Music for the People

Western alumna Sarah-Grace Williams smashes stereotypes in the world of orchestral music

Trailblazing maestra and world-renowned conductor Sarah-Grace Williams wants all Sydneysiders – not just the privileged few - to experience the magic of orchestral music. Orchestral concerts may typically be the domain of wealthy seniors in tuxedoes and pearls, but when The Metropolitan Orchestra (TMO) plays, you’re just as likely to see newly arrived refugees, toddlers and cash-strapped students in the crowd.

TMO is Williams’ brainchild and tackles the elitism associated with orchestral music by producing concerts that are affordable (tickets range from $15 to $55), friendly, and often in accessible suburban venues. TMO also provides valuable performance and development opportunities for up-and-coming musicians.

Born and raised in Penrith and a self-professed ‘proud westie’, Sarah-Grace says orchestral music has the power to speak to all humans.

She believes everyone should be able to enjoy a premium concert experience; “we know how amazing and soul-enriching the music is.” TMO’s family concert series, which works in partnership with St Vincent De Paul’s SPARK program, invites the audience to recline on cushions while a full orchestra plays tunes from Frozen, Star Wars and Superman. Musicians dress as film characters and mingle with the audience, allowing children to play their instruments. Contrary to traditional conventions audience members are welcome to dress however they like and to clap whenever they feel moved to do so. “In our concerts, there are people in tuxedoes and people in jeans and T-shirts. We don’t tell people how to enjoy their music.”

The orchestra also performs for newly arrived refugee families in Liverpool and Fairfield, working with a translator to incorporate Arabic into the commentary.

“It’s equally special for the audience and the musicians,” Sarah-Grace says. “These are people who have never seen an orchestral performance, let alone believed they could ever go to one. You see their faces light up.” Along with its Sydney concerts, TMO plays on cruise ships and under the stars in vineyards. A recent addition to its program is Feast for the Senses – a musical performance designed to complement a three-course meal, with matching wines. “Lots of people are into food and wine, but they might not go to see an orchestra,” says Sarah-Grace. “This enables us to reach another demographic.”

It’s not just her audiences that are atypical.

Sarah-Grace is about as far from the stereotype of a tyrannical grey-haired maestra as it gets. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Music with First Class Honours in Conducting at Western Sydney University, she began her conducting career at the age of 20. She has since been hailed as one of the world’s 10 best female conductors and has worked with famed orchestras and conductors across Europe. Despite her achievements, Sarah-Grace isn’t above dressing as Elsa from Frozen to conduct for a crowd of toddlers. “I’m the captain of the team, but it’s just one job – all the musicians, and audience members, have a role,” she says. “Tyrannical dictators don’t get the best results.”

Sarah-Grace’s achievements recently earnt her the 2017 Chancellor’s Leadership Award, the highest honour in the Western Sydney University Alumni Awards.

It was so unexpected that she didn’t have a speech prepared. “The award made me stop and think, actually, we’re performing to sold-out audiences and we must be doing something right. We are changing the musical landscape in Sydney.”

Strike a chord.

The Metropolitan Orchestra is a not-for-profit registered charity that aims to make great music accessible for all. It relies on sponsorship and is always on the lookout for like-minded individuals and corporations to join them with financial or other forms of support. Find out more here