Breaking barriers: Matthew Wood with the DSO

Small city, big impact



Ever wondered what our musical neighbours in the Northern Territory are up to?

We take some time to chat with Matthew Wood, artistic director and chief conductor of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra. Matthew, one of the nation’s most versatile and successful conductors, enlightens us as to the experience of working in a small city to make a big impact on the Australian musical landscape.

Matthew shares his time between Australia and the United Kingdom. In the latter, he’s worked with leading orchestras including the Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic and at the Royal Ballet Covent Garden. In 2016, he made his debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Among other appearances outside the UK, Matthew this year makes his Swedish debut with performances of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha with Folkoperan Stockholm.

Matthew recently returned to Australia to take up his position with the DSO. He has also conducted other leading ensembles here including the Melbourne, Tasmanian and Queensland Symphony Orchestras. 


You split your time between the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and some pretty impressive international activities. Where even are you at the moment? And what are you working on?

I’m currently conducting a new production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha at the Folkoperan in Stockholm. It is a fascinating production, incorporating the fabulous Swedish circus company Cirkus Cirkör. They have provided an outstanding and complimentary addition to Glass’ hypnotic score.

There must be some logistical challenges in splitting your time across different continents…

I’m based in both London and in Darwin as I share my time between Europe and Australia. There are challenges, but not as many as you may expect. Travelling from Darwin actually makes the trip to Europe a little shorter  – for which I am very thankful!

With these challenges also comes the great reward of working in a landscape such as the Northern Territory. How does the environment play a part in the work that you do?

In a sense, the DSO is uniquely placed: on the one hand, it exists in the relatively small city of Darwin, which comes with its own set of challenges. On the other hand, it has to contend with the extraordinary vastness of the Northern Territory. We tackle this by attempting to be an orchestra for the Territory as a whole, not just the city centre. Alongside our standard season of indoor and outdoor concerts in Darwin, we do a lot of regional touring, which makes for some pretty spectacular opportunities.

For example, we recently became the first symphony orchestra to perform at Uluru. A tour of this magnitude naturally comes with considerable logistical and financial implications; however the ‘can do’ attitude of the Territory assists us in finding ways to do many things that seem unreachable for what is essentially a small and resourcefully challenged organisation. This was even more recently demonstrated with our tour to North-East Arnhem land where we performed Bizet’s Pearlfishers at Gulkala – a profoundly sacred place for the Yolngu people and the space where the Garma Festival is held each year. Here we collaborated with local musicians who became synthesised into the opera, translated the synopsis into Yolgnu and ran a four-day 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 my home country. I love exploring the possibilities of what a symphony orchestra can do. We are exploring and have no reason to be hindered by ‘traditions’.  We are making our history now and it is a privilege to be part of it.

What type of audiences does the DSO reach?

We have an extremely diverse demographic of audience which has been developed by considerable touring throughout the NT, collaborations with Indigenous musicians, collaborations with non-classical musicians and musical genres, main-stream classical programming and regular free outdoor public events. A principal goal of mine if to continue to ingrain the DSO into the cultural landscape of the NT by being part of it and by being flexible, experimental and diverse in our programming. Most people living within Darwin and the NT will have a connection with the orchestra in one way or another, which is terrific and resonates with our own diversity.

Are there audiences for the more traditional symphonic repertoire, or do you have a duty to make classical music more popular?

It is not so much about making classical music more popular but more about providing it in the first place and making it accessible. I think classical music is popular, but we strive to present programs that connect, resonate and entertain, rather than perform for just the sake of performing.

Many of our audiences come to the opera or a symphony without previous opera or orchestral experience. I’m continually finding people post-concert that tell me ‘this was my first opera’ or ‘my first time going to the symphony’. Thankfully, they’re usually asking when the next performance is! This is what makes the work so rewarding and so vital. I believe that what we do is privileged, that we are exceptionally lucky to have music in our lives and have a platform on which to perform it. The mission is therefore to share this privilege with everyone.

The DSO consistently champions Australian music. What makes this part of the orchestra’s ethos?

We’re an Australian orchestra situated in one of the most extraordinary landscapes within the world. The Northern Territory has been a place of considerable inspiration for many composers and musicians. It feels both natural and essential that we perform the music of composers influenced by that landscape.

As an Artistic Director working in Australia, I also feel it’s my responsibility to do as much as I can to celebrate and support Australian artists. The DSO has a relatively small season compared to others; however we use our season to support and examine the environment in which we exist. For Darwin and the DSO that environment is a developing Australian city finding its voice. How better to express this development as an orchestra than in the performance of music that is being written today? As an orchestra of today, we have a responsibility to connect strongly with the landscape in which we exist. To simply perform symphonic repertoire written 100 years ago would alienate us from this environment, therefore I endeavour to be as broad in our programming as I can within the resources available.

Follow Matthew’s activities with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra on Facebook.

Image supplied: Tourism NT/DSO/AYQ.

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