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Meg Washington: Playing with an orchestra is "like catching a wave. You have to surrender to the energy of it."

Reuniting with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 2017, the ARIA Award-winning songwriter reflects on change, constancy, and keeping it simple. 

By Hugh Robertson, adapted with permission from author.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

The same could be said of music, especially when performed live: the listener is somewhat changed at every performance, but so too is the performer, depending on their moods and the seasons of their life. Think Glenn Gould’s two Goldberg Variations recorded 35 years apart, or Joni Mitchell’s two versions of ‘Both Sides Now’ with a similar gap between them.

Meg Washington is a firm believer that the best songs are malleable, changeable, susceptible to the passage of time just as humans are. That question is on the ARIA Award-winning singer/songwriter’s mind as she looks ahead to her upcoming performance with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at Wrest Point on 30 January, more than six years after she made her debut with the Orchestra, and considers what has changed for her in the years since.

'The question is, as an artist, do you see yourself as a brand that has to be maintained and represented,' says Meg, 'Or do you see yourself as a being, evolving, changing, and, well, being?'

'I think life is much easier as an artist if you live in the second camp. Because the idea of trying to stay the same…age can make a huge impact on how a song relates to you.'

Much has happened in Meg's life in the past few years that may have changed how she approaches the world, and her music. She has released two albums, with another on the way in 2024, written a musical, and written and produced a feature film – the latter an adaptation of Paul Kelly’s beloved song ‘How to Make Gravy’ that Washington has made alongside her husband, Nick Waterman. The couple also have a child born in late 2017, mere weeks after she performed with the Orchestra.

If nothing else, Meg is enjoying how different her songs sound when she has full lung capacity.

Meg Washington performing with the TSO.
Meg Washington performing with the TSO.

‘The last symphony orchestra show that I did, I was eight months pregnant with my son,’ she recalls with a smile. ‘So my phrases were very short and I was in a really different head space because I was just trying to breathe at all. And now I feel like I'm feeling really good in my instrument and in my body.’

‘It feels like a delicious idea to take on the task of singing with the symphony orchestra.’

Despite Meg's excitement at these concerts there is also some trepidation about the size of the musical forces waiting for her.

‘It feels like catching a wave,’ she says of performing with the Orchestra. ‘It’s a bit scary at first because it is so big,’ says Meg. ‘Once it is moving, you can’t change it. You have to surrender to the energy of it.’

Another challenge has been thinking about her music in a very different way to normal, and particularly think about it so far in advance.

'Because I have a jazz background, I'm pretty allergic to structure and routine,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I love to just call songs on the day and I love when my band just knows things. So a show like this is a real challenge for me because I had to decide a long time ago what I'm going sing in the future.’

A big part of these concerts involves adapting and arranging Meg's songs for symphony orchestra. It isn’t as simple as simply adding more instruments – it has to be done sensitively, with a deep knowledge of the families of instruments and how they work together, and a constant tension between the original material and how to make it sound good at scale. It is a delicate art, but Meg is excited about the results that have come back from her collaborators.

‘There were a few arrangers that I have come to know over the past couple of years who I was keen to work with,’ Meg explains. ‘And of course the arrangers come back with their own very unique take on everything. Some of the songs are completely transformed.’

‘There's a song called 'Cement', from my first record, that is now unrecognisable – it sounds like it is from some kind of cinematic James Bond universe. I'm actually a bit intimidated to sing it because it's taken on a sound that's completely new for me.’

(As a case in point, listen to the recording of ‘Catherine Wheel’ from those 2017 concerts, released on streaming platforms late last year. The original, from Meg's 2020 album Batflowers, is a lovelorn ballad played on piano, wistful and weary and worn-out like the relationship it depicts. The 2017 performance, arranged for orchestra by Paul Hankinson, opens with Meg accompanied by a quiet salvo from the horns before the strings begin to swell under the second verse, culminating in a grand brass crescendo. It is grander, certainly, but that just seems to make the subject matter all the more crushing.)

One of the arrangers Meg has worked with for many years is Ross Irwin, who was a member of Meg's first band, formed back in 2008, and has worked with Australian acts including The Cat Empire and The Bamboos.

‘Ross is amazing. His arrangements are so good because they're totally familiar, but full of simple changes that have a huge effect. So his arrangements are really exciting because for me, anything that injects new energy and novelty into the music is really attractive.’

