Noongar Violist Aaron Wyatt Becomes the First Indigenous Conductor of a State Orchestra in Australia

Soprano Deborah Cheetham and composer and violist Aaron Wyatt conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of MSO, 2022.

On February 9, in an Australian first, Noongar composer and violist Aaron Wyatt became the first Indigenous composer to have conducted one of the nation’s major state orchestras in concert. Located at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Arts Centre Melbourne, Wyatt conducted Yorta Yorta composer and soprano Deborah Cheetham’s Acknowledgement of Country piece, called ‘Long Time Living Here.’ As MSO’s First Nations Creative Chair, Cheetham has performed the Acknowledgement of Country at the start of every MSO performance since 2019 in her grandmother’s Yorta Yorta language (ABC Classic, 2022).

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has been conducting this free outdoor symphonic soiree for more than 90 years now, and this year four members of  ‘Ensemble Dutala’ - Australia’s first ensemble of classically trained FN musicians - played alongside the orchestra (ABC Classic, 2022).

Originally from Perth, the Noongar man is an accomplished violist, conductor, programmer and assistant lecturer at The Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. Wyatt is also the founding member and Artistic Director of Ensemble Dutala, an exciting new project from the Indigenous non-for-profit Short Black Opera (SBO), which was birthed from their One Day In January project (SBO, 2022). For the past 11 years, Wyatt has worked his way up the classical music ladder as a casual with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. From here, he climbed up to being the musical director of the South Side Symphony Orchestra, and further, a regular conductor with the Allegri Chamber Orchestra (Monash University, 2022).

In an interview with Virginia Trioli on ABC Radio Melbourne (2022), Wyatt reflected on his musical career, and how he saw a lack of Indigenous representation.

"For a very long time I was with the WA Symphony Orchestra as a casual and I was the only Indigenous person there. There's not a huge number of Indigenous classical musicians. So it's great to be surrounded by other Indigenous classical musicians in this kind of environment and setting," he said.

MSO free outdoor concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Arts Centre Melbourne, 2022. Courtesy of MSO, 2022.

For Wyatt, Indigenous representation within classical music is significant as “Conducting is a hard thing to break into…there are not a huge amount of opportunities to get into it.” This achievement is especially so because, Wyatt continued, “there is also a bit of a cultural cringe that still exists, the idea that if you are from here, you can’t be as good as someone trained overseas. I think that is getting better” (NIT, 2022).

The Noongar man hopes that his new role will lead to a future where First Nations classical musicians are commonplace within this scene. As the Artistic Director of Ensemble Dutala, Wyatt is working to train more young Indigenous classical musicians through scholarships and outreach programs.Wyatt emphasised to NITV Radio (2022), in the hopes that if parents of Indigenous children who express an interest in musical instruments listening would hear that classic training needs to begin at primary and secondary schooling. 

“…I think the more you can expose the younger generation to classical music, the easier it’ll be to combat that. One of the issues of getting younger kids playing classical music is that there is a barrier to entry for it. It does cost money to get an instrument and lessons…private schools are often better funded than the public schools…There’s massive amounts of training it takes to get to play at a professional level…it’s a huge amount of investment of parental time.

…getting more First Nations and diverse participation in classical music is really a long term thing, and that’s one of the things that Ensemble Dutala is really looking to try to address, to show that this music is accessible to everyone, both as a performer and an audience member of this music,” Wyatt explained.

Aaron Wyatt performed a violist solo at the premiere of Deborah Cheetham’s Nanyubak (Dreaming the Future) viola concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Hamer Hall. Courtesy of Short Black Opera, 2021.

The now 39-year-old feels fortunate to have found his love of music at an early age.

“They put me into a music course for young children and it was recommended I learn an instrument. 

“I wanted to play piano but my parents were concerned it was too big for me so I started on violin,” Wyatt told NIT (2022).

At Yarn, we are passionate about sharing the stories of First Nations artists, shining a light on their creative journeys and how they give back to their communities. So, as Aaron Wyatt’s success continues to reach even greater heights, we hope that his story inspires a new generation of young mob to get out there and pursue their classical music career dreams, embracing their culture and heritage along the way.

You can watch the live stream of Aaron Wyatt conducting on MSO’s Youtube here.