Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sophie Galaise MAICD and Michael Ullmer FAICD worked in concert to revive its fortunes.

    Not every working partnership between chief executive and chair would be as close as that between the managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Sophie Galaise MAICD, and chair, Michael Ullmer FAICD. The two speak at least every fortnight, sometimes more often, mostly face to face. That’s because when Galaise stepped into the managing director’s role last year, the orchestra was in dire financial straits, carrying a deficit of more than $500,000. “It certainly wasn’t business as usual,” says Galaise candidly. “MSO is an organisation that needed a transformation, so we are not in a normal environment.”

    It’s a strong working relationship. They have bonded over their love of music and shared experiences as migrants. Ullmer was born in the UK and Galaise is from Canada. She spoke French and German before English and began her career as a professional fautist. She turned to arts administration in her mid-20s when it became clear her asthma would restrict her musical ambitions.

    “I had to evolve. I did a PhD in musicology, taught music in three different universities, but also kept managing arts organisations,” she says. “Eventually it grew. I’ve been managing in the number-one position for more than 25 years.”

    Ullmer is a numbers man, an accountant whose career grew from partner at KPMG (London) to finance director and deputy CEO of National Australia Bank. In 2011, he left his executive career to focus on board appointments. He balances his paid non-executive director roles (Lendlease Group, Woolworths) with pro-bono work at the MSO and National Gallery of Victoria.

    It wasn’t business as usual. MSO is an organisation that needed a transformation, so we are not in a normal environment.

    The two have plenty in common. Galaise is also good with numbers. She has an MBA and is on the advisory council of the Harvard Business Review. “Very often, a good musician is also strong in mathematics,” she says.

    Ullmer says their shared passion for the orchestra is critical to the success of the partnership.

    “I don’t play a musical instrument, but I love all forms of music,” he says. He spent eight years on the Sydney Symphony Orchestra board before being tapped on the shoulder by former MSO chair Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD, to make the move to the MSO in 2015. “Where we intersect, professionally, is around the commercial aspects of the organisation.”

    Galaise would not have accepted the MD role had she not felt at ease with Ullmer, even though the orchestra is considered to be in the world’s top 20.

    She had experienced a fractured relationship with her chair in a previous role in Canada that ended up with her resigning as executive director.

    She knew she faced a challenge. After Ullmer’s appointment in 2015, the orchestra posted a defcit of $577,653. Ullmer instigated a cost-cutting program, axing 20 per cent of the orchestra’s administrative staff. He invited Galaise to develop a new strategy for the orchestra. At the time, she was three years into a five-year contract as CEO of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, but she’d achieved the goals she’d set herself — and she prefers the southern climate. “I love the change of season, and it’s a beautiful city.”

    Galaise’s new strategy for the MSO is based on four pillars: involve the community, champion music education, be an arts leader, be a gateway to great music and musicians.

    She believes the orchestra will thrive only by deepening its connections to the community and recently announced that Melbourne Youth Orchestras is moving to be “in residence” with the MSO, to be helped and mentored. The MSO’s flagship community program is The Pizzicato Effect, delivering free music tuition to children from disadvantaged suburbs such as Broadmeadows.

    Working with the chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, Galaise has the final say on the MSO program.

    This year, it has included unusual offerings such as pop singer Anthony Callea performing with the MSO and a series called “Jams for Juniors 7”. Galaise recently announced the 2018 program in an event that drew a crowd of 1200.

    Within her first year, Galaise increased audience attendance fgures from 2.6 million to 3.4 million, and the budget is now on track. The 2016 annual report shows a surplus of $761,727.

    MSO on tour

    Twenty-five orchestra members recently visited Indonesia for a week at the invitation of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, with whom they signed a three-year agreement to run music camps and masterclasses. After holding classes for music students, the orchestra performed with them in front of the Prambanan Temple.

    Ullmer says such excursions foster the pursuit of artistic excellence. “Whenever musicians travel and perform in front of new audiences, their performance standards lift demonstrably. It also plays to the engagement of our musicians because they love teaching others.”

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