‘But I love the idea of treating my repertoire like standards,’ Meg continues. ‘Being able to do them this way or that way: Latin, bossa nova, swing them or play them with a big band or with a symphony orchestra. I love the idea that if a song is written well enough, it can be robust enough to handle that much interrogation and still and still sound good and feel good.’

It is interesting to hear Meg talk about standards and the great bodies of work that term suggests, names like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen. Back in 2017, in an interview published in the concert guide for her performances with the Sydney Symphony, Meg was adamant that those shows not be seen as a career retrospective. ‘I made a very deliberate decision because it was way too early for a ‘best of’, she said at the time.

But for these 2024 concerts, with her own songbook greatly expanded, she has taken the opposite path.

‘With this show I really wanted to present the most shining gems from across my catalogue,’ she explains. ‘I didn't want to complicate anything. Last time I did this, I had this whole album that I had arranged and it ended up like never coming out. So this time I was like just apply the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. I just am doing the songs that were singles and are singles, and other things that are my favourites.’

‘I think about it sort of like arranging beads on a string,’ she continues. ‘It has to be an interesting sequence of events that is unfolding and surprising, hopefully.’

*Adapted with the author’s permission from an article originally published on www.sydneysymphony.com

Meg

Don't miss Meg Washington

Reuniting with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 2017, Meg Washington performs at Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, nipaluna / Hobart on Tuesday 30 Jan 2024.

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News

Could the TSO’s newest concerto be a “future masterpiece”?

Written by Stephanie Eslake, December 2023

In October 2023, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of a piece that was commissioned by a local music lover, composed by a Melbourne artist, and performed by an expert soloist who has long made this island her home.

Could their music be a “future masterpiece” in the making?

TSO Concertmaster Emma McGrath says the only way we’ll know is if we keep exploring and showcasing new music. And considering the standing ovation she received when she played the solo in this work – Joe Chindamo’s original Violin Concerto – it may one day become an Australian staple for her instrument.

“All orchestras need to take risks and perform new music, otherwise we will never discover the future masterpieces,” Emma says.

“Australian orchestras need to support new Australian compositions to further solidify our classical music identity, and continue to give it a future.”

This concerto commission was initiated by Parker – husband of the orchestra’s CEO Caroline Sharpen – because he “wanted to do something to support the TSO, and to help the TSO continue its fine tradition of championing Australian music”.

The architect and driving force behind the commission grew up attending orchestral concerts in Sydney. He says classical music has been with him for five decades, during which time he also became a loyal listener to the TSO through its recordings and live concert broadcasts on ABC Classic FM.

“The feeling of being able to contribute to the development of Australian music after having listened to it for so long is wonderful,” Andrew says.

Although he provided generous backing that would enable this piece of music to come to life, Andrew speaks candidly about his own role in the project. He knew that to make it work, he needed to trust the experts, “get out of the way, and enjoy seeing what emerged”.

Joe Chindamo and Emma McGrath.
Emma McGrath performing Chindamo.

That’s where the orchestra’s artistic team came in, and Andrew says TSO Director Artistic Identity Simon Rogers picked just the right talent for the commission: Australian composer-pianist Joe Chindamo OAM.

“My hope was that Joe could write a work that he was proud of, that showed off Emma’s virtuosity, and that was consistent with Joe’s canon,” Andrew says. And with this team locked in, he had no doubt the result would be “technically significant, exciting, and with sufficient appeal that it could become a cornerstone of the Australian literature”.

But while Andrew was humble enough to let the creative team get stuck into the practical side of the project, he certainly wasn’t passive throughout the process. He observed the concert preparation with Emma and conductor Otto Tausk as they analysed and played through the score, and he listened to the full orchestral rehearsals that he describes as “an absolute highlight”.

“I was made to feel incredibly welcome and part of the process. The sense of involvement was very powerful and exhausting at the same time because everyone gives their all physically and emotionally.”

Emma describes a similar experience: she felt the music was a journey through “the gamut of human emotion”.

“It is engaging throughout and has wonderful architecture,” Emma shares. “It all builds towards the end, which is astonishingly exciting. It’s like watching a movie with a great plot and wonderful actors – you couldn’t wish for anything more.” 

