Leading a team in tune


Catherine Gibson knew as soon as she picked up the oboe it was her musical instrument of choice. Senior writer Mary Anne Gill finds out where that passion led her.

Catherine Gibson outside the Cambridge Town Hall which she describes as a cultural jewel. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

An orchestra is like a rugby team, made up of assorted sizes and shapes who all know what their roles and positions are.

Catherine Gibson, the Hamilton-based chief executive of Orchestras Central – Ngā Tira Pūoru o te Pokapū – can spot whether someone is playing an instrument they are comfortable with like a rugby coach can pick a hooker or a flanker.

She gives herself as an example. Born in England and raised in Loughborough in the Midlands, Gibson’s parents were wondering which instrument their daughter might be interested in.

There was never any doubt.

“Oboe – it’s always the one I chose as a child,” she recalls.

“It was the sound. It’s very beautiful. It plays a really important part in the orchestra and often has beautiful solos to play.”

And it is the oboe which even today, Gibson, now in her 60s, is passionate about.

An anonymous donor recently donated two oboes to Orchestras Central and you can bet she had a part in that.

Catherine Gibson

Gibson joined Orchestras Central three years ago as chief executive.

She began her musical career in the UK as a professional oboist, free-lancing with orchestras such as Bournemouth Symphony, English Sinfonia and small chamber groups that toured with music societies around the United Kingdom. She also managed the internationally acclaimed London Conchord Ensemble.

Gibson and her then husband, also an oboist, moved to New Zealand because they thought it was the best place to raise their two children Todd and Bryony – who went on to become professional musicians.

“He was always surrounded by ‘double reed’ madness,” says Gibson of Todd who at three started with the cello – and hated it – and at six began on the mini bassoon. He is now a bassoonist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Bryony started on the violin and did not like the high sound. She is now a violist with the Marmen Quartet, a London based chamber music group.

Gibson has spent most of her musical career teaching and she says choosing the right instrument for people is crucial.

“You’ve got a student for the first time, you want to see if they have a spark, if they have the feel, or the sound. You can usually find out quite quickly.”

Seeing her own children’s development in music makes Gibson attuned to the opportunities and challenges open to young New Zealand musicians.

Cambridge-based Orchestras Central Trust chief executive Catherine Gibson introduces Youth Orchestra Waikato for their Fire and Romance performance in the Town Hall held as part of the Cambridge Autumn Festival. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

She graduated from Victoria University with a Bachelor of Music in oboe performance and the history and literature of music going on to teach in central Otago and Canterbury.

“We lived in Christchurch when we had the earthquakes. That was really challenging, my kids were at school. The two to three years of aftershocks was exhausting.”

So, she moved to Wellington to work at Chamber Music New Zealand as artistic manager and then chief executive until April 2021.

Post Covid she was looking for other opportunities.

“The whole idea of wellbeing and social connectivity became hugely important.”

She secured the chief executive job at Orchestras Central with its four groups – OCT Ensemble, Trust Waikato Symphony, Rusty Player and Youth Orchestra – and moved to the Waikato, settling in Cambridge.

“Our mission is to connect with Waikato and the arts.”

Every year more than 10,000 people end up connecting with one of the orchestras.

They take orchestral music out into communities – last year to Huntly, Te Awamutu, Putāruru, Raglan and into Cambridge for the Autumn Festival challenging the myth that the music is elitist.

“It’s about depth, building engagement and the audience.”

The crowd might say “this is incredible, I never imagined it could be like that.”

Cambridge Town Hall general manager Simon Brew is a classical saxophonist and conducts the Waikato Youth Orchestra. He is pictured with the baton at the orchestra’s Fire and Romance performance in the Town Hall. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Comfortable Classical has been an enormous success – the latest was held in the Cambridge Town Hall last month during the Autumn Festival.

For a koha at the door, people can enjoy the sounds of an orchestra while sitting on cushions, relaxing in break out rooms or whatever.

“We’re never quite sure who will come. It’s really designed for people who feel uncomfortable in a normal concert.”

The OCT Ensemble played a sell-out Vivaldi by Candelight concert at the festival which featured some of New Zealand’s leading classical musicians while the Youth Orchestra wrapped the 10-day event up with its Fire and Romance concert. In the programme were selections by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Dorothy Buchanan.

People can now see more than 30 orchestral events a year in Waikato provided by over 300 musicians, says Gibson proudly.

“The focus on the arts tends to be Auckland and Wellington. We’re changing that.”

Hamilton has first class facilities and places like the Cambridge Town Hall with its “amazing acoustics” can provide a satellite venue for orchestral music.

Working in the Gallagher Academy of the Performing Arts at Waikato University – Orchestras Central’s strategic partner – is something Gibson adores. “I love the university campus. It’s beautiful.”

But it is music and getting it out to the masses which has always driven her since she started playing that oboe all those years ago.

“Music is an art form that can create all sorts of emotions, it has so much potential.

“If you change the life of one person, it’s going to have a knock on affect.”

Youth Orchestra Waikato under the baton of Simon Brew. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Catherine Gibson inside the Cambridge Town Hall on the stage. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.




About Author

Mary Anne Gill

Putāruru-born Mary Anne Gill is one of Waikato’s most experienced communications and public relations practitioners. She has won several national writing gongs including three times at the Qantas and twice at the Voyager media awards.