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Monday, 27 October 2008

Will a Dud Cheque Kill Our Community Symphony Orchestra?

Last night's concert at Tweed Heads

This is the story of Barry Singh, a banana farmer who became the conductor and artistic director of his own 70 piece symphony orchestra.

And of the threat that a dud cheque for $18,000 is posing to his dream.

Barry Singh - Source NRSO

The Northern Rivers Symphony began with just eighteen musicians fifteen years ago and is now renowned on the North Coast of New South Wales, drawing musicians from a huge regional/rural area stretching to Brisbane, Lismore and Toowoomba.

It has no government funding and depends on ticket sales for its existence.

The orchestra normally offers concerts on the Tweed and the Gold Coast but four years ago took a $38,000 risk to hire the Queensland Performing Arts Centre to hear themselves 'in a proper concert hall'. The venture was a big success, but ticket sales fell short, leaving a funding deficit.

It all began with this son of a violent father and a loving mother on a Tweed banana farm. The boy chipped weeds and cut bananas as soon as he could hold the necessary tools.

He told his mother at the age of six that one day he would play a violin and become the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

In high school in sleepy Murwillumbah Barry Singh got to play a violin for the first time - the only violin student there. He practiced in the packing shed against his father's wishes, but made his way via a scholarship to the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.

The student was doing well when his father died in the second year of his course and Barry returned to the farm to help his mother. They laboured together for twenty years beginning early and often finishing at eleven at night.

Barry never lost hold of his dream, gradually growing the orchestra to its present phenominal size. The community was always supportive but finance was always a struggle.

Rehearsals were held among small groups of players in various parts of the region, with full blown practice sessions fairly rare.

Sometimes the brass section might be a bit thin but gradually the gaps filled and the group has gained respect from the profession.

Last night's concert was held in a Tweed Heads Rugby League football club auditorium in the NRSO heartland.

Fifty musicians and four singers performed before a good appreciative crowd, but there were still many seats empty in the 1000 seat theatre.

The standard was astonishing for a group that has never had government funding and pays its way with ticket sales.

The programme was mainly French, ranging from the pot boiler Ravel's Bolero to Camille Saint-Seans Dance Bacchanale. In between there were excerpts from Delibes' Coppelia and Chopin's Les Sylphides, and many others.

Overall the quality was high, but I did notice that the orchestra got away from Barry during a rollicking version of Offenbach's Can Can, and that Barry simply laughed at the head violionist and carried on.

He'd have to deal with things that way with the mixture of experience among his players, although I notice that professionals are flocking more and more to be part of the NRSO scene - a tribute certainly.

The Duet from The Pearl Fishers of Bizet was superb and so was the Quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto.

The audience loved it all. Sometimes they clapped in the wrong places and Barry used every opportunity to explain the music. The orchestra has done a lot to educate a normally unsophisticated community that otherwise has little access to classical works.

As the final applause died down Barry Singh came towards the audience and asked that the house lights be lit. He wanted to chat face-to-face he said.

He told how the orchestra had been asked recently to perform with 70 players at a Byron Bay festival, for a payment of $18,000. This would meet performers' fees, associated expenses and produce a small profit.

However, when the cheque came, Barry said it was dishonoured at the bank, and the matter was in the hands of solicitors. There was an audible gasp from every member of the audience.

Now, Barry said, the entire future of the orchestra was in the balance. He appealed to the community to fill the auditorium at a benefit concert being planned for February. If this wasn't a success the end was nigh.

We can't wait to get all of our friends there. It will be a corker of a night and the orchestra will surely live on.


  1. What an inspiring story! I do so hope you all get together and knock em' dead! Wish I could be there to hear it. Thanks for sharing this one, June!

  2. June, what an incredible story. How horrific that someone would cheat them out of $18,000 though. And I guess the solicitors fees will cost them dearly too.

    I hope everyone gets behind Barry and the orchestra to make this a big success. I hope his story gets a lot of media exposure because him realising his dreams is amazing in itself!

    Having lived in Coffs Harbour and having a bit to do with banana plantations I feel a bit of a soft spot for Barry. Quite different careers he has!

    Great post and glad you are such a big supporter of the Arts. We need more people to do likewise. Who knows I am more than likely living in Brisbane by then so maybe I will make the concert too!!

    Great post!

  3. Hi Sylvia
    Wouldn't it be good if we could gather all of our bloggy mates to get to the concert next year to help them out! We'd have a time and a half ...

  4. Hi Lilly
    Yes banana farming is extremely hard work.
    Barry's history was on Australian story about three years ago. We all knew of his past but as usual they did a great story with the doco and spread the word throughout the land. You can imagine. They followed the orchestra's trauma of going to Brisbane and whether or not they'd meet the bills.
    I think the trip may have helped get things that little bit further for him.
    Really - live in Brisbane eh? It's a great town these days. We could meet somewhere. It's a date.

  5. hi there. would you join our website OurPatch (targeted at regional australians), and post this blog there? see it doesn't cost ay money to register with OurPatch and your article is wonderful - posting it on this website would be great exposure for the NR symphony orchestra - we have many users in the byron bay, lismore and ballina regions. good luck to the Northern Rivers Symphony Orchestra. Thanks for the article! Philippa

  6. June, What a great story and I am so pleased there are folks like you supporting this orchestra. Can't do much from here in Mumbai, except wish the orchestra a lot of success , and freedom from financial troubles.

  7. Once a journo always a journo Pip. I'm 72 and I saw the story when Barry Singh poured out his heart to us. Thus the post.
    Sure, I'll post it to Our Patch - anything to help.
    By the way, does the sudden stop in posts to your blog mean:
    a. You're happier and doing lots now.
    or perhaps
    b. Felt less need to rant now that Rudd is in and Howard gone?
    It WAS such a relief!
    See you around ...

  8. Suranga
    I know you are into community and I'd love you to have been there last night. It was a joy followed by incredulity that someone should be so rotten to such a fine group of people.
    I can't see the North Coast letting Barry down.

  9. What a story! Barry has accomplished so much and put so much into this orchestra. It has to be a full house on that night, even full to overflowing. This man has worked so hard and deserves so much. Please keep us informed on this. Great story, thanks for sharing.

  10. It's something of a fairy story isn't it Judy? And community is in the centre of it so surely he won't fail.

  11. Hi June! Great to see your article up on OurPatch - keep 'em coming! As you may have noticed, I also contribute a number of local news articles to the website... it's a fair bit of writing - enough to keep me busy - that's why I seem to have abandoned my blog. As we live in the same region, perhaps we could meet over coffee one day and you could give me some pointers on pursuing a career in Journalism. Meantime, be well :)

  12. That's fine Pip - email me some time. Getting into journalism is a hard road these days ... but we could chat. I'm always into coffee anyway.
    I doubt that I'll have time to send much to Our Patch but you never know. I have two blogs which I service regularly. Have you seen Journeys into Creative Writing? My short stories and poetry.
    Every little thing helps for the orchestra eh?

  13. An interesting story well told. Good post.

  14. Thanks for dropping in again Tropigal. Barry's is a nice story ... appreciate your kind words.
    See your state is being invaded by the presidential campaign at the moment ...


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