Watching the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in concert at the famous Opera House a couple of weeks back, I thought the principal cellist looked a bit familiar.
‘Who’s that?’ I whispered.
‘Nathan Waks,’ said my neighbour.
‘Never!,’ I exclaimed.
The last time I was in Sydney, in 1995, Nathan Waks was head of music at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a man of influence and authority. I could hardly imagine a BBC executive giving up the trappings and going back to play in an orchestra where he once held powers of hire and fire – and that’s assuming anybody in the BBC would pass an audition to play any instrument in an orchestra of international quality.
But, sure enough, there was Nathan beaming away at the head of the cellos, relishing his solos and peering out into the Sunday audience in search of family and friends. He had grown a beard since we last met and, when I caught up with him backstage, he was full of the joys of his dual life, spending half his time in the orchestra and the other half as chief executive of an award-winning winery, Kilikanoon in the Clare Valley. Even as we spoke, he was negotiating a deal with the giant Fosters brewery to take over the historic Seppelt vineyard and adjoin it to his own.
He is spending less and less time these days in band, which is reluctant to lose him, but it seemed to me that Nathan Waks was doing something pretty important: he was creating a working model for the orchestral musician of the 21st century.
Let’s face it, few societies need to sustain full-time salaried players and those that do have trouble giving them job satisfaction. Letting players have a second life seems to be the ideal solution – and there are others in the SSO who pursue similar arrngements, not least the concertmaster Dene Olding who doubles as lead violin in the widely-travelled Goldner Quartet. Dene seems pretty contented, too.
Australia, a can-do country, may well have hit on the secret of orchestral happiness.