FACE TO FACE : Peter Walls – On A High Note

There’s not lot of margin for error when it comes to orchestral performance – strike bum note and there’s nowhere to hide. While this observation from Peter Walls actually relates to his own brief stand-in experience as an orchestral percussionist (see box story “Drum Roll”), it’s perhaps equally true of his current fulltime job – running the NZSO.
Balancing financial and artistic pressures, he agrees, can be little like walking on eggshells.
“The financial pressures are huge. Our total annual budget is $18 million and the ideal year-end result is zero. There is no margin. So you’re trying to run business where you absolutely cannot afford to miscalculate in terms of the artists you bring out or the placing of concerts. You have to meet quite demanding budgets on every single concert you do.”
Basking in the afterglow of successful first night featuring top international violinist Pinchas Zuckerman at the Auckland Town Hall, Walls does not, however, have moment’s regret about taking on the CEO job seven years ago.
“It is wonderfully varied role. As Crown entity, there are elements that are like being in public service. We have the Ministry for Culture and Heritage monitoring what we do and we have very strict compliance and reporting requirements. But I’m also answerable to board which has very commercial outlook and we’re in the business of selling over 100 concerts year, doing contracts for films and recordings…
“It has that unusual blend of public service dimension with very commercially oriented outlook and that’s exciting.”
The funding mix is equally varied. The NZSO gets core government grant which, says Walls, is vital. “But we’re also very reliant on corporate sponsorship, on charitable trusts and personal benefactors for funding, as well as box office. So it means our stakeholders range from central and local government politicians through venue management, to the corporate world through sponsorships, to music lovers everywhere. And then there’s whole artistic aspect. It really is fascinating and varied mix.”
That his background is music first, management second is perhaps slightly unusual for CEO, but Walls believes it’s useful when it comes to understanding and identifying with the players.
“It’s quite an unusual occupation they’ve got – physically tiring one that involves incredible mental concentration which has to be brought to bear when someone else decides. When rehearsal starts, your concentration is totally at the behest of the conductor for the next few hours. Even more so in concert – you can’t take break and walk over to the window…”
But there’s no problem with employment engagement?
“That’s definitely one of the wonderful things about it – you get into performance and come out the other side realising that was couple of hours in which your concentration was totally absorbed.”
Walls’ own career was something of toss up between performance and academia. Brought up in Napier with piano teacher for mother, Walls learned music before starting school.
An inspiring teacher prompted his shift from piano to violin and he went on to do performance violin degree at Victoria University in the 1960s when the “whole performance strand was relatively new at New Zealand’s universities”.
Then came post-graduate study in musicology at Oxford where his special interest in 18th century music performance method coincided with growing interest in period instrument orchestras and he freelanced as baroque violinist as well as doing more modern works.
It’s path down which he could have continued – but academia also called.
“Toward the end of my student years, it was real toss up as to whether I would commit as performer or go back into the academic world. Performing seemed like it could work. But my wife was keen to come back to New Zealand and when places opened up for both of us at Victoria University, it made sense – and that decision was really made for us.”
A little tongue in cheek, he owns up to “still having secret life” as performer.
“I’m music director of lovely Hamilton-based chamber orchestra called Opus that involves me going up there for intensive rehearsals about four times year. Then I go back to Wellington and pretend it never happened.”
His CV in fact lists whole bunch of credits for conducting major choral and orchestral works around New Zealand and he was music director of The Tudor Consort for nine years (1990-1999) before resigning to take visiting fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford. He’s also written couple of well received books – Music in the Courtly Masque (Oxford 1996) and History, Imagination and the Performance of Music (Suffolk, UK and Rochester NY, 2003).
The first significant management role came with his appointment as School of Music chair at Victoria in the late 1980s, but the NZSO job happened almost by accident, says Walls.
“I was put onto the board of the orchestra in 1996 and couple of years later the artistic manager left bit suddenly. At that point, Ian Fraser had just been appointed CEO but hadn’t yet come on board so then NZSO chair Selwyn Cushing suggested I get involved in management to the extent of overseeing the artistic department until he was ready to appoint.
“So I got my toes in the water then and quite enjoyed it. And when Ian left, it felt like it was the right thing for me to move up. I’d also reached bit of plateau at the School of Music, so was ready for new challenge.”
Walls describes his management style as “reasonably consultative” but also quite outcomes driven.
“I like to focus on things we can tick off each year that are either milestones in the history of the orchestra or permanent developments.”
There’s been no shortage of either – starting near the end of 2002 with an invitation to attend the Asian Orchestral Festival in Osaka.
“I didn’t think it was possible. I remember we were on holiday in the pouring rain and I found the invite when I opened up my email. Eight months later we were there. That was quite an achievement.”
In 2004 major change in the orchestra’s governance structure presented challenges of very different kind.
“That was when the NZSO Act was passed and that whole process involved quite careful management through the select committee stages and negotiating with the government over how the functions and objectives of the orchestra were to be described.”
The following year brought another major watershed as the orchestra made it to Europe to participate in the Proms. Previously planned trips in the 1990s had to be cancelled when the orchestra was unable to raise sufficient funds, says Walls.
In terms of longer-term developments he rates obtaining the services of Pietari Inkinen as music director major coup.
“I think he’s utterly brilliant – someone who in years to come will be household name globally. Meanwhile we’ve got him and I think he’s helping to lift the orchestra to new level.”
In 2007, NZSO celebrated its 60th anniversary with Wellington concert that also marked the orchestra’s first ever webcast and the following year it made the Beijing Olympics. “Again that was an absolute miracle – months were spent trying to assemble funding for that. I’d love to be able to write book about the process sometime…”
Managing relationships with sponsors is big part of the role and Peter Walls credits veteran arts promoter and friend Christopher Doig as being an influential and inspiring mentor in that area.
Doig was instrumental in getting Pacific Blue on board as principal sponsor – relationship that’s proved vital in terms of NZSO’s plan for European tour next year. Like all the orchestra’s programmes, planning has to start two to three seasons ahead, but with final bits of funding nearly sorted, this tour (taking in Shanghai as well as Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany) will r

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