Emma and Joe spent plenty of time planning how the score would turn out, and she told the composer to “go for it and to not hold back”. He had familiarised himself with her unique style of playing through listening to recordings and having heard her in past performances. Emma says she hoped he would write to the strengths of her instrument, and as there were “no egos and there was no tension whatsoever”, they were able to forge a successful collaboration throughout the composition process.

“We have the same goals: to create and recreate beautiful music that makes a difference in today’s world,” Emma recalls.

It wasn’t Joe’s first time working with the TSO, either: the string section has recorded his music for an ABC Classics release, and performed his music in the Obscura series. In 2021, the TSO also premiered their commission of his Concerto for Orchestra. So it’s no surprise that as soon as he had his first meeting with Emma, Joe knew this project “would be special”.

“She is so open-minded and excited by a wide spectrum of music-making,” Joe remarks.

“From the outset, I was made to feel so comfortable about creating a concerto for her that the piece almost wrote itself.”

To inspire “outside-the-square thinking”, he asked Emma if there was a concerto she’d love to play – but hasn’t yet been written. This gave him a feel for the types of music she’d be passionate about, which he combined with his own voice as a composer to ensure the music would sound “authentic, honest, and fresh”.

But when asked to break down the music, Joe is hesitant to describe the building blocks. Instead, he takes pride in the way the smallest musical elements are combined to share a story that in the concert precis he described as both a “nod to the great tradition to its adherence to time-honoured conventions” and a work that “reflects the pulse of our own time – that is alive to and speaks of the spirit of the day”.

Otto Tausk conducting.
Emma McGrath performing a violin solo.

He feels that spirit was captured by the performer who “embodies all the great qualities that I look for in a contemporary musician”.

“Emma is a classical virtuoso with all the sensibilities and skills that entails, plus a cool sense of rhythm one expects from a top-tier jazz musician coupled with the wild-child attitude of a rock ‘n’ roll maverick,” Joe praises.

“She is the perfect modern violinist, and it was a joy to write for her. This sense of modernity and ability to embrace new music with a great degree of natural ease is also a quality I love about TSO,” he says.

“When can we please do this again? I can’t wait!”

Commissions come in all shapes and sizes. If you are interested in helping create more Australian stories through music, please contact philanthropy@tso.com.au

Emma McGrath

Coming up in 2024

Emma McGrath steps into the spotlight as soloist in the third and final violin concerto by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Dedicated to Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate – one of the most lauded of violinists – the Third Violin Concerto will dazzle and delight.

Saturday 12 Oct 2024 7:30pm,
Federation Concert Hall, nipaluna / Hobart

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News

5 things to know about Meg Washington

Yes, she’s a phenomenal singer/songwriter, evocative performer and ARIA award winner, but there’s so much more to Meg Washington. Meg’s music will be given the full symphonic treatment when she unites with the Tasmanian, Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestra's in 2024.

Learn more about Meg ahead of her Hobart appearance on January 30. 

1. In 2022 Meg released Hot Fuss, a covers album reimagining the 2004 album of the same name by American rock band The Killers.

The surprising release was borne from,  in Meg’s word’s, a “piano practice turned into covering the entire [Killers’] debut record.”

The result is a pared-back rendition of the high-energy originals, mostly Washington’s voice and piano. You can listen below, our pick is Mr Brightside.

2. This isn’t Meg’s first orchestra rodeo.

She performed with the TSO back in 2017, playing favourites from albums I believe You Liar, There There and Insomnia to a full house. Washington has also performed with state orchestras like Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. Don’t miss out on this electrifying collaboration again!

"The orchestra is an amazing organism, able to create textures and dynamics and feelings that are totally unique.”

Quote by Meg Washington for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Image features Meg performing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2017.

3. She has a stutter that disappears when she sings.

Washington developed her speech impediment in childhood. In her 2014 TED Talk at the University of Sydney, she said “singing is the only way I feel fluent”.

You can watch it here:

4. She's the voice of Calypso in Bluey.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of smash-hit Aussie kid’s show Bluey you may have heard Meg’s voice. In 2018, Washington lent her voice to Calypso, the Australian Shepherd who is Bluey’s primary school teacher.  Her melodic voice appears in episodes throughout the 3 seasons. You can watch them here.

5. She can draw!

The lyric video for her 2020 single Dark Parts features hand drawn illustrations by Washington.

