Philip Glass, before we tour this production to New York. I will be heading back to Darwin as a guest conductor with the orchestra in the future, which is really nice – as I do not like goodbyes!  


DSO MasterSeries 1: Valedictory Concert | Sat 24 Feb | 7.30pm | Darwin Convention Centre

See the event listing.

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