Soldier calls the tune; The Australian

THERE will be no cannons fired during performances of the Queensland Orchestra, at least not literally, even though it is now under the management of Patrick Pickett. He did once organise real cannon fire for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a feat easier to achieve when he ran the army band at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane.

Pickett, 53, a tall, imposing man who has spent the past 37 years in the military, does not deny that he may have to fire off a few metaphorical cannons at TQO. In the first week of his new job as general manager, he was hinting that the orchestra’s management may have to brace for change. His marketing and development manager Helen Goltz had tendered her resignation by the end of that first week.

Pickett says he is ready for a challenge, although he concedes that when he accepted the position, replacing Michael P. Smith, who resigned last year, he had not quite realised just how challenging it would be. While last year’s annual report recorded the fourth successive year of surplus, keeping an orchestra afloat financially has never been more difficult. This year’s annual report is due next month.

 “I thought I could bring new energy to the company,” Pickett says. “We are challenged in the entertainment industry by the massive organisations behind performers like Andre Rieu, which take ticket sales away from other arts companies.”

Pickett was born in Tamworth, NSW: “pre-country music”, he points out; he left to join the army the year the first country music festival was held there.

He was a jack-of-all-trades musician as a young man, playing all kinds of instruments in the school’s army cadet band. When the kids from the country won a national band competition, edging out more highly fancied city-based bands, Pickett found himself offered a position as an apprentice musician with the army.

He joined up, going off to the army’s school of music, then based on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.

As Pickett explains it, the role of soldier-musician has an interesting history. In the 1970s, when he joined, the musicians were dedicated stretcher-bearers, and many of those who went off to combat, in Vietnam for example, were killed in action. He is particularly proud of a memorial to those soldier-musicians, opened last month at the Defence School of Music in Melbourne.

Pickett remembers that as a 16-year-old he found life as an apprentice musician in the army quite harsh. “You became a man in a very short time,” he says. “The musicians who join today, they’re young professionals and it’s about a different challenge, more to do with full-time employment.”

Although times have changed, he says, there are still two rules that apply to young people who join up: “It’s about being fit, that’s rule No1,” he says. “And rule No2, keep your mouth shut.”

Pickett talks about his career in the military as though it were all chance and luck, although it’s also clear he is immensely proud of his achievements. He was sent off to the Royal Military School of Music in London once he’d completed his time at the army’s music school in Victoria, an acknowledgment of his capabilities.

The three years he spent there were tough, too. “I wouldn’t say bastardry reigned supreme,” he says. “But it was a time of hierarchies where we were the wretched colonials. There was also a sense of them and us between the musicians of the guards division and all the higher core bands. But there was a sense of fair play.” The training at the Royal Military School of Music, augmented with courses at the Royal Academy of Music –where he majored in conducting — gave Pickett the experience of playing with musicians at “the highest professional level”. This was a period when not only were “massively beautiful” works being transcribed for the military (or symphonic wind) band, but there were also many new composers writing specifically for such orchestras.

Back in Australia, Pickett headed to Wagga Wagga, where he spent nine years heading the army band there, and became involved in the regional university and conservatorium. Forming a lobby group, he campaigned for the NSW arts ministry to increase the abysmal funding to regional conservatoriums. From $160,000 a year spread thinly across 14 regional conservatoriums, the group was able to raise the level to $3.2 million.

Of his life in Wagga Wagga, where he was not only running the army band full-time but also conducting several choirs and running the conservatorium, Pickett says he had “no need to break the rules because the army had rules to deal with it”. So long as he worked at the extra jobs in his own time, everyone was satisfied.

“I loved every opportunity there,” he says, “particularly being able to turn the conservatorium into a music centre, where everyone in town could see it as a place for them.”

After another stint in Melbourne, in 2001 Pickett was appointed to the Enoggera Barracks, the home of the Brisbane division of the Australian Army Band, where he stayed for three years. “It was the same thing in Brisbane,” he says. “I couldn’t help myself getting involved in other things.”

He set up a teacher training course on how to run a choir and create a band. “It was about teaching teachers to have hands-on understanding of the activities involved, so they would know it’s about activities: don’t tell me, show me.”

His final army posting, which he held for the past five years until retiring last year, was as director of music. After 37 years he had reached a point at which he could admit he was tired of having a “subordinate role”.

“I was ultimately responsible to three generals and it would be not unfair to say they were always in communication, so that caused me some concern,” he says.

“I think the hardest part was that we were an artistic organisation within a military organisation.

“My desire is always to achieve what is achievable,” he says, hinting that he had reached a limit in his Australian Defence Force role.

“While I still have a shed full of ideas and things I’d like to try, I did also think it was time someone else should be able to come in and freshen things up. And (I) needed that too, an opportunity to freshen up.”

He lists off the memories he takes away from his time as the army’s music director: staging the first Edinburgh Tattoo in Australia, touring Japan, and producing the largest ever military tattoo for the Sultan of Brunei’s 60th birthday, an event that required Pickett to work with 123 different countries.

“These things were exciting, challenging, thrilling and rewarding, but obviously stressful,” he says.

The opportunity to move back to Brisbane, where he has family, and to manage a symphony orchestra came, he says, by chance, when he was talking to Smith, “one of my musicians from a long, long time ago — a nice oboe player”. Smith had mentioned that he “might be moving on”, and Pickett, who had been contemplating leaving the army, decided he was up for the challenge.

Smith recently made headlines, in his present job as a Brisbane radio announcer, when he said any “reasonable person” would find the wearing of a burka offensive. “If I’d still been a copper,” Smith said, “I would consider charging those people with offensive behaviour.” Smith worked as a DJ during his tenure as TQO general manager.

TQO has not enjoyed much stability during the past decade, with a steady stream of managers coming and going. Although the appointment of Johannes Fritzsch last year as chief conductor has been warmly received and seen as an opportunity for stabilisation, Tom Woods’s tenure as director of artistic planning comes to an end next month. It was always likely to be a stop-gap measure, given that Woods’s role as principal conductor of the Christchurch Symphony meant he was rarely in Brisbane.

As incoming manager, Pickett says he doesn’t want to “dig too deep into the guessing barrel” about what might be required to ensure a strong future for TQO, but he does say he has a “fundamental musicphilosophy”.

“I do believe there is a traditional orchestral repertoire we have to sustain, that gives meaning to our existence, but that’s only one part of what we do, shaping us as an entertainment organisation,” Pickett says.

“Music should be good and it should be played well, and while I won’t comment specifically about the Queensland Orchestra because I don’t yet know their program well enough, there is a risk that, at a high level, we spend a bit too much time entertaining ourselves. We have to make sure we remain constantly focused on audience need, and if the audience aren’t buying tickets, it’s probably because they don’t want to hear what you’re playing.

“The second part of that is that they might not have heard the right message, and I want to make sure the message is this: it’s about making sure our own musical arrogance is not dominating our understanding of what the product should and could be producing for our audience.”