Don’t miss the multi-talented, genre-defying Meg Washington with the TSO!

30 January at Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, nipaluna / Hobart.

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Season 2024

Looking for more?

Homegrown heroes, The Wolfe Brothers, are making their way back to Launceston in April! 

Along with four number one ARIA Country albums, 18 number one singles and six Golden Guitars, Australia’s most awarded country rock duo in history will add another highlight in 2024: a not-to-be missed concert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

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TSO in the North!

8 – 10 Feb, Launceston and George Town

TSO will saturate Launceston and George Town in a flurry of musical activity this February!

Whether you're looking for a traditional concert experience, an event for the family or workshops for high school instrumental students, there's something for everyone. Don't miss out – find out more and book your tickets below.

Emma McGrath

Strings of the TSO

Classical brilliance meets contemporary dynamism.

Honey, we shrunk the orchestra! Join the TSO Strings for a night under the leadership of our Concertmaster, Emma McGrath. Orchestral favourites sit alongside classical makeovers for a high-energy program that delivers the quintessential concert experience.

Saturday 10 Feb, 7pm at Scotch Oakburn College, Launceston

Tickets just $42

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Family Favourites

Family Favourites

A musical adventure awaits the whole family!

Delight in classics and well-known tunes in this short concert filled with joy and excitement. Featuring the Can Can, William Tell Overture, and a few surprises to get you grooving!

GEORGE TOWN

Thursday 8 Feb, 6pm
George Town Memorial Hall

Tickets $10

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LAUNCESTON

Friday 9 Feb, 6pm
Scotch Oakburn College

Tickets $10

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School Concerts

Like Instrument Workshops (Years 6 - 12)

Instrumental students in Years 6 – 12 can join Like Instrument Workshops led by the players of the TSO.

Grouped by instrument, students will work on sound production, technique and ensemble skills. Not to mention have a lot of fun!

Saturday 10 Feb, 10am - 12pm
Scotch Oakburn College, Launceston

Free, registration essential

REGISTER FOR FREE

Email Kim Waldock, Director Artistic Development at waldockk@tso with your name, instrument and approximate grade.

School Concerts

School Concerts

School children will uncover the power of music in Listen and Dance – a concert of music to move to – featuring our Mini TSO ensemble made up of one of each orchestral instrument.

Free for participating schools.

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Season 2024

Looking for more?

Homegrown heroes, The Wolfe Brothers, are making their way back to Launceston in April! 

Along with four number one ARIA Country albums, 18 number one singles and six Golden Guitars, Australia’s most awarded country rock duo in history will add another highlight in 2024: a not-to-be missed concert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

See Concert

News

Experience Meg Washington in concert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

14 November 2023

Image

Leading Australian artist Meg Washington will reveal yet another facet of her genre defying talents when her music is given the full symphonic treatment in five exceptional concerts. Commencing in early 2024, the tour will unite Meg with the Tasmanian, Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras, under conductor Vanessa Scammell.   

Nominated for 10 ARIAS and winner of three, Meg Washington is renowned for her electrifying and soulful live performances, where the full power and virtuosity of her voice are in force.  

The orchestral tour will feature Meg performing reimagined orchestral arrangements of works from her extensive catalogue, including Lazarus Drug, How to Tame Lions, Skeleton Key and Catherine Wheel, a live symphonic recording that is being released today. Meg will also premiere new music from her upcoming fifth studio album, due for release in 2024.   

Recorded live at the Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, this cut of Catherine Wheel is arranged by Paul Hankinson and conducted by MSO Principal Conductor in Residence, Benjamin Northey.  

In 2020, Meg delivered her critically acclaimed and Aria award-winning fourth LP, Batflowers, which was also shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize. It attracted rave reviews, with Junkee Magazine espousing: It is a breathless album… a magnum opus, torn from somewhere very precious and important.”  Under her own label, Batflower Records, in 2022 Meg released a piano-led interpretation of The Killers’ album ‘Hot Fuss’, and a taste of her own new sound with the sublime single, Eastcoaster. 

In addition to her musical career, Meg has been working deeply in the film and TV industry. Liberated by her 2014 TEDx talk in which she revealed a lifelong stutter, in 2018 Meg began her voice-acting role as the schoolteacher 'Calypso' in the smash-hit Bluey. More recently, Meg wrote all the songs for the upcoming musical feature film, The Deb - produced and directed by Rebel Wilson.  

