Picking up the baton

New CEO Diana Weir tells Richard Betts about hating piano lessons, loving Britten, and her vision for the orchestra.

Diana Weir is poised, articulate, and not quite settled in. “As you can see from the boxes behind you,” she says, “I’ve been living in AirBnBs for the past two months.” She’s not complaining; it is said with a smile, as is much of our conversation, and she has a wry sense of humour that will fit nicely in her new surroundings. But it’s been a whirlwind few months for Diana, who has relocated from the Canadian city of
Hamilton, Ontario to become Auckland Philharmonia’s new CEO, the result of an exhaustive international search to bring the best of the best to Aotearoa.

Phil News: Where does your love of music come from?
Diana Weir: My mom bought a piano when I was five. I came home from school and she said, “Look at this beautiful piano!” I said, “But I can’t play it.” She said, “You will.” Then it was the torture of piano lessons. I mostly hated it. Everyone told me that one day I’d be grateful that my mother forced me to take lessons, which I didn’t believe but, of course,  they were right. It instilled this care for music, and I became a professional church musician for the better part of a decade. I didn’t experience a symphony orchestra until I was in my early 20s. I went through a period of buying these cheap tickets and experienced some fantastic performances in that way. The most memorable one was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem. It was incredibly moving, and that is what got me interested in symphony orchestras.

PN: Your entire career has been in performing arts: opera, youth orchestras, symphony orchestras, contemporary dance.
DW: I have such respect for the arts in general and particularly performing arts. I like arts that don’t tell me what to think. With a symphony orchestra I can take my own meaning. That gives a listener the freedom to explore their own senses and creativity and I think that’s special.

PN: What made you accept the role at Auckland Philharmonia?
DW: I worked at the Hamilton Philharmonic in Ontario, Canada, where [Kiwi conductor] Gemma New was music director, and I learnt about New Zealand through her. She gave me a book about scenery in New Zealand, which sat on my coffee table. When this opportunity came up, I spoke to her and she thought highly of the Auckland Philharmonia, because of course she has guest conducted here. I spoke a couple of times with the hiring committee, and came out to Auckland for an in-person interview in the middle of winter. It rained the whole time and I mostly stayed in my hotel room [laughs]. But when I sat with the committee to talk about the orchestra, when I met with [Music Director] Giordano Bellincampi, when I heard from the musicians, it gave me a sense of possibility. There’s wonderful infrastructure and support
for the orchestra, and a real desire to serve Aucklanders inside and outside the concert hall. I thought, “Oh yeah, I could get into this. I have something to contribute, and if I get to work with the people sitting around the table, then great.”

PN: Why do you think the committee chose you?
DW: I think people can tell I care about this artform. I think people can tell that I think life is better when you have broad experiences with the arts, but specifically when you can experience the power of hearing and feeling 100 musicians being led by a conductor to interpret this work in a way that can only happen on this stage in that moment, in this venue, with 1200 people around me. It’s unique. I want every person to have that moment where they hear that culminating brass chorale of a symphony and have the hair on the back of their necks stand up. It’s that desire to share that with others that makes me good at my job. You find this a lot with people who work in the arts; their personal and
professional values are tied together.

PN: Was there any area you thought: This is something I can bring my knowledge and experience to?
DW: A lot of the work I did in Canada was creating partnerships and expanding the expectation of what a symphony orchestra can do. I think the success of a contemporary orchestra is how well it integrates with the broader community. How it continues to show its citizens that it’s a public asset worthy of civic pride and that yes, we play fantastic, high-calibre, artistically significant and relevant music on the mainstage, but we also find ways to intersect with the other priorities of our city. That means building relationships with fellow arts organisations and businesses, but also civic, social, health and well-being community organisations, and finding ways to serve one another in mutually
beneficial partnerships, relationships, collaborations. If we can continue to find ways to welcome more people into our space, but also take our artists into the community and contribute to those areas of Auckland that make it a fantastic place to live and work, I think that’s an exciting opportunity for us.

PN: You’re coming into a role that has been filled by one person for many years. How is that?
DW: I’ve found great comfort in the strength of the leadership here over the last 17 years, and the work [former CEO] Barbara Glaser put in and what the whole team created. She was so well regarded and respected, and Barb is still a wonderful supporter and now patron of the orchestra. We’re so grateful for her impact in our city and continued support of the orchestra.

PN: The arts in New Zealand are not self-sustaining, and you come to the orchestra at a time when local and central government funders are reassessing how they support the sector. What are your views on the role of public support in the arts?
DW: We understand that governments have lots of priorities, and we believe that infrastructure and healthcare and housing should absolutely be the first-level priorities. But we also know that in addition to the basics of living, we need to have offerings in our city that make life great. That’s where the arts come in. I think local and central governments here have provided incredible support to ensure there’s a stable arts community. That allows us to keep 100 artists and creative-class workers employed in the country’s biggest city. We are the
largest employer of full-time artists in Auckland. So without that support we’d be a very different orchestra, one with less impact on the tens of thousands of people we reach every year. As arts institutions we need to keep communicating the message to funders about our role in the lives of New Zealanders. I’m excited to do that work.

PN: Philanthropy has traditionally been less prominent here than in North America. Is that an area to work on?
DW: Philanthropy has a different flavour here to North America, but there is a shared passion for supporting organisations that are meaningful to people. Aucklanders are dedicated to making this city a great place to live and philanthropy has a significant role to play in
enhancing and enabling culture, art and beauty. And it’s refreshing and humbling to witness the bonds that form in supporter circles. Auckland Phil donors are part of our wider family and they relate to each other that way, finding friendship through like-minded support. At the same time, they inspire us to be the best we can be and provide the financial support we need to dream big and reach as many people as possible.

PN: What role might business play?
DW: What do people want when they move to a city? They want to know they can find a good place to live, that they can do fun things in their free time. What is an opera company or theatre company or symphony orchestra or sports team but an attraction for people to feel that where they’re moving to is vibrant? We play a role in the economic health of the community but also in attracting and retaining talent not just in the orchestra but the city. So we can continue to work with our corporate partners to show them how they can use us as an asset to
reward, retain and cultivate employees and clients.

PN: The Auckland Philharmonia has for many years stood out for its support of local music and musicians. What are your thoughts on the role of an orchestra in supporting the musical community it’s part of?
DW: I think it’s important for orchestras to bring the best of the world to their cities. It contributes to a global understanding and respect
for where we are, as artists from around the world come to Auckland, have a positive experience and then spread that message with their
colleagues who are also on the global touring circuit. At the same time, we need to reflect the communities where we exist. I feel very strongly that one of our responsibilities is to cultivate New Zealand talent. You’ll see that in our programming on the mainstage, in our commissioning, but also in our Learn & Participate activities and our New Zealand Assistant Conductor-in- Residence programme, which
is a partnership between us, the Christchurch Symphony and the Dunedin Symphony. We want to raise the tide so these boats can come up
and this talent can be cultivated, go on to be successful and represent New Zealand on the world stage.

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