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A landmark partnership between the London and Melbourne Symphony orchestras is fostering new creative collaboration – including an Australian visit from the LSO that promises to be bold. By Kim Thomson.

It was during the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 east-coast tour of Australia that Managing Director Kathryn McDowell CBE DL was first inspired by the land Down Under. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the landscape and the laid-back culture that left McDowell with warm memories, it was the unprecedented reception the LSO received during the visit. “The reaction that we had, in Queensland, in Sydney and in Melbourne, was so memorable – a real sense of a festival, of a very special occasion,” she says. “I absolutely loved it.” It was then McDowell first met Sophie Galaise, now Managing Director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The pair have since stayed in contact, often discussing how they may one day bring the two orchestras together to collaborate.

In May 2023, their dreams will become a reality, with the LSO set to return to Australian shores for the first time since 2014 – marking the LSO’s fourth visit in its 120-year history. The visit is part of a freshly inked, multi-pronged partnership between the two organisations, which will produce bold new works, facilitate knowledge sharing and see reciprocal international visits.

Galaise describes the two orchestras as “kindred spirits” – both artistically and in their commitment to doing things differently – and says these shared values will underpin the union.

“The LSO is an amazing orchestra to watch – they are in true partnership with the conductor onstage; the responsiveness of the musicians to the conductor is not one-way,” she says.

“We also have an orchestra that loves to show their passion, which can be seen in the way it engages and collaborates with, and responds to our chief conductor.”

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LSO Managing Director Kathryn McDowell CBE DL with violinists Belinda 'Bindi' McFarlane and Naoko Keatley

The orchestras have something of a parallel history: in 1904, after a group of musicians broke away from the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the LSO came into being; just two years later, halfway around the world, the MSO was formed.

Over the past few years, they’ve each been characterised by a fierce resolve to keep the wheels turning through dire circumstances. “At the MSO, there was a real galvanisation that I very much identified with [during the pandemic],” says McDowell. “The situation was really, very serious for musicians and artists, and remains so. I think there was a certain similarity in the way that we had to approach simply saving our organisations and moving things forward.”

McDowell says this year’s Australian tour will have particular resonance in light of the past few years, and that the wide-ranging partnership aims to meaningfully consider the relationship between the two countries.

“There are still huge elements that bind our two nations – there’s a complex history that is something I think we’re all grappling with – so, in this moment, a shared understanding between organisations across the globe is a really valuable thing.”

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The LSO rehearsing during COVID-19 lockdown


For Australian audiences – in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane – the LSO’s 2023 tour will feature beloved Music Director and symphonic superstar Sir Simon Rattle in his last Australian tour with the LSO before concluding his tenure as Chief Conductor to become Conductor Emeritus. Sir Simon says the chosen repertoire – to be performed by more than 110 LSO musicians – is deliberately bold and includes some of his “personal favourites”: Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and John Adams.

“There is Debussy and Ravel – La Mer and Suite NO.2 from Daphnis and Chloé – delicate works that showcase the orchestra’s innate feel for French music,” he says. “[And Adams’ Harmonielehre, which is] like nothing else – this is music on a vast scale, requiring a huge number of musicians, which we simply couldn’t have performed while social distancing measures were in place – so it’s incredibly exciting to be able to stage music on this scale again,” he says. McDowell is equally as enthusiastic about the chance to tour this selection. “We wanted to bring a really dynamic repertoire to Australia – like John Adams’ Harmonielehre, which is an absolutely blistering piece; it’s what I would call a very LSO piece – it has a bravura, a sort of sparkle and precision,” she says. “There’s also Mahler 7, which is an extraordinary work that is very close to the heart of the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle, so it’s lovely to be bringing that as well. If one’s going to make the effort to travel across the world, it has to be special.”

Galaise says the LSO are set for another warm reception from Australian audiences. “We’re lucky to have one of the greatest orchestras on this planet come to visit us – and with Sir Simon at the end of his tenure, it will be very significant; it will be the end of an era for the LSO and we will be witness to that.”

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Iconic conductor Sir Simon Rattle leading the Orchestra


As well as assistance to tour in each other’s country, another key plank of the partnership is the chance to support emerging artists from each country, including those from MSO Academy and the LSO String Academy.

Galaise says there will be a particular focus on supporting First Nations artists. “To my knowledge, the MSO is the only orchestra in Australia that has a First Nations ensemble in residence – young, amazing indigenous musicians coming from all over the country – who are being trained and accompanied in their development by the MSO,” she says. “We would like to give these emerging artists a chance in London, and an opportunity to be in close contact with amazing musicians from the LSO – to learn about their activities and to showcase their tradition,” she says.

McDowell adds that the LSO will share its depth of experience in education and community work, which has long been a priority area for the Orchestra. “The LSO works a lot with socially disadvantaged and culturally diverse young people in London … in fact, one of our violinists, Belinda McFarlane, who is Australian, has been a driving force behind our Discovery program for 25 years now.”


The four-year deal will see new works co-commissioned by composers from each country, to be performed by both Orchestras. “The voices of Australian artists will be heard in the UK and the voices of British composers will be heard here in Australia,” as Galaise puts it. The partnership will also create new digital audio opportunities, including MSO content being distributed across the LSO’s pioneering platform, LSO Live. The orchestra-owned recording label, set-up more than two decades ago, aims to bring classical music to new audiences, and ensures its players and conductors remain stakeholders in their own recordings. “We’ve built that over the years and shared that practice around the world with certain territories, but we haven’t yet had a partnership in Australasia, so that’s a very interesting area,” says McDowell. Galaise says there are several projects already underway and more ideas keep developing organically.

“This is what real exchange is like,” she says, “you collaborate and start with one thing, but then it grows bigger and bigger over time.”

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The MSO on stage during their 2022 Mid-Season Gala


The milestone partnership between the Melbourne and London Symphony Orchestras has been made possible by the Gandel Foundation’s contribution to the MSO’s Now and Forever Future Fund, which supports international engagement and collaboration.

John Gandel AC and Pauline Gandel AC said they were delighted and excited to join forces yet again with the MSO and are keenly anticipating the LSO’s visit to Australian shores.

“The role of the arts – including music – in helping people look to the future with hope and brightness in their hearts is possibly more important now, in the times of COVID, than ever before,” they said.

“Indeed, the MSO plays a vitally important role in enriching our lives, and by connecting internationally, they also help Australians to have that important window to the rest of the world and experience the best it has to offer.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Gandel Foundation has provided grants to organisations in a range of spheres, including education, disadvantage, mental health, digital equality and the arts.

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The Australia visit holds particular significance for two LSO members.Violinists Belinda ‘Bindi’ McFarlane, originally from Adelaide, and Naoko Keatley, from Sydney, will relish the chance to perform for family and friends in Australia – the first time they’ve done so with the LSO since 2014.

Keatley says it’s still a thrill to be playing to large live audiences and touring internationally again. “The first time we played for an un-distanced audience [since the pandemic began]

was in Aix-en-Provence in June 2021, performing Tristan to a packed-out opera house,” she says. “We got a standing ovation and actually had tears in our eyes – it was that moving!”

For McFarlane, she is excited to be exploring further opportunities to work with young musicians from under-represented backgrounds during the MSO and LSO partnership.

“At the LSO, we’re very committed to reaching out in the community around us,” she says. “It’s not enough to be solely on stage, performing to an audience, it’s also important to take the music out of the concert hall – it gives a deeper validity to our existence as an orchestra.”

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LSO Music Director Sir Simon Rattle shared an intimate hour of storytelling in Iwaki Auditorium on 4 May 2023.

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