With her partner, Nick Waterman, Meg is also the co-writer and producer of a feature film adaptation of Paul Kelly’s classic song How to Make Gravy.  Their company, Speech and Drama Pictures, is co-producing the film alongside Academy-award nominated producer Schuyler Weiss (Elvis), and Warners International TV Productions for Binge. The film is currently shooting on the Gold Coast, Queensland. 

Meg’s fan base will delight in this new iteration of the much-loved artist’s works, while newcomers will fall in love with the unearthly voice and powerful musicality of Meg Washington.  

Find out more about Meg Washington's performance with the TSO, and take an in-depth look at the awe-inspiring 2024 Season.

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Meg Washington with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday 30 Jan 2024, 7.30pm 
Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, Hobart / nipaluna

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Welcome to Season 2024

23 October 2023

Tasmania’s orchestra unveils spectacular 2024 concert season 

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has unveiled its awe-inspiring 2024 concert season, designed to bring joy and captivate audiences through exquisite and diverse experiences. 

Chief Executive Officer Caroline Sharpen said regardless of what the orchestra performed or where they played, she hoped every performance would be a special, emotion-filled adventure. 

“Whether it’s our full orchestra featuring an international virtuoso, intimate chamber music at Woolmers, an Obscura performance at the Odeon, or a Live Sessions pub-style gig in a theatre in Queenstown, experiencing the TSO live is joyous,” Ms Sharpen said.  

Minister for the Arts, Madeleine Ogilvie MP, enthusiastically endorsed the orchestra’s 2024 season, celebrating the infusion of creativity and culture into the Tasmanian community.  

"The Government is thrilled to invest in Tasmania's orchestra and deliver a glorious musical experience to enrich the lives of children, families, and individuals around the state," Minister Ogilvie said. 

Ms Sharpen said the range of musical experiences had expanded this year, together with the TSO’s presence around Tasmania.  

“The 2024 season includes unique events like a concert of video game music and high-energy performances with home-grown superstars The Wolfe Brothers, who will join the full orchestra in Hobart and Launceston.” 

Tom and Nick Wolfe will play songs from their extensive 10-year catalogue with the TSO, as well as brand-new releases. 

Nick Wolfe said he was stoked to be playing with Tassie’s orchestra. 

“We’re thrilled to be sharing the stage with the TSO in 2024,” Mr Wolfe said. 

“They’re not your typical backing band; we’re super-excited by the prospect of joining forces with the TSO to celebrate home-grown music-making in Tassie. 

Ms Sharpen said this season, there’s something for the most seasoned music-lover, the whole family and anyone wanting to try something new.  

“Our Animal Kingdom Family Concert is sure to thrill, a chance to dress up in animal costumes and enjoy a wild world premiere by a Tasmanian composer,” she said.  

“We’re also excited our unique chamber music experiences will be held at Woolmers Estate in Longford again, with six exquisite concerts throughout the year. 

“Scat singer Olivia Chindamo’s TSO debut and a solo piece from our Principal Cello Jonathan Békés will be highlights of the popular 6pm Series, featuring four concerts catering to the demand for early-evening, short-format performances.  

“The TSO’s ever-popular Obscura series is also returning with three concerts, and TSO Live Sessions – laid-back performances in craft breweries, sheds and other non-traditional venues – performs around the state. 

“Our signature Federation Concert Hall series with the orchestra in full flight playing all the greats and the future classics, with world-renowned musicians and conductors, including our outstanding Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Eivind Aadland. 

“We’re delighted to welcome back artists who have forged a relationship with us over the years, including pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, chorus director Simon Halsey, and violinist Karen Gomyo and for the first time violinist Clara-Jumi Kang, South Korean conductor Shiyeon Shung and the exquisite blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. 

“Eivind Aadland has ensured Australian/Tasmanian composers will also be prominent throughout the 2024 season, and we’re looking forward to performing new works by Jabra Latham and Maria Grenfell.” 

Find out more about subscriptions, and take an in-depth look at the awe-inspiring 2024 Season.

Season 2024

Season 2024

As Tasmania's orchestra, we are delighted to invite you to our 2024 program.

When you look through the season concerts, each one brimming with artistry and energy, you'll see one thing lies at the heart of all Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra concerts: joy.

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