National orchestras around the world are right at home in formal concert halls. But the National Orchestra of Samoa is open to all possibilities, playing wherever there are people to listen. The energy and imagination of the orchestra was one of the things that Sydney Conservatorium of Music graduate Beatrice Carey (BMus(Perf) ’11) loved about working with them.
“My strongest memories were these guerrilla-style concerts where we would pile everything into the back of a ute and drive to wherever we were to play,” Carey says. “I had to just let go of so much I had learned and come to understand that the job would always get done – and done well.”
Established in 2012, the orchestra was a government initiative suggested after a visit to China by Samoan Prime Minister the Hon. Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi. Seeing Chinese orchestras perform at government events, he wanted the same resource for Samoa. He saw it as a way to expand music education in the region and re-energise Samoa’s own musical culture. Today, the musicians play not just familiar classics but orchestrated versions of traditional Samoan songs.
The orchestra has also presented an opportunity to engage a generation of young people. Most of the players are aged 18 to 30; some of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and didn’t finish school.
Learning to play and perform introduced a sense of pride and purpose and gave them a new passion for their own music.
Not surprisingly, the orchestra had to face some early challenges. There were not nearly enough instruments or qualified tutors, and when the humid climate damaged the instruments, they couldn’t be fixed locally and had to be sent to New Zealand for repairs. However, players have since learned to improvise: if a violin bridge falls over, they now use YouTube to learn how to correct it.
That the orchestra has overcome so many obstacles is largely due to support from the Samoan government’s Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture, plus the steady hand and creative drive of Orchestra Director Fonoti PJ Ieriko.
A skilled composer and arranger, he studied music in New Zealand and is now working to incorporate Samoa’s rich musical heritage into traditional classical music.
“I was lucky enough to work alongside PJ while I was there,” Carey says. “He is a guiding light for many young people in the orchestra, through his passion and strong leadership.”
Before she went to Samoa, Carey had primarily taught in well-resourced private schools focusing on music and education. In helping to establish the fledgling orchestra, her role grew to include everything from teaching to organising sponsorship and marketing, mentoring young members and even being their driver.
During a break in Australia at the end of 2015, she saw a chance to do more. Carey emailed the Chair of Strings at the Conservatorium of Music, Goetz Richter (BA ’97 PhD ’07), telling him about the orchestra and asking if there was anything he or the Conservatorium could do to help.
Richter was instantly impressed by the initiative and eager to meet with Carey.
“After the meeting, we went to the instrument storeroom,” recalls Carey. “He sent me on my way with a bucket full of instruments that I managed to take over on the plane, including a very awkwardly shaped trombone.”
Not long after, another set of musical instruments arrived in Samoa, also donated by the Conservatorium and delivered by Richter and his wife, musician Jeanell Carrigan. Together, they have played several concerts with the National Orchestra of Samoa, including for Prime Minister Tuilaepa. Since then, the relationship between the orchestra and the Conservatorium has continued to strengthen.
In 2017, and thanks to an Australian government New Colombo Plan grant, Richter was able to take a group of eight Conservatorium students to Samoa to run workshops and perform with the orchestra. For the aspiring Australian musicians, it was a revelation.
“Our students found it incredibly inspiring to see the sheer will of these young musicians to play,” Richter says. “There’s so many obstacles for them to get to where they want to go, and yet they have such energy and enthusiasm and love for music.”
Today, the hope is that funding can be found to support regular musical exchanges and to develop a Skype-based program so tuition can happen online and in real time between Samoa and Australia. The goal of the Samoan players is to become a fully fledged symphony orchestra.
Carey reluctantly left Samoa in 2017 to pursue other career opportunities. She is now the Education Manager of the Glyndebourne opera house in the United Kingdom, but is still an adviser to the National Orchestra of Samoa. She looks back warmly on her time there and is grateful for the strong belief it gave her that the arts should be accessible to everyone.
“I am so incredibly invested in their mission,” Carey says. “The orchestra is so far from what we know an orchestra to be, in places like Australia. That’s what makes it so special. It’s an opportunity to do something unique and different within Samoa.”
Written by Rebekah Hayden
Photos by Mattias Baenziger